The news these days is so bad it could make you sick.
Or so say researchers from Texas Tech University who studied what is being called “problematic news consumption.”
“It has been well-established that problematic media behavior is negatively related to health,” wrote the team led by Associate Professor of Advertising & Brand Strategy Bryan McLaughlin, citing previous studies of “video game and smartphone addiction.
“Similarly, we expect that problematic news consumption will be negatively related to mental and physical health. Problematic news consumption may be particularly harmful because the news consistently focuses on negative and threatening issues and events.”
McLaughlin was joined in his study by Devin Mills, an assistant professor of Community, Family, and Addiction Sciences. Mills has spent his career studying video game and gambling addictions, and he and McLaughlin concluded some of the behaviors seen there are also found in news consumers.
After classifying the behaviors of 1,100 U.S. adults who participated in an August 2021 survey, they concluded the problem is in part with the news, the reporting of which has always been flawed but now seems sometimes more flawed than ever, and in part with people who take the news too seriously.
Using various criteria for how those people viewed the news, the researchers defined their news consumption as non-problematic, minimally problematic, moderately problematic and severely problematic.
More than a quarter fell in the moderately problematic category, and 16.5 percent were judged to have severely problematic news habits.
“While further research is needed to replicate these findings, our results suggest that problematic news consumption involves becoming immersed in the news as well as consumed with thoughts about the news, attempting to alleviate feelings of threat by consuming more news, experiencing a loss of control over the consumption of the news, and experiencing diminished time for and attention to other aspects of one’s life,” they wrote.
They conceded the easy solution to the problem might be for people to simply tune out the news when starting to feel overwhelmed, but worried that “this solution is problematic both at the individual and societal level. Not only does tuning outcome at the expense of an individual’s access to important information for their health and safety, it also undermines the existence of an informed citizenry, which has implications for maintaining a healthy democracy.”
Instead they advocated “effective media literacy campaigns,” a catch-all phrase for teaching people to read more skeptically. This has become a trendy idea, but it is fraught with problems in a society split by political partisanship.
As the situation stands today, those on the right are plenty skeptical of news as reported by publications on the left, and those on the left are plenty skeptical of news as reported by publications on the right, but neither left nor right seem very good at considering the slant in their favored news sources.
They can’t even agree with what it is everyone should be skeptical about.
Those on the left see one thing; those on the right see another. And both increasingly turn to media that reflects their views as opposed to media that might challenge them to think.
The researchers could hardly miss this and thus pointed a finger at the media as well.
“There also needs to be a larger discussion of the ethical concerns pertaining to the news values that fuel problematic news consumption,” they wrote. “Journalists in the United States have long been thought to have a responsibility to U.S. citizens. The Hutchins Commission’s report (on Freedom of the Press in 1947) outlined the important role journalists play in informing the public and helping to maintain a healthy democracy.”
The problem with citing the Commission as some sort of high point in American journalism is that only three years after it released its report, the Red Scare reached its peak, and concerns about “sensational news” faded as the mainstream media played lap dog to the late Sen. Joe McCarthy and the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.
In the book U.S. Television News and Cold War Propaganda 1947 – 1960, author Nancy Bernhard observed that “in the mid-twentieth century, the political economy of the mass media was intimately tied up with the articulation of Cold War policies, and objectivity became grounded in fervent anticommunism.”
The book does not paint a particularly pretty picture of post-war American journalism. Book reviewer Michael J. Kirkhorn noted how Bernhard highlighted the involvement of political columnist Walter Lippmann in the investigation of the death of CBS correspondent George Polk “who was shot dead after an interview with a Greek official who had played a large part in obtaining ‘massive’ U.S. aid funds for the royalist government and now was depositing money in a New York bank. Greek Communists were blamed for the killing, but Royalists allied with the United States against Communism are now regarded as the likely culprits.
“Lippmann, ‘one of a distinguished group of American journalists who claimed to represent the rights of a free press…,’ chaired a committee formed to investigate the killing. Bernhard shows him conferring closely with former Office of Strategic Services (the CIA’s predecessor) Director William Donovan, whom Lippmann had appointed to conduct the investigation. This, along with the lack of aggressive follow-up by the committee, leads Bernhard to infer that Lippmann might have participated in a cover-up in which Communists were blamed for the murder. ‘How deliberately they [Lippmann and Donovan] conspired to conceal the Royalist motives for the murder remains unknown,’ she writes.
There is little doubt the “Deep State” was highly active at the time as former Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein reported in a 1977 story for Rolling Stone magazine.
“Among those major media whose top executives lent cooperation to the CIA were CBS, ABC, NBC, the Associated Press, United Press International, Newsweek, Time Inc., The New York Times, Mutual Broadcasting Systems, Reuters, Copley News Service and the Heart Newspapers, among others,” Rolling Stone said at the time in an announcement of the story going to press.
“The Agency’s relationship with the New York Times was by far its most valuable among newspapers, according to CIA officials. Bernstein reports that the Times provided press credentials to approximately 10 undercover CIA employees with the full approval of the late Publisher Arthur Hays Sulzberger.”
And today there are journalists, many of them at the NYT, who scoff at the idea that a “Deep State” could still exist within the government to manipulate journalists in the way they were long manipulated.
“In the field,” Rolling Stone reported, “journalists were used to help recruit foreign agents, to convey instructions and dollars to foreign officials bought and controlled by the CIA, to acquire and evaluate information, and to plant false information with officials of foreign governments.”
The manipulation of journalists did not stop with the end of the Cold War. It is now well accepted that the NYT, led by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Judith Miller, was played like a fish by the Bush administration to sell the existence of “weapons of mass destruction” (WMD) in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq.
An extensive hunt for WMDs after the U.S. won that war found none. Miller did not win a Pulitzer for her coverage of WMDs, but probably should have given that those prizes have become largely about press-government cooperation. The way to win a Pulitzer is to write a series of articles you can claim spurred government action. Miller’s only problem is that she played the game in reverse on WMDs
Somehow seeming to have missed these problems facing journalism today, the Texas Tech professors suggested the 1947 report on Freedom of the Press “provided an important source of ideals to which the news media are expected to aspire,” and concluded these have only since suffered because of the shift of the market for news from newspapers, radio and TV to the internet:
“…Economic pressures, exacerbated by technological advances and the 24-hour news cycle, have further encouraged journalists to focus on selecting ‘newsworthy’ stories that will grab news consumers’ attention rather than on considerations of how to best inform them,” they write. “For certain types of people, the conflict and drama that characterize ‘newsworthy’ stories not only grab their attention and draw them in but also can lead to a maladaptive relationship with the news. Thus, the results of our study emphasize that the commercial pressures that news media face are not just harmful to the goal of maintaining a healthy democracy, they also may be harmful to individual health.”
The “commercial pressures” that the news media face are the realities of a free market. The news media escaped those pressures for a very brief period in U.S. history when nearly all major cities came to be dominated by a single newspaper.
The “technological advances,” ie. the internet, simply put journalism back into the competition that has existed in the journalism market for most of U.S. history. It would be nice to believe the business could be made perfect, but then perfection is in the eye of the beholder.
Pravda provided perfect news coverage in the eyes of the leaders of the now-defunct Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the country that gave the world Vladimir Putin. There is a serious and dangerous downside to regulating the news no matter how good the intentions of regulators.
Life is a joke
Maybe the easier solution is for readers of the news to simply lighten up and take the news for the joke it often is. Journalism today is plagued by its own lack of skepticism; its willingness to be spoonfed by government entities and non-government organizations (NGOs) of all shapes and without question; and its bounty of reporters struggling to write about subjects of which they have little understanding.
It is enough to drive a thinking reader nuts.
With Alaska’s West Coast about to be pummeled by the remnants of Typhoon Merbok , NPR was Friday reporting the storm could bring seas up to 54 feet and winds up to 75 knots (86 mph) to the shore this weekend.
Now there would be a site to behold, a 54-foot wave coming to shore. It would be more than double the size of the biggest waves reported to have come ashore in Alaska in the tsunami driven by the Good Friday earthquake of 1964. One of those waves devastated the city of Seward south of Anchorage.
The Nome Nugget reported the City of the Golden Sands was still standing today, although the storm pushed tide waters so high they flooded Front Street. Flood damage appears extensive, but the long, shallow offshore approach to the city – which has made it hard to build a harbor for deepwater vessels there – protects the city from waves of a size that would wipe downtown Nome clear of buildings.
Waves, to get technical, are slowed by drag on the seabed as the water depth becomes less than half of the wave length. As the water gets shallower, the drag increases and the waves begin to break and topple. This phenomenon quickly begins to lower the wave height.
In the case of Nome, the process starts far offshore. Thus seas that topped 50 feet far out in the Bering Sea were knocked down to a peak height of 18.47 feet by the time they reached a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) buoy about a mile offshore from Nome, and they were by then rapidly falling.
A surf report for Nome calculated the maximum height of the waves reaching the “shore” at less than six feet. Photos from the scene made them look bigger, but anyone who has ever tried to launch a boat into breakers more than a few feet high knows even those look like monsters. And 10-footers, less than a fifth the height of that mythical 54-footer, would scare the bejesus out of anyone.
But waves of 54 feet coming ashore does sound dramatic, if you don’t know how stupid the idea actually is, and the drama nicely reflects the kind of reporting the Texas Tech researchers warned has been and could continue to be a problem.
“This study,” they wrote, “was fielded during a time in which the news was dominated by breaking news coverage of a global pandemic, political conflict, crime and social unrest, natural disasters, etc. We believe that these types of threatening news stories are particularly likely to foster a maladaptive relationship with the news, which can lead to deleterious consequences. It is important for future research to consider if problematic news consumption only applies to certain types of news or if it applies to a wide range of news genres.
“It may not just be sociopolitical news that proves problematic, but also other genres such as sports and business. For example, people who form unhealthy attachments to news coverage of the NFL or the stock market may also experience the problems detailed in this manuscript. Lifestyle and entertainment news, on the other hand, may not be as concerning, as they should be much less likely to create emotional distress.”
The problem is that the suggested cures to the problem could prove far more dangerous than the problem as the late President Thomas Jefferson, the prime author of the Declaration of Independence and an advocate for attaching the Bill of Rights to the Constitution, well understood.
The Bill of Rights was enshrined in the first 10 amendments to the constitution led by the one dictating that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
Though Jefferson took a beating in the press in his day (during the run-up to the Presidential election of 1800 a writer in the Connecticut Courant, an influential newspaper at the time, claimed that if Jefferson were elected “murder, robbery, rape, adultery, and incest, will openly be taught and practiced.”) and came to largely detest the journalists of the time, he never retracted his observation that “were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
Jefferson understood democracy is a messy business. How messy has only waxed and waned through American history. And in the interest of democracy, there seems little option but for everyone to learn to live with the latest round of sensationalism, salaciousness, stupidity, and unending partisanship or just step away when it starts to get a little overwhelming.