The News You Can't Use
The news feels relentless these days, and one might be forgiven for thinking that at the end of 2020, the majority of the news that we're exposed to whether online, on TV, on the radio, or in print, is all bad. COVID-19 case numbers appear to be always on the rise, hospitals appear to be always on the brink of becoming overwhelmed, not to even mention the constantly growing economic uncertainty that threatens to undermine the financial security that we have worked for all our lives.
But we're in the middle of a pandemic, so it's only reasonable that the news would be all bad, right? Well, maybe not entirely. A new working paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research revealed a few surprising findings after analyzing 9.4 million published news stories since January 1, 2020:
91% of stories by major US news outlets were negative in tone, compared to 54% of non-US sources, and 65% of scientific journals
The news was often negative in tone, even with regard to positive developments like school reopenings and vaccine trials
The negativity in tone of the news did not appear to respond to rising or falling COVID-19 case numbers
There were 5.5 stories of COVID-19 cases increasing for every 1 story of cases decreasing
The authors conclude that readers appear to demand negative stories based on the popularity of the particular most negative articles. But an important question is whether or not this news negativity is a net-negative contributor to our mental health in 2020.
The US Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) acknowledges that pandemics are particularly stressful times (...not that we needed their say-so), and points to a number of now all too familiar possible outcomes, including: fear, worry and anxiety about our health, the health of our loved ones, and our financial situation; changes in eating habits; difficulty sleeping; worsening of chronic health conditions; increased use of alcohol and/or tobacco; and worsening of mental health conditions. Indeed, and perhaps unsurprisingly, recent estimates suggest that three times as many people (in the US) are experiencing symptoms of depression compared to before the pandemic.
The CDC recommends a number of fairly standard tips for dealing with the pandemic, including: knowing where and how to get treatment if you become sick; prioritizing your emotional health; taking care of your body through proper diet, exercise, sleep, and minimization of alcohol and tobacco; and connecting with others socially within your personal network and community.
Interestingly though, the CDC also explicitly recommends taking breaks from watching, reading, or listening to news stories, as "hearing about the pandemic repeatedly can be upsetting".
So if news (and more specifically, negative news) is a problem, what is the solution? A few things you can try:
Notice the problem. Develop an awareness of when the news you are consuming is overly negative, and how that impacts your mood. Keep this in mind as you take in your next article, newscast, radio clip, or tweet.
Be mindful of the news that you share with others. Their mood is just as vulnerable to the effects of negative news as yours. Be gentle with negative news, and share positive news when you can.
Try changing your 'media diet'. Try changing up your news consumption with smaller or more local news sources which are less likely to predominantly negative. Alternatively, you can try exclusively reading news from last week, which often has the effect of seeming much less urgent or demanding of your attention.
Consume less news. Choose to be 'selectively ignorant' with regard to some aspects of current events. The really important information you absolutely need to know has a way of finding you anyway.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mental Health and Coping During COVID-19. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/daily-life-coping/managing-stress-anxiety.html?utm_source=What+Could+Go+Right%3F.
Sacerdote, B., Sehgal, R., & Cook, M. Why is all COVID-19 news bad news? https://www.nber.org/system/files/working_papers/w28110/w28110.pdf?utm_source=What+Could+Go+Right%3F&utm_campaign=cfeb3e8ce4-Biweekly+12_10_2020&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_614470cd6d-cfeb3e8ce4-451279797.