Is Reading the News Bad for You?

Source: Thinkstock

Source: Thinkstock

There was a very ironic, somewhat suicidal, and rather gutsy article published by The Guardian in April of last year. It was entitled “News is bad for you — and giving up reading it will make you happier.” It’s almost hard to believe that it got past the editors. Talk about self-destructive suggestions from an already struggling industry.

However, the article makes some good points and quite a few bad ones, but generally brings up some interesting questions about what affect the news has on readers. It also indirectly addresses another important topic: why is the news so negative? To start with, let’s look at the suggestion that the news is bad for you, and not just emotionally, but physically.

Bad News: Bad for the Body?

According to Rolf Dobeilli of The Guardian, reading the news can be “toxic” as it “triggers the Limbic system” when upsetting stories “spur the release of cascades of Glucocorticoid. This deregulates your immune system and inhibits the release of growth hormones. In other words, your body finds itself in a state of chronic stress.” Chronic stress has all sorts of negative side effects, including digestive issues, stunted growth of the hair, bones, and cells, “nervousness and susceptibility to infections,” as well as “fear, aggression, tunnel-vision, and desensitization.”

On top of the physical argument, news is bad for the mind in several ways if Dobeilli is to be believed. Among other things, he claims it demands a great deal of our attention over the course of a single day and week, and pulls our thoughts away form other important items. It trains our brains for “skimming and multitasking while ignoring those used for reading deeply and thinking with profound focus.” He also suggests that, to an extent, the negativity of news “at least partially contributes to the widespread disease of depression.” This brings us to our next question: Why is our news so negatively focused?

But Why Is News So Negative?

There is a two part answer to this question; the long and the short version. The short version is, predictably, that news is negative because bad news sells. Especially in today’s news industry, which is increasingly online and far quicker to update with instantaneous tweets and blogs, much of the available content is constantly being refreshed, rehashed, reconsidered, added to, edited, and so on. When news is dealt with at such speeds, the less sensational is often overlooked by publications, because the less sensational is often overlooked by readers and their hovering mouse arrows.

This brings us to the long version of our question: why do readers click on that negative news in the first place? What drives that innate interest in the dark and depressing, which in turn fuels publications responding to reader interest? Peter Diamandis, an engineer, physician, award winner, and Ted Talk-er, offered some suggestions in a piece for Big Think.

The Amygdala is our danger detector. It’s our early warning system. It literally combs through all of the sensory input looking for any kind of a danger,” wrote Diamandis. He explains our focus on the negative and dangerous by looking back to a time when humanity might need to be on guard against “the tiger in the bush.” Now, though, “if you see a thousand stories, you’re going to focus on the negative ones.”

Diamandis also points out — in a similar vein to what Dobeilli of The Guardian argued — that the cycle perpetuates itself. He notes that negativity and confirmation biases. The first, the negativity bias, leads humans to over-share details on bad events, while the latter drives us to look for information that confirms what we already know — and as Diamandis points out, what we already know is usually negative.

Upworthy and sites in that same category might be the new loophole in this negative news matrix. After all, there are other built-in instincts to cater toward. Babies, love, sex — all of these things activate a nice dose of brain activity. Online publications can utilize the pleasant chemicals released when you look at an infant of almost any species, or see a strong pleasant emotional reaction from an individual on camera. But, unfortunately, it’s easy to trip over “why does it matter?” when talking about websites in that category and come up short on answers.

Why Reading the News Does Matter

Rolf Dobeilli posits in his piece that news audiences are not “rational” enough to see a plane crash without altering their assessment of the risk of plane crashes beyond what is true to reality. The cynic in me tends to agree — people do extrapolate a great deal from short news clips without truly understanding an issue. Still, it seems a bit extreme to suggest the public stop reading the news because they can’t be trusted to do their research, or to take things with a grain of salt. Being uninformed on the off chance you make an incorrect assumption seems counterintuitive.

He also argues that the news is not relevant to readers’ daily lives. He asks readers to name a single news story that “allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting our life, your career, or your business,” stating that “the point is: the consumption of news is irrelevant to you.” That is patently untrue.

From vehicle recalls to global conflict that affect family and friends, the news is relevant. Sometimes the relevance is more direct than others, but it certainly plays a big role in many industries’ decision-making. Talk to anyone on Wall Street and see if they read the news. Political news can have big implications for business owners, and energy news, policy and otherwise, can change whether you buy gas tomorrow.

Especially writing daily politics, I empathize with the many people I speak to who voice frustration with the repetitious nature of negative news. It’s always the same, they tell me, and sometimes they’re right — the news has a way of getting you down. But it also plays a pretty vital role in monitoring the world around us and those in power. It doesn’t always do a perfect job, and yes, sometimes you have to take a break from the nightly news showing more footage of a robbery or gunman nearby. But burying one’s head in the sand is not a legitimate or safe alternative.

More from Politics Cheat Sheet:

Follow Anthea Mitchell on Twitter @AntheaWSCS