If you follow the gloom-n-doom news of the day, you might conclude that our world, indeed, is going to hell-in-a-hand-basket. Look no further than the COVID-19 pandemic, global warming, natural disasters, wildfires, political unrest, insurrections, geopolitical hot-spots, melting icecaps, unemployment, murder hornets, and polar vortices for evidence that we’ve got our share of challenges. But are things really as bad as they seem? Or is something else going on?
Civilization Ends Today: Details at 11
Remember news headline, “One neighbor helps another”? Did you miss that one? How about, “Why this is the best time to be alive”? Didn’t catch that one, either? There are several reasons why we don’t see these headlines.
The Catastrophizing “News” Culture
Studies show that negative news increases audience share. A joint study between Dartmouth College and Brown University examined 20,000 English-language news articles about COVID-19. Fifty-four percent of articles appearing in the U.K., India, Canada, and Australia focused on bad news. In the United States, that number jumped to ninety-one percent.
Forbes reported it this way: “Coverage [in the United States] is just as negative when new [COVID-19] cases are declining as when they are increasing.”
Solution. You can combat this negativity in two ways. First, if you currently watch your news, switch to reading it. Viewing a video of on-the-scene disasters triggers the emotional part of our brains more than reading words on a page. Second, read news sources considered more neutral like the BBC, the Wall Street Journal, Reuters, and AP. Neutral news sources are especially helpful for keeping current on political and potentially polarizing issues without subjecting you to far right or far left propaganda and interpretations of outlets catering to their bases.
Our Negativity Biases
Brain researcher Rick Hanson says that “the brain is like Velcro for negative experiences, but Teflon for positive ones.” That means we are more likely to remember negative memories and experiences than positive ones. So even when your eyes fall upon a “good news story” in the headlines, you are much less likely to read or recall seeing it. This negativity bias, as it’s known, makes us react more swiftly to someone yelling “Fire!” than someone yelling “Free donuts!” Gloom-n-doom, thanks to our brains, gets our attention fast!
Solution. Since our minds are wired to remember what is most recent and most negative, limit your exposure to “gloom-n-doom” news stories. You don’t have to stick your head in the sand, but you should seek to counter negative stories with positive ones at every opportunity. At the very least, seek to balance bad news with positive newsworthy events. Good news does exist. Check out the Good News Network.
The 24/7 News Conundrum
Just because news is available 24/7 doesn’t mean we should tune in 24/7. The Center for Media and Public Affairs found that in the 1990’s, when U.S. homicides dropped by 42%, news coverage of those homicides increased by more than 700 percent. Why? Ever since Ted Turner started CNN with 24/7 news coverage in 1980, cable news outlets need constant new content.
Since consumers want 24/7 news, it’s not surprising that on any given day you can find one story touting the health benefits of a product or activity and another citing the gloom-n-doom of the same (think eggs, beer, red wine, coffee, marijuana, aspirin, running, video games, AI, the Sun, vitamins, etc.). Yes, some things have both positive and negative impact on us. But much of the time I’m left wondering if they’ve just run out of things to report on.
Ancient civilizations didn’t have an anchorperson tell them they were in the middle of a polar vortex. Shivering around a fire, one person would say something like, “Me cold.” And then he would throw another log on the fire.
Before 24/7 “news,” we didn’t know the number of Near Earth Objects theoretically on a collision course with Earth at any given moment. As a result, we slept a bit more soundly.
Personally, I don’t think we should read our children bedtime stories about the next supervolcano eruption (spoiler alert: we’re due), massive earthquake in California (spoiler alert: we’re due), tsunami erasing the East Coast (spoiler alert: we’re due) , or the next mass extinction event (spoiler alert: we’re due). But that’s just me. I’m old fashioned that way.
Solution. Do we ignore news that we don’t like? No! But just because news is available 24/7—and both scientists and conspiracy theorists continually share new findings about all the potential things that may kill us while we sleep—doesn’t mean we should give the news unfettered access to our minds 24/7. Doing so feeds our negativity biases and adds to our general sense of dread, while adding to depressed thoughts and anxiety. Pick a time each day to scan the headlines. I do that at 5AM and 5PM. Each morning, I read 1440. I rarely find a “developing news story” that makes me want to watch the play-by-play as events unfold (I did that once, when I watched a white Bronco driving down the highway as filmed by a helicopter. Truly a riveting moment…).
“My success, part of it certainly, is that I have focused in on a few things.” ~ Bill Gates
Solution. If you focus on gloom-n-doom news, you’ll see more of it, both literally and in your head. Choose a perspective that is true, helpful, and positive. Whatever you focus on has the power to consume your time, emotional energy, and strength. If you’re feeling overwhelmed by negativity, shift your priorities from knowing about what happened in the world to planning what you want to happen in your world.