How Balanced is Your Media Diet?

Fear sells. And sales are good right now.

A newspaper is a device for making the ignorant more ignorant and the crazy crazier. ~H.L. Mencken, German-American journalist, 1880–1956

If you’ve seen the news lately, you’ve been reading about a seemingly endless barrage of bombings, attacks, murders, mass shootings, plane crashes, riots, earthquakes, hurricanes, and all sorts of other disasters, both natural and man-made. But why? How does reading the news serve you? Does it make you feel more informed? More connected? More inspired? More enraged?

Our response to tragedy on a massive scale has become incredibly formulaic. And our automatic call to prayer is not only predictable but also equally useless. Some terrible thing happens. We feel shocked, we feel sad, we feel angry, and we send our thoughts and prayers to the victim’s families. The size of the virtual outpouring of support may depend on where the tragedy occurs. But generally, we come up with some meme or hashtag, which circulates for a few days or weeks. If there’s a villain to blame, the media might lead us on a suspense-filled chase after “whodunnit”. Or they might provide a platform to politicians to lament about how this could have been avoided. Until we are inevitably drawn back into our day to day lives. Until our attention is diverted to the next new tragedy. Rinse, repeat.

There’s always a push-pull dynamic that I experience in my relationship with the news. On one hand, I want to be informed, so that I can engage and participate as a citizen of the world. On the other hand, part of me wants to withdraw and protect my sensitivity and softness from the toxic influences of media, so that I can funnel energy into nurturing creativity and productivity instead. After too many days of reading too much news, I notice that I start to feel sluggish as I drag myself out of bed. It’s just. Too. Much.

One approach is to divorce yourself from news completely. Years ago, I read a riveting Guardian article on Why News is Bad for You. Rolf Dobelli makes the argument there (well, I think) that news consumption inhibits our critical and creative thinking. His piece suggests that news is of no use because it is about the past, and the way the past is presented to us does nothing to motivate active engagement and productive contribution. In fact, Dobelli argues, news does the opposite — it victimizes and paralyzes. Not surprisingly, he reported finding “less disruption, less anxiety, deeper thinking, more time, more insights” after four years on a strict, zero news diet.

Author Jeff Brown has shared similar criticism of the media, highlighting the extreme negative bias of the typical news diet. He says, “we are constantly being assaulted with reminders of the horrors of humanity, while receiving very little information about the kindness that is manifest everywhere. Daily, our [safety and security] triggers are being deliberately ignited by an institution that profits from sensationalism.” News is sharing information. News is also a business that relies on profits to feed the machine. And what keeps us clicking isn’t the feel-good feature, it’s the fatality count. 

Fear is a time-tested and well-proven business model. As human animals we are biologically wired to pay close attention to the threats in our environment.

The all-or-nothing approach to reading the news is a bit extreme in my view. After all, we need to know and accept the way things are now, before we can hope to make things any different in the future. Sometimes it’s actually good for us to feel sad, or even to get pissed off. Then hopefully we can take some of that righteous anger and frustration about how messed up the world is today, and channel it towards doing something to change it for the better.

I believe it is important though to be aware when anxiety-inducing news stories are depleting our energy and causing us to cave in… and to click away. 

Click away. Close that tab, go outside for a walk. You will see it’s not that bad. For the most part, life goes on.

We can consciously choose our media diet and make sure we get a healthy balance, with enough nutrients. There are plenty of alternative information sources out there trying to shift the media mix. It is possible to purposefully counterbalance the negativity of mainstream media. And we do not have to adopt a Pollyanna persona or mushroom ourselves (stay in the dark) to do it.

Storytellers like Brandon Stanton of Humans of New York have made incredible strides in tearing down stereotypes while educating us firsthand about the impact of war. He looks at life through the lens of individual stories, inspiring compassion by illustrating the humanity in all of us. He makes an effort to share a balance of triumph and tragedy, so that his readers are not constantly being assaulted with negativity… nor are they allowed to float away in a delusional bubble of self-congratulatory reality avoidance.

News magazines like GOOD and Upworthy and others are also helping bring into focus the brighter side of things. They provide a public space where activists, innovators, humanitarians and positive change agents in the world can be seen and heard. There are many of these information sources out there. You may just have to put in a little more effort to find them. Whatever you choose to read, remember to feed your soul with stories that uplift and inspire you as much as you read stories that shock and disturb you.

You are what you eat. Likewise, you are what you read. If you want to be healthy and have a good balance, it is a good idea to watch what you eat, and to watch what you read.

The world can sometimes be a pretty scary place, but that becomes patently true if that horror story is the one we keep reading over and over… and reinforcing in our shared psyche. There is also a lot to be hopeful about. Many people I know — in their own respective little corners of the planet — are slowly and silently working for, or towards, something. There are thousands if not millions of us scattered around the globe, all trying to live a richer, fuller life in some way and striving to have a positive impact.

Mourn, of course. Grieve when you need to. Reach out in compassion. Just don’t dwell too long on the bad things that have already happened, or worry too much about what might happen next. That doesn’t help anyone. Ask what you can do where you are right now, to help create a better future. Start with yourself. Where are you spending your time, energy, and focus? 

The best way to create the kind of world we want to see, is to see that world reflected in the choices, big and small, that we make in our lives every day.