You Are What You Read
Early in 2017 I experienced the wonderful joy of having my first child, a smiley little girl we called Ariana. Not long after she was born, I was sitting with my mother-in-law, Eva, who told me she worried for Ariana and the world that she is going to have to grow up in. “It is so much more dangerous than when I was young”, she said.
Let’s just take a moment to reflect on that. Eva was a little girl in 1945; she was born into a World War. Not only that, but since then, globally speaking, we have become more prosperous, have better health, better technology, better sanitation, higher IQs, less child mortality, fewer deaths from conflict, fewer homicides and have seen a reduction in overall crime figures. With all of this progress, how could it be that Eva would think that the world is more dangerous than it was 70 years ago?
I have been researching the psychological impact of the news for the last seven years - how it affects us mentally and socially, how it shapes our opinion of the world, and how it influences the way we see ourselves and other people. Eva’s belief that the world is more dangerous than it used to be lies in her perception of the world. This perception is created, not through experience - because the truth is that experientially things have improved - but through hearing stories about the world, stories told to her by the news. Hers is not an uninformed belief, it is an ill-informed one - and an incredibly common one at that.
I once got to the point where I could not bear to hear another news story. I would switch radio stations as soon as I heard the beeps introducing the news bulletin. They sounded to me like alarm bells, warning me that something awful was coming. Some people labelled my decision not to listen to the news as naïve, weak, ignorant or simply a bit extreme. This reaction made me feel that I must be damaged in some way, that there was something in me that was not strong enough or brave enough to see the world in all of its ugly existence.
But in fact I did not - and do not - see the world as ugly. My experience of the world is that it is a remarkable and complex place, filled with adventure, imagination and kindness as well as cruelty, suffering, and injustice. I could understand that the world had its flaws but I did not and could not agree with the picture that I was being given by reading the news.
I came to realise it was not me, but the news industry that was damaged. I have grown tired of reading so many inflammatory headlines charged with opinion over fact and emotion over reason, designed to bolster conflict rather than aid resolution. I began to get cross with other people when they did not understand my frustration with the news, when they jumped to its defence quite forcefully with an unfulfilling argument that “the world is the way it is” and no real insight as to why these are the only stories we are told about.
The fact that people were not questioning of the news made me want to dig deeper. I started asking questions such as: why is there a massive preference for negative news? For what purpose do journalists report scandal? Is it just to hold the perpetrators to account or does it become a deterrent for others to refrain from similar immoral activity? Is this deterrent an intentional or an unintentional consequence, if it is one at all? Why do journalists report on war crimes? Is it to hold the perpetrators to account? Or are they just reporting what they see without intentional consequence? Does the media create or reflect opinion? Is the media a commercial enterprise that is led by profitability or a noble one led by integrity? Does it report news that is in the interest of the public or in the interest of its own success?
What I found is that news organisations are aggressively protective of their product. If you question its integrity, you are often beaten back by the noble principles that underpin it. These are based on the idea that problems grow in the dark but shrink in the light, that it is the responsibility of the journalists to shine a light on the world’s ills, to put them on the public agenda and help them disappear out of harm’s way.
The depressing thing is that poor quality journalism has overtaken good quality journalism and those that report from a place of nobility are scarce in the current media environment. Instead, many journalists are forced to report whatever will generate profit, governed by audience engagement targets, advertising revenue and reach. Because of its cheap production costs and entertaining nature, poor quality journalism is thriving in news organisations - something that is benefiting their bottom line but hurting us psychologically and socially. We are told a manufactured and manipulated version of the truth and sometimes it is not the truth at all.
I found this deeply worrying; the information we consume through the news becomes our basis for understanding and for conversation. The overwhelmingly negative and sensationalised information I was getting from the news was creating confusion and confrontation, making me want to switch off altogether. Which in itself also worried me. If I, despite being motivated to stay informed about world affairs, was also attracted to the idea of ignorance being bliss, how many others felt the same?
But I also asked: what would it take to keep me informed in a way that engaged me? That’s when I came across the concept of solutions-focused news. Wanting to perpetuate what felt like a positive alternative to the mainstream media, I created a website called What a Good Week - a platform from which to share these stories and give myself and others the balance that I felt was lacking. What a Good Week came to an end a few years ago and I have since joined the Constructive Journalism Project as a researcher and partner. By widening my media focus, I was inspired by the initiatives, advancements and solutions being implemented to tackle creatively the problems about which we are so well informed. This helped me feel more connected to the news and, more importantly, more connected to society and my potential within it.
What began as anxiety born of hearing so many stories of violence, terror, disaster, murder and corruption, had transformed into something else. On the one hand, I felt inspired, energised and empowered by learning about solutions. On the other hand I felt anger; anger at news organisations that had given me a false impression of the world. Not that the problems they report do not exist, because they do. But they are not the only stories of humanity that are available. The hypocrisy seemed absurd to me; news organisations that pride themselves on shining a light on the world’s ills have been allowing their damaging social impact grow for years because no one is shining a light on them. So who holds the media to account? Simple: we do! The media are profit-seeking, which means that we hold them to account by the choices we make as consumers. It is time that we start making choices that can change the media and the world.
This book brings the psychological impact of the news out of the shadows and shines a bright light on the consequences of reading endlessly negative news. This book is written by a news consumer, for a news consumer because I believe the consumer holds the real power to change the news. The media, for the most part, need profits to survive, and therefore will seek audience engagement and produce content that generates this. This puts us in quite a powerful editorial position, provided we become conscious about what we engage with. If we have the knowledge of how the information is produced, what effects it has on us, and what we can do about it, then we have all the tools we need to become a conscious consumer. I hope the book helps you first of all to navigate your own way through the news, and in doing so improve your psychological health. I truly believe that together, we will in turn change the industry for the better. If you are someone who no longer reads the mainstream news because you find it too depressing, this book should help you establish a better relationship with it where you are no longer estranged but instead have a much more considered relationship that works on both of your terms.
If you are someone that enjoys reading the mainstream news and think it's important to know what is going on in the world, then this book will not take that away from you. Instead, you may well find you gain a deeper understanding of the effect the news has on you, why you enjoy it and why there is still so much more to be gained.