Imagine this scene: You are scrolling through Facebook and you see a headline. BREAKING NEWS: SOMETHING TERRIBLE HAS HAPPENED. But you don’t react. You don’t feel your shoulders tense up. Your mind stays calm. Your nervous system is balanced. You click and read through the article completely at ease.
You know your approach. Skim through the article. Double-check its sources. Look for biases. Find corroborating articles. As you read, you realize that the article is not as urgent as the title made it appear. You click out of the article feeling good about your analysis. You are informed without anxiety.
American media is outrageous. It thrives on activating your nervous system. It thrives on your outrage and reactivity because it leads to clicks, shares, and ‘water cooler talk.’ But ultimately, how does it make you feel? Usually terrible.
If you feel that the news is unbearably negative, you are onto something.
87% of national news about the pandemic was negative compared to 50% of international news and 64% of scientific journals. The same study found that national news is significantly more negative than regional or local news.
Bruce Sacerdote, an economics professor at Dartmouth College, sorted 9.4 million news stories about COVID-19 and then analyzed 20,000 of those articles using a social science technique to determine whether the articles were positive, negative, or neutral. The negativity of American journalism was pervasive even when there were positive things to report like medical advancements. Regardless of whether the state of the pandemic was improving or worsening, the media’s negativity was persistent.
Other Interesting Findings
- Dr. Sacerdote’s study found that the most popular stories in popular outlets like The New York Times, CNN, and the BBC, were highly negative, particularly articles on the pandemic.
- Most surprising to me was that the quantity of negativity was not related to any newspaper or television network’s political leanings.
Why is U.S. news more negative? The answer may be due to the lack of fair and balanced reporting regulations. Or it may be demand from their viewership.
But it turns out that humans may have a knack for negativity.
In Factfulness by Hans, Ola, and Anna Rosling, the three Swedish data scientists share the ways in which humans tend to misinterpret the world around us — one of which is believing the world is worse than it is.
The Negativity Instinct
Humans have a tendency to focus on the negative. Research shows that across 30 countries, more than half of the people surveyed believed that the world is getting worse.
While there are a lot of worrying things happening: from climate change to viruses to financial instability. But overall, the world is safer, healthier, and wealthier than it has ever been. The rate of human beings living in extreme poverty fell from 85 percent in 1800 to 9 percent.
Our average life expectancy has risen from 31 years old in 1800 to 72 years old today. There have been dramatic improvements in areas ranging from disasters, hunger, childlabor, plane crashes, immunizations, Internet access, clean water, HIV, slavery, women’s rights, literacy, and more.
Despite these advances, negativity seems to be humans’ default.
Here is the good news. There are ways to consume media without participating in a cycle of outrage or reactivity. There are solutions to consuming media that leave you feeling good and informed.
The 5 Secrets of Healthy Media Consumption
When you consume any media, you have a job too. If you find yourself feeling anxious, overwhelmed, reactive, or outraged by your media consumtion, returning to these five principles of healthy media consumption will absolutely put you on calmer ground.
Secret 1: No Fear Here
The world is complex. As the world becomes more complex and information becomes more accessible, humans cannot consume and process all of the information that bombards us. Instead, we tend to focus on information that triggers fear.
Violence. Disaster. Sickness. Death.
Sometimes it’s helpful. We learn about a dangerous virus and respond to keep ourselves safe. However, the hyperfocus on fear is costing you. Deaths from natural disasters, plane crashes, murders, nuclear leaks, and terrorism combined account for only 1 percent of people who die each year.
We tend to focus on information that triggers fear even if there is no pertinent threat. Paying too much attention to what you fear rather than what is dangerous drains your energy in the wrong direction.
Your risk is not based on what you fear.
When you feel fear, ask yourself, what is the danger? How likely are you to be exposed to said danger? Fear is most often needless if you stop and think about it.
Secret 2: Good Sources Only
Healthy media consumption starts with strong practices. Get news from good sources. All sources are biased but some have much stricter policies of fact-checking and sourcing. Always think about the motivation and biases of the publisher and author.
Check the data. Articles will often cite data, and then analyze it. The analysis will include the author’s bias, but check the data yourself and come to your own conclusions.
Lastly, make sure to corroborate the information in the article. To corroborate means to confirm or give support to (a statement, for example) (Oxford Languages). When you read an article, explore multiple sources on the same topic. Find the commonalities between them.
Secret 3: Don’t Play the Blame Game
Another habit of humans is to look for a simple reason why something bad happened. When something goes badly, humans assume that it is because a bad person with bad intentions acted out of their badness. This is particularly worse is individualisic cultures like the United States where people generally believe in individual choices over system problems.
This tendency might make you feel safe, it leads you down a path of inaccuracy. Quickly placing blame on an individual steals focus away from a potentially larger and more threatening problem.
Secret 4: It’s Not Urgent
Only 12 hours left until the price goes up! We’ve all fallen for the urgency of a sale, but it affects our media consumption too. Urgency leads us to make rash choices.
Remember that urgency is rarely real. When presented with two choices, remember that you have a secret third choice to wait and see.
Secret 5: Heal from Outrage Culture
According to The Holistic Psychologist, Outrage Culture is “a cycle of emotional addiction that leaves us feeling helpless, hypervigilant, and reactive to the people and world around us.”
Outrage Culture is addicting because it lets you feel morally superious, smarter, or more aware than others. When you live in this cycle of reactivity, you may engage in fighthing on social media, leaving rude or snarky comments that you would not say in person, shaming, mocking, or judging others. It cuts you off from connection and solutions-oriented thinking.
Healing from Outrage Culture happens when you become aware of what you consume and how you react to that consumption. It means that you create bounderies around your media consumption and release the false illusion that you are responsible for fixing the world. It looks like releasing martyr syndrome and remembering that your peace and happiness is more productive than your outrage.
Remember that media tends to focus on negativity and tragedy. It rarely reports progress, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t fulfilling their end of the bargain. Fulfill yours by staying informed about the state of the world — the negative, the positive, and the accurate.
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★ The Holistic Psychologist
★ “Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World – and Why Things Are Better Than You Think by Hans Rosling, Anna Rosling, and Ola Rosling (Flatiron Books, 2018).
★ “Why Is All COVID 19 News Bad News?” by Bruce Sacerdote, Ranjan Sehgal and Molly Cook (Dartmouth College, 2021).