Bad News – Turn It Off

Posted by A Colin Treadwell on 2/9/2017
Posted in: Musings From Colin Treadwell
Tags: Travel, News

Today some people get so depressed by bad news they barely want to get off their couches and go out into the real world anymore. And that’s really sad because one of the best antidotes to depression is to go traveling.

The news ain’t what it used to be back in the day when Americans turned on the 6 o’clock news and there was Walter Cronkite, “the most trusted man in America,” to give them an overview of the important news events of the day. He closed the hour with “and that’s the way it is…” and sent you off to enjoy your evening, perhaps a little bit reassured that although there was no shortage of bad news in the world, you could probably put your concerns to rest until the next day.

Bad News – Turn It OffIn those days the Federal Communications Commission required the networks, in return for their licenses to broadcast over public airwaves, to provide some news as a public service. They were mandated to dedicate some time to presenting controversial matters of importance in a manner that was honest, equitable and balanced. But that requirement was eliminated in 1987 and from that point forward all broadcasters have had to concern themselves with is making money. Today the news is strictly business.

Today’s news is not distinguished from entertainment. It is there to draw viewers. The more viewers, the higher the advertising rates and the more money the network makes. Any concerns over journalistic integrity are applicable only to the extent that they affect viewership. If viewers believe the product does not have integrity, they may turn away. Then viewership and ad revenues will decline. It all comes down to ratings.

Today’s news plays all day and all night. And when you turn off the TV you still have Facebook and Twitter, and newspapers and magazines. We are almost drowned in media. Studies have shown people are absorbing an average of 15 hours of media a day. And unfortunately, a lot of it is bad news.

Most news is negative

The problem with ratings-driven news is that the networks get the most viewers when people are afraid. The more afraid you are, the more you stay glued to the tube to watch for the next development. The more “breaking news” banners they flash, the more of your attention they can hope to get.

After the events of 9/11 scenes of horror played over and over on TV. Americans were transfixed in terror, but the news networks never did better. The fact that the news tends toward the negative is not their fault. This is what we respond to. Negative news draws more viewers. Studies that have shown that bad news stories outnumber good news by as much as 17 to one.

It’s not that we prefer to hear about murder, war and disasters. It is because of a basic principle of survival. Going back to our earliest evolutionary states, we are conditioned to watch out for danger. Any change in the environment could be a sign of danger, and we must be alert to it. In a moment of inattention, we could be attacked and killed by a lion or bear, or perhaps a truck. Our basic instincts keep us alert to danger, and that can save our lives. Anything that sounds like a threat catches our attention, for good reason.

Magazine sales increase by 30 percent when the cover is negative, versus when it is positive. Research has shown that even when people say they want more positive news, they still click on more negative stories when they are browsing the Web.

If we want to be responsible, well-informed citizens and we want to keep our families safe, we keep an eye on the news for anything that might produce a threat. But our conditioned behavior can work against our well being. It can cause us to project the horror of the real catastrophes onto our own lives. It’s called catastrophizing when we spend so much time focusing on the negative that our problems appear bigger to us than they objectively are.

Negative news can affect mood and even performance

Paul Solomon on the Jim Lehrer News Hour talked about how consumer pessimism leads to holding back on spending, which then can cascade into an actual economic recession. He also said that too much exposure to negative news can push people into a state of depression and emotional upset that can affect decision-making capacity. You don’t make good decisions when your emotional state is off balance. This can turn a bad mood into a real problem.

Taking in too much negativity can hurt you emotionally and physically and can affect performance. I know this from observing myself. But it is also well established by research.

In 2012 the Harvard Business Review conducted research that showed that just three minutes a day of absorbing negative news in the morning can affect “the entire emotional trajectory of your day.”

In 2015 the publication did a follow-up study on the longer term effects of negative news. They had two experimental groups, one of which was exposed to three minutes of negative news, the other to “solutions-focused” news. These weren’t just superficial feel-good stories, but stories of human resourcefulness in the face of problems, showing that one’s actions can make a difference.

Six hours later both groups were asked to respond to a questionnaire, and 27 percent more of those who had watched the three minutes of negative news said their day was “unhappy.”

HBR discovered that most news stories were about events that were beyond the reach of nearly every individual, such as a drop in the stock market or a terrorist attack. When we are constantly exposed to negative stories about things we can’t do anything about, it conditions us into a state of “learned helplessness,” which has an obvious correlation with apathy, depression and low performance.

So it is up to us to ration our intake of news. No one else is going to do it for us. We have to take than initiative for ourselves. That’s just the way it is.

Managing intake of negative news

There’s a positive angle here too. Social media users circulate more positive stories than negative ones. So if we are getting our news through other people, we may see a more positive bias.

Bottom line, what is your antidote to all this bad news? A certain amount of it is inevitable, even necessary as you participate as an informed citizen. But it is worthwhile to try to balance it, to recognize the dangers and to limit it.

The antidote to bad news is turning off the news and interacting with the real world around you. There is usually a much lower frequency of bad news in your encounters with real life in your neighborhood or at your work place.

This brings us back, not surprisingly, to travel, the best antidote to bad news. When you are traveling you are constantly exposed to new and enriching things. More of it will be positive than negative, and the negative experiences you do have tend to be relatively minor, such as missing a plane or other such mishaps. Not fun, but not life-threatening.

When I am traveling I am so busy taking in positive stimulation that I don’t have time to obsess on the news. I can keep in touch, go online periodically, pick up a newspaper. But those experiences will be a small part of my day. And when I slow down to take a look at the news, it is a manageable portion of my day’s experience.

Ironically, bad news sometimes makes people afraid even to travel, to even leave their homes. But obviously that is a downward spiral, a cycle of negativity you do not want to let take hold.

So get up off that couch! Turn off the TV and get back into the swing to life. Travel and see the world while you still can.

I hope to see you out there!

Your humble reporter,

A. Colin Treadwell



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