Last week, while waiting for my car’s oil to be changed, I had a brief conversation with another patron on the topic of television news and the literal “bombardment of negativity” that is seemingly hoisted upon the viewer. We were both transfixed by the elevated screen suspended from the wall of the shop’s lobby, held captive to receiving one gloomy story after another from the early morning newscast.
Murders, thefts, deceitful politicians – each of the incidents appearing to roll off the anchor’s lips rather effortlessly. Granted, I may be slightly out-of-touch these days when it comes to network formatting, but like many others who’ve drifted away from traditional programming altogether, I’ve made a conscious, mindful effort to consume the news and other dramatic content on my own terms whenever possible.
It’s not so difficult to surmise that if one is frequently exposed to news broadcasts (whose programming is typically driven by negative events of the day), internalizing such content might indeed affect your overall mood and behavior. This theory is supported in a recent study conducted by the American Psychological Association, where nearly half of those polled said that the news causes them stress and anxiety.
British psychologist Dr. Graham Davey, a specialist in the field of media violence and its psychological effects, stated in a piece appearing several years ago in Psychology Today that “There are a lot of bad things that happen in the world, and it is probably right that people should know about these things through their reporting in news bulletins.
But there is also an increasing tendency for news broadcasters to ‘emotionalize’ their news. This is basically ‘scaremongering’ at every available opportunity in order to sensationalize and emotionalize the impact of a news story.”
Additionally, Davey subscribes to the belief that viewing negative content leads to a greater likelihood of exacerbating one’s own personal anxiety; thus interpreting such stimuli as being more of a threat than they actually are.
Our brains (more specifically, the amygdala or “danger detectors”), have been programmed over the course of a lifetime to react when triggered by dramatic images such as war casualties, crime scenes, and natural disasters, to name just a few. Networks and their corresponding news divisions are well aware of this neurological reaction and thus make every effort to capitalize on it financially, as do their advertisers — so much so that there’s an industry maxim that’s been in use for years that protests: “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Where we often veer off-course is when we’ve allowed this overload of negativity to assume the driver’s seat. There’s a cumulative predisposition of attaching ourselves to negative events, or what is commonly referred to as a “negativity bias.” In essence, it’s the often-skewed manner in which we distinguish negative versus positive experiences. When presented with equal incidents of similar immensity or importance, those of a negative nature tend to have a greater impact upon us. We tend to forget that there is a choice to be made when consuming our news and how it affects us personally.
Author of the best-selling book “Buddha’s Brain,” neuroscientist and psychologist Dr. Rick Hanson states that, throughout evolution, “As this bias for negative stimuli developed, our brain structure slowly adapted and eventually, we became wired to pay more attention to negative information.”
Dr. Hanson suggests that one of the ways in which we can combat and eventually overcome this bias is by creating a mindfulness practice. By becoming more aware of our positive experiences and their corresponding emotions, we are then able to consciously interact with them and, in turn, fortify their neurological existence.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, reminds us that “mindfulness provides a simple but powerful route for getting ourselves unstuck, back into touch with our own wisdom and vitality. It is a way to take charge of the direction and quality of our own lives, including our relationships with family, our relationship to work and to the larger world and planet, and most fundamentally, our relationship with oneself as a person.”
As is the case when choosing those entertainment programs we care to view, so should we make the effort, if not more, when it comes to selecting which news source to consume, and how best to process its content effectively.