The news media is trying to kill you. The key word here is ‘trying.’ News organizations don’t actually want you dead, at least not yet, as long as you’re worried about your safety, and potential threats to your way of life. And why is the news media so interested in your possible demise? Because a never-ending state of anxiety on the part of the viewer means increased advertising revenue for media outlets.
Crisis and Survival
The human brain, and the hypothalamus in particular, is hardwired to sort through information based on its relevance to our survival. While a story about a fireman saving a kitten from a tree might be nice to read, it isn’t pertinent to your immediate survival, unless that ‘kitten’ is actually a mountain lion in your neighbor’s backyard. A gas leak that forces a countywide exodus, or a major bank losing all of its (and your) money to bad investments, are examples of news items that have a direct impact on the likelihood of you being here tomorrow.
Of course, nothing gets our attention quicker than the revelation that “Someone is coming to get you, right now!” Regardless if it’s Al Qaeda on your doorstep bearing nail bombs as house-warming gifts, or the government dumping poisonous chemicals into the water, or immigrants stealing your jobs, the news is vital to your survival, right? Your brain craves as much data as it can obtain on the matter, in order to judge how best to react. Is this truly a ‘fight or flight’ situation that requires your immediate attention, or is it simply another crisis hyped up by the news media for the purpose of entertainment, and increased ratings?
Danger and Outrage
When the daily dose of news was limited, the brain’s exposure to reported ‘danger’ was limited as well. Sometimes the threats are valid. Bank failures, disease outbreaks, economic mishaps, natural disasters, and terrorist attacks can affect your life in a very tangible way. Yet in the age of cable and Internet news, the news is no longer viewed as a public service and trust. Rather, it is a competitive, for profit, cutthroat business. Media companies now engage in vicious rating wars, seeking out audience attention, and consumer mouse clicks.
Titillation, as demonstrated by numerous reports on celebrity affairs, divorces and wardrobe malfunctions, is one way to garner viewership. Fear and outrage is another. Minor and major news pieces, from a radio talk show host’s inappropriate remarks, to a tragic shooting, are reported and commented on well past the expiration date of the story, often in order to stir up a major crisis where none would have existed in the past, or at least for not as long. With ‘news’ coming at you all hours of the day, programs with talking heads, brimming over with outrage, seem to be the most viable and least expensive way to fill air time, and to keep the controversy brewing.
Stress, often caused by anxiety and fear, can flood the body full of chemicals, like adrenaline, cortisol and dopamine, which are great when you need to fight or skedaddle, but hard on the body and the mind when maintained at abnormal levels in the bloodstream for extended periods of time. Excessive amounts of cortisol, when not flushed out after the ‘danger’ has passed, can lead to memory loss and severe depression. While a constant onslaught of ‘breaking’ or ‘crisis’ level news reports might be great for television ratings, they can wreak havoc on your nervous system, not to mention the fact that they create an agitated, distrustful society, often unable to distinguish between trivial gossip and important information essential to prosperity and survival.
In my own life, outside of research purposes, I’ve imposed a certain kind of ‘news discipline.’ During the week, I check the news once in the morning and once at night. On the weekend, if possible, I ignore the news all together. I believe it’s important to take a break from all of the outrage and the hyper-analysis of issues from time to time. If the planet goes to hell on a Saturday or Sunday, I can always read about it on Monday, assuming we’re all still here. If not, at least I had a restful weekend before the end of the world.
Breaking news image courtesy of Shutterstock