It always surprises people when they find out I don’t watch the news or read newspapers.
A common response is ‘well how do you know what’s going on in the world?!’
My natural response is deep concern.
It concerns me that people think the news gives an accurate representation of what’s going on in the world.
It concerns me deeper that many people make reading the newspaper or watching the news a part of their daily routine.
I never had a reason for not consuming commercial news when I was growing up, I just disliked consuming negative information in general, so I never did.
As I got older I began to question why the news presented such a lopsided ratio of negative to positive content, and continued to still avoid the news.
I wasn’t aware of any of the research at the time, and it’s been refreshing to learn that there has been some scientific interest in the effects of consuming commercial news on one’s happiness.
Following this curiosity, I continued to avoid commercial news, and still do to this day.
The question in my head became: is the news we hear about through our radios and televisions helpful or not to our development as individuals, psychologically?
Although there has been some fluctuating viewership numbers for news channels in the recent year, the numbers still all remaining in the many millions.
Is there some value that I am missing by avoiding the news, something that I am naively not owning up to in my pursuit of happiness?
Here in the UK, it’s estimated that news broadcasting began in the early 1920’s and in the US in 1930.
The big difference with the original broadcasting of news, which is estimated have been born from the Italian’s Guglielmo Marconi using his wireless device to broadcast a message from the Isle of Wight to Cornwall, England, is that those news messages were not embedded with advertising.
Now, we have adverts everywhere. There is no news outlet that does not come alongside advertisements.
So let’s follow this logically:
If a company is paying over $300,000 to advertise their product or service on a national commercial, their priority will be to ensure that the most amount of people view the advert.
The television channel then has to prove they have a high enough viewership to attract these types of clients, so the business thinks they will have a chance of making a profitable return.
The priority of the television channel, therefore, is increasing the number of viewers.
It’s reasonable to suggest that, as a result of this motivation, a television channel’s content is focused towards attracting more viewers, not producing and showing content that is valuable in and of itself.
How To Attract Millions of Viewers
The solution to attracting high numbers is actually very simple: sensationalism.
Sensationalism is perfectly defined as:
“(especially in journalism) the use of exciting or shocking stories or language at the expense of accuracy, in order to provoke public interest or excitement.: “media sensationalism”.”
In the internet age, we now know this as ‘clickbait’ – a title of an article or video that you later find out was clearly to just get you to click on the blog post of video, and has very little to do with the substance of the content itself.
News is similar in a way, the over-exaggerated headlines often beginning with ‘BREAKING NEWS’.
So the question then becomes, how does making new’s topics sensational attract people’s attention?
Well, whether news channel executives actually know this or not (to think they would do this intentionally is deeply concerning) but it actually has an evolutionary basis.
There is a part of our brain called the amygdala. This tiny segment at the centre base of the brain is responsible for processing emotions and our survival instincts.
Well in our ancestry days, paying attention to elements of our surroundings that could pose a threat to our survival was acutely worth paying attention to. This results in heightened emotions and attention.
But if the weather was nice, the sun was out, some harmless animals passed by and a roll of tumbleweed was the only thing moving within a mile radius, you wouldn’t need to pay as much attention at all.
Therefore, over time, we have developed an increased desire to pay attention to the negative, and negate the positive.
This is particularly true regarding anything that is related to our potential death.
Welcome to commercial news.
This is exactly why, by some estimates, we have 17 negative news reports for every 1 positive news reports.
If you drive past 500 cars on the way to work and nothing happens, you barely even notice the cars exists.
If you drive past 1 car that crashed… Yep, you better bet: the chances are you will look.
And even though people say they prefer positive news to negative news, and that they think the news is too negative in general, when asked to pick news stories to read to conduct ‘eye-tracking’ tests, they picked negative news – that of corruption, set-backs and hypocrisy.
The ironic thing about it all is that, if the only information you gathered about the world was through the news (and sadly enough this is the case for many people) then you would think we are in the most dangerous era in human history, next to the 2 wars we just came out of.
However, many experts argue otherwise.
Data shows that it is likely we are in fact living during the most peaceful time ever.
And that’s why it so deeply concerns me that people think the news actually provides an accurate representation of world events, and why I feel no need whatsoever to watch or read commercial news.
The Psychological Effects of News
We’ve discussed how commercial news is inherently designed to produce news topics that are negative in nature, and sensationalise those topics to the extreme, to attract viewers.
The question now becomes, is this hurting us at all, or could it be that it’s even beneficial?
One study asked 179 people to split into 2 groups – one group watched a random newscast for 15 minutes followed by a progressive relaxation exercise, and the other group watched the same newscast followed by a lecture.
Note that they watched a random newscast. It was not intentionally negative news. I don’t think it’s a surprise, however, if it were infact 99.999% negative.
The researchers measured different elements of the participants’ experience, such as anxiety and mood disturbance.
The researchers found that the short 15 minute segment physiologically changed the participants emotions. As the study states:
“These findings demonstrate that watching the news on television triggers persisting negative psychological feelings that could not be buffered by attention-diverting distraction (i.e., lecture), but only by a directed psychological intervention such as progressive relaxation.”
15 minutes is not long, but what’s the result of watching 15 minutes of news, every day, for a year?
Most people do, and research suggests that it’s exactly this, the frequency, not the duration, of exposure to images of graphic violence that can cause real problems.
A study done by the University of Toronto and the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre looked at the psychological effect of looking at User Generated Content (photos and videos that the public have captured which they send to news organisations to use on their commercial news programmes).
The results of the study, the first of its kind, found that it was the frequency of looking at these disturbing images that made them score higher on scales related to depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
You might be thinking, ‘fair enough, 15 minutes every day is quite a lot of negativity to absorb every day. I only catch a few minutes of the news in the morning before work anyways, that can’t do any harm, surely!’
I would love to agree with you, I really would. It seems to be the case, however, that our brains and thus our emotions are directly impacted by the content we absorb, even if it’s for a short duration.
This recent study found that watching only 180 seconds (3 minutes) of negative news resulted in a 27% increased likelihood that you would report having an unhappy day at work compared to if you watched solution-focused news.
No wonder watching longer than this, such as the 14 minutes this study tested, resulted in not only an increase in anxiety and sad mood but a ‘significant increase in the tendency to catastrophize a personal worry’.
The news might seem appealing to watch now and then, but if you’re desire in life is to be happy, watching commercial television news may not the best option.
Keeping an Important Balance
It’s important to note that I don’t ignore content that is produced by news outlets. They still have important value.
Over the years we’ve also seen an increase in independent news outlets, such as blogs and podcasts.
Due to social media, not that I recommend using it too often, we are able to receive a wide variety of opinions from a wide variety of people.
As you can see from this article itself, I still like to read articles from news sites.
The difference is I search specific things and I’m often taken to a news site which answers the question, with scientific research papers linked clearly with it. I do not click on other articles and I do not read other headlines that are on the page.
That’s very different from coming home from work, turning on the television and just allowing whatever the news channel’s agenda is to be thrown at your brain.
Remember, television news does not give an accurate representation of what’s going on in the world, it serves one purpose only: to attract eyeballs.
Scientific research has suggested the best way for news channels to do this is to show far more negative news than positive.
Given the fact that news shows are anywhere between 5 and 60 minutes, think about how much they must comb down all the events that go on in the world to ones that get your attention.
They must include one’s that display a threat to your existence, as this is evolutionary the most important thing your brain would take pay attention to.
It’s our job going forward to recognise this, and begin to take all commercial news with a pinch of scepticism.
There’s a whole world of good events going on right now, literally.
You may not see it on the news, and you may wish news channels would just change their content to be more balanced.
I think to myself, however, why wait? It’s not just the breakthrough discoveries our great scientists find, the new technologies in healthcare being developed or the great philanthropic acts of our time that we can celebrate.
Good news is present every moment of every day.
How about all the people you run into today that treat you well? Is that not great to know this kind of behaviour is so prevalent in so many cultures?
How about all the new born babies coming into the world with a family who will treat them with true love and care.
How about the noticing the sun come up this week and giving us natural warmth to our skin. Isn’t that good news?
Is it not good news to know that again, day after day, we are fed and clothed and that we have the ability to do what we can to ensure that those who aren’t are also brought some good news soon.
There is much to celebrate in this world, if only we decide to look for it.
Likewise, if we are not careful, we will pay attention to that which others deem worthy of paying attention to, corrupt from the ground up, dragging us all down slowly.
Conscious mental action is the trait of truly happy individuals.