On December 2, 1923, a front-page story in the New York Times noted that a woman in Minnesota was divorcing her husband on the then-novel grounds that he suffered from “radio mania.” She claimed he paid more attention to the radio than her, leading to “alienation of affection.”
Mental anguish resulting from the compulsion to engage in the news is nothing new, but it’s ballooned to epic if not epidemic proportions in recent years, whether brought to you by traditional news outlets like TV, newspapers, magazines, and radio or the internet’s addictive clickbait. According to media studies, nearly 90 percent of the news Americans consume is bad news–with roughly 17 negative news reports for every positive one–and this has led to what researchers call “headline stress disorder,” “media saturation overload,” and “doomscrolling,” the compulsive consumption of bad news.
The American Psychological Association claims that more than half of Americans say the news causes stress, anxiety, depression, fatigue, and insomnia, with one in 10 checking the news every hour and 20 percent constantly monitoring their social media feeds. This tends to dump gigabytes of stress hormones into our individual and collective bloodstreams, routinely implicated in all ill health, including high blood pressure, arthritis, and cardiovascular disease.
Even mentally healthy people are prone to it and the paralyzing cocktail of fear and powerlessness brought about by chronic consumption of the Daily Outrage. To say nothing of the impact this endless ticker tape of bad tidings can have on those with already-diagnosed mental-health challenges like anxiety disorder and depression. Our urge to stay informed is leading us to be infirmed.
Bad news is like diamonds. It sells because it’s rare–on any given day, most people are not raping, pillaging, or plundering—and because money can be made promoting fear. But the proliferation of bad news isn’t just a function of news outlets pushing that diet on us. Humans are more compelled by negative news than positive news and actively seek it out because the human brain evolved a negativity bias: Those who focused more on danger than delight tended to survive longer. As neuroscientist Rick Hansen puts it, “The brain is like Velcro for negative experiences and Teflon for positive ones.”
Maybe this helps explain why it’s so much easier to focus on the negative than the positive in challenging situations—what could go wrong rather than right. Maybe it explains why psychology textbooks devote much more space to negative emotions like depression and phobia than positive ones like joy and happiness and why cross-cultural language studies have found that nearly every society has a great deal more words and concepts for negative than positive emotional states.
And it explains old journalistic tropes, like “If it bleeds, it leads,” and “If it scares, it airs,” both of which can lend themselves to what’s called “mean-world syndrome,” whereby the violent content of mass media makes viewers believe the world is more dangerous than it actually is, and skews our perception of the risks we face out there.
The Times of London once ran a story claiming that the number of Brits murdered by strangers had increased by a third in eight years, from 99 to 130. That’s certainly dismaying, but what the article failed to mention is that there were, at the time, roughly 60 million Brits. Thus anyone’s chances of being killed by a stranger increased from .00016 percent to .00022 percent. Hardly a reason to lock yourself in an underground bunker and stock up on canned soup and shotgun shells.
Given how complicit news consumption is in stress and disease, dietary restrictions might be in order, if not outright fasting from time to time–not to tune out the news, but to tune in mindfully. It’s about moderation, not elimination.
Start small, especially if you’re an obsessive news consumer. Begin by just clocking how much time you actually spend each day keeping up with the news, and experiment with cutting back some workable fraction of that. Start with 10 percent and build up. And be patient with yourself. We’ve all taken a soaking for centuries; for some people, news consumption is a flat-out addiction. Or perhaps cut out just one news source for a day and see how you feel.
If you’re feeling ambitious (or burned out), cut out all sources of news intake for a day—or a week—and look at the feedback your body and mind give you. Also, ask family and friends to avoid talking to you about the news, and consider using the time you’d normally spend on the news to further other goals. Even shaving 15 minutes a day off your news consumption frees up almost two hours a week of extra time.
You could also balance out the bad news by seeking out some good news.
The media with the most deleterious impact on your health and wellness may be those tied to the shortest news cycles, such as TV and the internet, with their constantly breaking news and ever-present sense of urgency. A friend of mine recently said that he prefers magazines to newspapers because their weekly or monthly cycles unhook them from the daily barrage of crises and emergencies, focusing instead on broader trends, longer developments, and deeper stories.
I made a similar observation many years ago during a months-long media fast (this was pre-social-media). I stopped reading newspapers and listening to the radio and canceled all eight of my magazine subscriptions. A friend told me he thought I was “detoxing” from a lifetime of immersion in the prevailing zeitgeist—a hazard of the trade for a journalist—and indeed, I experienced the kind of relief I feel when someone’s car alarm, which has been stuck in the on-position for the last hour, finally stops.
It was a blessed silence and spaciousness that, over time, helped me realize that what I was after wasn’t just a sabbatical from the same old stories and the same old stress but a nose for a different kind of news altogether, the journalistic equivalent of a look at Earth from outer space—and perhaps just as importantly, a chance to re-empathize with the world.
I began to realize that beneath all the day-to-day dispatches from the frontlines of the human condition are other stories, far broader and less topical than the daily news or even the monthly news—great archetypal armatures on which all our individual stories are hung. I discovered dramas taking place in an arena so big that, by comparison, all the news of the world seemed like the tempest in the teapot. In a word, I discovered myths.
These ancient and continually recurring stories aren’t literally true but psychologically true. They didn’t really happen, but they’re happening all the time. And they’re a great way of getting at ageless themes and universal truths, taking a giant and restorative step back from the drama of it all, rather than being constantly rope-burned by the daily news.
They’re also stories we’ve been prepared to encounter from our earliest childhood when we were read nursery rhymes and fairy tales—the pre-school of myths. They, too, begin with “Once upon a time”–meaning not just a time that once was, but this time right now and all the time yet to come. But they’re not synonymous with falsehood and fanciful exaggeration, as in “The Myth of the Middle Class” or “Ten Myths About Covid.” These are stories we create to help explain ourselves to ourselves, attempts to get at the heart of human behavior, profound truths, universal themes, and ageless patterns. And perhaps above all, they’re stories of transformation: from folly to wisdom, sleep to awakening, woundedness to wholeness, from being lost to finding our way.
And they don’t just present frightening scenarios and leave us breathless and stranded, as the daily news often does. They also offer cures, clues, directions, and solutions. They don’t just diagnose. They prescribe, which I came to appreciate having spent much of my career in service journalism—don’t just tell people the news, tell them what they can do about it. Or, as a mentor of mine once said, “Quit reading the news. Go out and make some.”
Ultimately, what we may be after in tempering our media consumption, or going on a media fast altogether, is more than just straight-up healthcare, but reaching beyond our separateness—and the fear of one another that’s often engendered by a steady diet of bad news. We’re attempting to gain a greater sense of connection with others and see ourselves as part of a bigger story.