Like everyone, I’ve had ample opportunity in my life to sit in waiting rooms. In the last several, however, I’ve noticed a trend that admittedly gets under my skin: the ubiquity of television news – and the negative events it routinely emphasizes. It’s been part of the airport scene forever now, it seems, but lately I’ve come across it in more restaurants and even in clinic waiting rooms. (Nothing beats watching multiple cycles of the latest grisly murder story as you eat your lunch or are waiting in agony for a doctor, eh?) In some respects, I appreciate having more than the morning paper or the 5 o’clock newscast if there’s a story I’d like to follow. With cable news and the Internet, we can assuredly keep on all the latest – what our go-to media sources choose to report of it anyway– 24/7. More than ever, we can get every detail, every commentary, every image associated with a given story. We can spend an entire day fixated on an event. We can watch a footage segment a hundred times if we please. Do we pay for this need to know, however? Does news exposure – specifically its heavy, menacing, and disturbing stories – have an impact on our personal well-being? What does it mean to have looming tales of death and destruction so frequently playing in our periphery? What happens to the human psyche (and body) when they’re fed a steady diet of unsettling news bulletins?
We have friends who recently had their first child. Over dinner a few weeks ago, the new mother joked that she’s timed the local news perfectly to catch the nightly “feel-good” feature story and weather while avoiding the initial doom and gloom reports. “Maybe it’s just hormones,” she explained, “but the news just throws me off my emotional equilibrium in a different way now. It doesn’t feel healthy to immerse myself in the worst of the world and human nature every night. I just want to be present without all the bad stuff for a while.” I can identify with her frustration. It seems like the news is too often a parade of muck and mayhem. The stories with the most shock value win, however demoralizing they are. (And then there are the obnoxious production effects: flashing red “alerts,” multiple streaming tickers, menacing musical bytes.) These days it’s hard to walk away from a newscast or even a newspaper without feeling like you need a shower – or at least an energy adjustment.
There’s substance to be found of course – information relevant to personal and civic life. Even then, the endless news cycling of troubling events and violent images (e.g. war, famine, environmental destruction, bloody uprisings, etc.) leave an imprint that often disheartens more than it informs. As I sat in an airport boarding terminal recently, I saw a mother try to keep her young sons distracted from CNN’s images of the Egyptian revolution and the initial military response. Was it important news? Yes, but that doesn’t mean everyone needs to see it every waking minute. (And how about the question of exposing young children to these reports?) I don’t know about you, but I don’t need more things to worry about when I’m traveling.
The power of negative news isn’t about political philosophies or cultural wars. We’re human, it’s true, and suffering is an inevitable part of the human condition. Information can help us understand our world and inspire us to work toward constructive change. Our constant access to all that ails, however, comes with genuine mental and physical health costs. Although we might think we don’t participate in media representation of disturbing news, research tells us otherwise. A study of 89 people who were shown footage of four traumatic events showed that nearly 20% reported symptoms related to post-traumatic stress disorder  (PTSD) as a result of the viewings. (Frequency of exposure was a factor in participants’ emotional reactions.) As the head of the study explained, “’Acts of violence erode our sense of security and create intense feelings of anger, fear and helplessness. Watching these events and feeling the anguish of those who are directly experiencing them can impact on a certain percentage of individuals causing longer lasting effects.” A meta-analysis of 23 research studies (PDF ) focused on terrorism related media revealed a similar correlation with PTSD.
It may not be enough to simply walk away from the television either. A study  of undergraduate students showed that simple distraction wasn’t enough to erase the lingering anxiety and mood disturbance induced by a 15-minute random newscast. Need any good news, anyone? Although the group that was exposed to an unrelated lecture (distraction strategy) following the news excerpt didn’t return to baseline mood measures, the group that participated in a 15-minute progressive relaxation  exercise afterward did. (What does it say when we need relaxation activities to recover our equilibrium after a mere 15 minutes of a news broadcast? Maybe that’s not such good news.)
The United States Department of Veteran Affairs reports  that American adults spent an average of eight hours watching news reports in the days following the Sept. 11th attacks. The average for young children was three hours. The more footage adults and children watched, the higher stress levels they reported. The Oklahoma City bombing coverage elicited similar responses in viewers.
It’s a new world we live in, where we’re privy to every new wrinkle of death and destruction that rains down in some corner of the world. How do we process all of it? Can we? How can we prioritize our well-being while still remaining informed?
In an interesting article  from a few years back, one therapist criticizes the modern practice of psychotherapy as disconnected from our experience of the world’s pain, the “dark emotions” that naturally arise from our human empathy in response to the tragedy and destruction we witness in the world around us. It’s an intriguing point. Until recent times, our context for experiencing the world and empathizing with those around us was very limited – a tribe, a town. Our modern media and the “connected world” hand us each, in some regards, the fate of Atlas. In Grok ’s day, he could effectively act on the threats to his community, heal beyond its contained tragedies. In our day, the stakes are much higher and the implied community much broader. The peril and calamity of an entire global society can stretch the emotional dimensions of our humanity past their coping limits.
Among her suggestions is the need to accept and make peace with the “inevitable pain of being alive and being humanly connected to others.” Nonetheless, she explains, we must also bring a protective consciousness to our interaction with the world, “cultivating a deep awareness of emotions as in-the-body energies, and of the thoughts that both trigger and subdue them.”
In the end, the question remains: is there a way to be informed in a meaningful, deeper sense while not immersing ourselves in the constant barrage of bad news? While we all have the power to turn off or throw out the TV or otherwise unplug, there’s got to be a healthier middle ground between sticking your head in the sand and putting yourself in the middle of every human tragedy. What information truly obliges our attention for the sake of self-improvement and social action and what information simply constitutes unnecessary – even cruel – emotional clutter?
C. John Sommerville, author of How the News Makes Us Dumb: the Death of Wisdom in an Information Society , notes that our constant exposure to endless threads of instantaneous, disassociated “news” without the natural filters of time and context has the power to leave us overwhelmed and still lacking in larger perspective. We’d do better, he suggests, spending less time staying on top of each trivial update and devoting more time to discussing, reflecting, and thoughtfully acting on the major issues and events that we feel require our attention.
Finally, there’s the larger issue of realigning perspective. There’s power – and truth – living in the here and now. The relative peace of this moment for one person is as genuine and meaningful as the tragedy befalling another. The world, we must remember, is more than the sum of its crises.
Share what you believe about the intersection of an informed and healthy life. I’ll look forward to reading your thoughts.