The sensationalized 24-hour news cycle can impact our sense of stability

Rose Bak

How watching CNN or Fox News impacts our mental health

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Photo by Amanna Avena on Unsplash

I’m telling you this as a friend: you have got to stop watching CNN. And Fox News. And CNBC. And HLN. And BBC. And all those other cable news shows.

During a socially distanced lunch meeting with some colleagues, the subject turned to television. I confessed that I never watch broadcast television. Another coworker confessed to binging on Netflix shows every night.

A third person announced, “I don’t watch regular TV, but I watch CNN all day. I keep it on in the background while I work.”

We all gasped in horror. “You’ve got to stop watching CNN!” two of us said in unison.

The constant barrage of news is making us all miserable.

I’m not here to argue which news site is better or how “real” the news is. It doesn’t matter which shows or channels you watch, they all have one problem: it’s bad news all the time. TV news shows, and increasingly online sites, catastrophizes everything.

If you only watch the news, there’s a good chance you think that we are only moments away from Armageddon. Everything is a crisis on TV news.

Think about what you see when you watch the news: murders, disease, war, corruption, abuse. Sure, all of that exists in this world, there is no way around it. But it’s not the only thing that exists.

Impacts of watching the news

So much bad news has serious psychological impacts. Watching televised news is bad for our mental health. This was true even before the COVID-19 pandemic, the presidential election, and the ongoing social justice protests that have made many people tune back into cable news programming.

As an article in Psychology Today noted several years ago,

“There is also an increasing tendency for news broadcasters to “emotionalize” their news and to do so by emphasizing any potential negative outcomes of a story no matter how low the risks of those negative outcomes might be. This is basically scaremongering at every available opportunity in order to sensationalize and emotionalize the impact of a news story.”

Numerous studies have demonstrated that after watching news coverage the average views feels an increase in sadness and anxiety. Those sensations accumulate and magnify the more you watch the news.

Only 14 minutes of viewing television news is correlated to increased stress and anxiety. The barrage of negative information can activate the stress response in our bodies, triggering the “fight or flight” response in your amygdala and activating survival hormones.

Stress has a myriad of physical impacts on the body including sleep disruption, depression, anxiety, appetite changes, heart disease, and reduced executive function in the brain, to name a few.

People who consume a lot of negative news coverage are also more likely to catastrophize, turning small things into bigger concerns. This is true not only for what they see in the media but also for their day-to-day life.

Watching a lot of news convinces you that bad things are happening to others and will likely happen to you too.

There’s a concept called “The Availability Heuristic” which states that people estimate the probability or frequency of events based on how easily those events come to their minds.

It’s why you think you are more likely to be sexually assaulted by a stranger than an acquaintance or that you are more likely to die of breast cancer than heart disease, even though neither of those things are actually true. Stranger attacks and breast cancer get way more media coverage.

The psychological and physical impacts of TV news are even greater in children, who lack the discernment and experience to understand the sensationalism of the news. Kids might believe the world is literally coming to an end if they watch some of the coverage that is out there.

Why the news is so negative

The 24-hour news channels have a lot of time to fill, and they need ratings. They need you to keep coming back to catch up. They need you to support their advertisers. They need you to post their stories on social media.

Sensationalizing stories titillates us. It increases our interest. As editors often say, “if it bleeds, it leads”.

Some studies estimate that there are 17 negative news reports for every 1 positive report. That’s a lot of bad news.

Using phrases like “breaking news” and “special report” and “interrupting your regularly scheduled broadcast” makes you think something urgent is happening. It makes you want to pay attention and stay tuned so you don’t miss something important.

“Unfortunately, a lot of the news we consume today isn’t so much reporting as it is a way of keeping people addicted to the news cycle,” says licensed psychologist, Logan Jones, PsyD.

News is a business. And the business end of things often gets in the way of the fair and unbiased journalism that we might expect from reporters and newscasters. This is true for every single news program. No news is fully independent.

How to keep informed without letting the news get to you

There are several things you can do to help minimize the impacts of so much news:

  • Stop watching it altogether. If something important happens, you will hear about it from family or friends. It’s impossible to fully shield yourself from the news.
  • Limit your viewing time. Check-in once a day for any updates, but otherwise resist the temptation to keep the news on all the time, even if something major is happening.
  • Use trusted sources. The random commentator or channel you have never heard of might not be the most reliable source for accurate news.
  • Choose one news program to watch or podcast to listen to each week that covers a variety of both domestic and international news.
  • Monitor your response. If you feel yourself getting sad, stressed, or anxious, turn it off.
  • Consider reading the news instead. The visuals that accompany the news can increase the impacts of the negative stories.
  • Do something positive after you watch the news. Take a walk. Get some sunshine. Do some meditation. Play with your dog. Do something to re-set your brain.
  • Remind yourself that positive news doesn’t sell. A lot of good things are happening in the world too, but those don’t sell advertising or bring in viewers.

In the end, it’s up to you to protect yourself from the barrage of negativity. Turn off the TV, or at least turn the channel to watch something positive and happy. You’ll be happy you did.

#mentalhealth #news #foxnews #cnn

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Rose Bak is a freelance writer who lives in Portland, Oregon with her family and special needs dogs. She writes on a variety of topics including local news, homelessness, poverty, relationships, yoga, and aging. She is also a published author of romantic fiction. For more of Rose's work, visit her website at rosebakenterprises.com or follow her on social media @AuthorRoseBak.

Portland, OR
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