Keeping up with the news today is important, but it can be unhealthy

Trump’s tapes, taxes and COVID-19 are only some of what’s happened in the last few months

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Our phones let us catch up on what we missed in the news, and be angry about it from the comfort of our bed sheets. (Photo by Alexander Musa)

Alexander Musa, Staff Writer

There’s a lot going on in the world right now, even with daily life ground to a near halt thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s getting to the point where I’ve experienced genuine mental exhaustion just trying to keep track of major news stories within the past month.

I don’t think it’s really possible to keep track of every single major news event. It might not even be good for your mental health to even try. However, I believe that the solution isn’t to bury our heads in the sand and shut out the news permanently. Ignorance isn’t bliss, it is complacent, and arguably a form of silent consent to the ills of the world. It’s more important than ever that we pay attention, even if it is unpleasant. 

The past eight months are marked by America’s complete failure to address the pandemic, historic wildfires tearing through the west, conspiracy theories about what started those fires, and white supremacists instigating violence in response to the Black Lives Matter protests.

Within the last month alone, Bob Woodward’s tapes of recorded conversations with President Donald Trump became public knowledge, revealing that Trump knew how severe COVID-19 was even as he downplayed it at his campaign rallies. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg passed away on Sept. 18 and Amy Coney Barret was nominated by Republicans to take the vacant seat.

Trump’s taxes were released in an ongoing, multi-part story by the New York Times, revealing an extensive tax avoidance effort stretching across two decades. Later that same week, Trump called out to a known hate group, the “Proud Boys,” for assistance in suppressing his opposition during the debate against Joe Biden.

Only two days later, the president reported to Walter Reed Medical Center with COVID-19 symptoms. He was released from medical care after several days to resume campaigning.

Right-wing nationalists were caught planning to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam. There was a fatal shooting at a Denver protest on Oct. 10, where Matthew Robert Dolloff, 30, shot 49-year-old Lee Keltner during a physical confrontation.

If that seems like a lot to process, that’s because it is a lot. It’s also nowhere near all of the major events to happen over the past five weeks. I’ve experienced lengthy episodes of doomscrolling through social media and news websites before turning in for the night, trying to keep up with this deluge of breaking news and events.

It’s not been good for my health. I’m getting less sleep for it. I’m gaining weight. I’ve become more bitter, more frustrated by what I’m seeing. There’s a part of my brain that tells me things aren’t going to get better, just look at the news to understand why that is. It is a vicious cycle.

Doomscrolling not a truly new concept, nor are its effects. In the 1970s, Dr. George Gerbner created the term ‘mean world syndrome’, which roughly describes the same effect that doomscrolling has had on modern US citizens. The consumption of violent media, whether it is news or entertainment programming, is correlated with an increasingly negative outlook on the world.

“The programming reinforces the worst fears and apprehensions and paranoia of people,” Gerbner said about television.

When Gerbner died in 2005, social media as we know it today was only getting started. The similarities of mean world syndrome and doomscrolling have not been ignored by researchers in recent years. In June 2014, Facebook revealed it’s “emotional contagion” experiment it had conducted on 700,000 users, where it adjusted the level of negative and positive posts they could see in their feeds. Researchers on the experiment reported that users who saw more negative posts would produce fewer positive posts of their own.

Negativity bias, where negative events and experiences have a greater psychological effect on individuals over neutral and positive events, is a real thing. A 2019 article from the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences website explains that “the average human is more physiologically activated by negative than by positive news stories.”

Conservatives often accuse the liberal media of having a negativity bias that is focused entirely on them. President Donald Trump is notable for his extended Twitter screeds about the sheer amount of bad news being reported about his administration and what he considers crisis leadership.

But it’s hardly a liberal or leftist phenomenon, nor is it limited to the United States. There are many right-wing websites, from Fox News to the far-right Breitbart News Network and Alex Jones’ InfoWars, who pretty much do exactly what they accuse the mainstream media of doing.

Some writers accuse the news media of not wanting to inform the average person but instead acting as solely profit-minded entities who seek to keep butts in seats and eyes on TVs. For these people, the solution is to turn off the news ‘for good,’ even if they relapse constantly.

Despite my own challenges this year, I don’t agree with that mindset entirely. I think breaks are good, and if anything I think people should take more breaks from anything that is stressing them out, whether it’s work, school, their home life, you name it.

I’ve read many social media posts over the past four years about taking mental health breaks from the news. I’ve enjoyed my own unannounced breaks. But turning off the news permanently? Absolutely not.

The last ten years of my life have been marked by a great change in my understanding of the world. One major influence has been some form of education, either at a college campus or simply reading on subjects I know little about. The other major influence has been news from all over the world and actually paying some attention to it.

There’s a lot of news right now, some of it good, a lot of it bad. I will probably doomscroll a bit before bed tonight. Knowledge might make me feel miserable at the state of the world at times, but I feel that ignorance is worse for the world overall. 

Ignorance made me blind to the plight of the LGBTQ+ friends in my circle, of the challenges faced by African Americans on a day to day basis. Ignorance led to the excesses of the ongoing War on Terror.

I think the lesson here isn’t to shut out the news entirely, but rather to not try following all of it, and to vet your sources to ensure they adhere to journalistic standards. And if you’re going to let it consume your life, it’s not enough to just know that things are bad. Use that knowledge to try making things better for you and those around you.