Why the news is bad for your health

Posted on December 13, 2018


An old friend recently told me a dismal story.

My friend is well-informed, widely-read and has been politically active in a number of ways. She now directs her energies toward voluntary work with her nearest food bank. That’d be the food banks that we need in the sixth largest economy on the planet.

I was telling her that although I regard myself as a news-junkie, I had, of late, changed my morning radio habits. Whereas once I would have listened compulsively to serious news coverage on Radio 4 from the moment I woke up until I started work, I now found myself switching to music stations after twenty minutes or so.

She then told me something that I have heard in a variety of ways from a host of people over the last couple of years.  She couldn’t even bear that first twenty minutes.

As we continued our conversation, themes familiar to me from similar discussions emerged.  First, there was the actual news content. An unremitting diet of public figures around the world deploying threatening, even infantile, language to belittle those with whom they disagreed. News of wars and so-called ‘natural disasters’ where the victims turned out almost exclusively to be the poor and the dispossessed. Public statements from the powerful that insulted the intelligence of their intended audience. The bare-faced hypocrisy of those who would always be sheltered from economic hardship talking of the need for sharing pain or demonstrating restraint.

Second, there were editorial choices. These were a reflection of the news organisations themselves. The predominant voice was male, the gaze or viewpoint largely white, the ideological trajectory of the narrative right-leaning and the editorial choices reflective of middle-class concerns. And all of this from news media in the UK who, when compared to most state broadcasters around the world, remain relatively – and it is relative – open-minded, liberal and free from overt censorship and state intervention.

Why do thoughtful and intelligent people recoil from news? Here is my best guess.

My friend, and thousands if not millions like her, do so because hearing or seeing it infuriates them while simultaneously reinforcing a sense of their own helplessness. In a strangely positive and counter-intuitive way, this is no more clearly illustrated when one of those ‘natural’ disasters occur. Donation rates spike as the instinct to help fellow human beings kick-in. You don’t just have to watch it on your screen, you can actually do something that is concrete and worthwhile. It’s better than flailing around feebly and shouting at the telly.

The same recourse to action is not possible when a frothing politician tells you an obvious lie, such as saying that s/he understands the needs of ordinary people when that is demonstrably untrue. There appears to be little one can do when decisions are made to refuse to refuse landings to boats full of desperate, frightened people. When puffed-chested little men display their bravado from behind a dais, what is left to do but jeer at the TV?

The answer is to do something. Pecking away at a keyboard lie I am is a start, but it’s actions and communal organisation that really counts.

In the blog posts that follow, however grim some of the subject matter, there is homage to the contrarian, the activist and the debunker. Accolades are reserved not for those who hide their weakness and deficiency behind high office, but for those who take to the streets to frighten them.

And that’s because nothing is worse for your health and welfare than being in thrall to the news and allowing yourself to become its victim.

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