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I have a strong aversion to the daily news cycle, and I avoid it as much as I can.
That doesn’t mean I’m not an informed citizen or that I bury my head in the sand and ignore reality.
I seek out information on my own terms. Here’s why:
Back in April of 2003, as the United States invaded Iraq in search of weapons of mass destruction, I sat in my living room, mesmerized by the advancing line of coalition tanks rolling across the endless, empty desert toward Baghdad. Mostly, I could only see the barren horizon. Occasionally, I could see the business end of the tank gun peek into my viewing field. I never saw the soldiers who were driving those armored vehicles.
The tension I felt in my shoulders crept upward until I had a nauseating eyeball headache, while the cast-iron pressure in my chest simultaneously dropped into my stomach. Ughhh.
I closed my eyes for a few moments and checked in with my body. With a stunning bolt of clarity, I had an epiphany: my physical symptoms weren’t there before I started watching the news. I felt mentally and physically awful. Emotionally conflicted and energetically drained and—here’s the kicker—nothing was actually happening on TV. Seriously. Nothing but driving.
I watched sand.
For. Three. Hours.
While the talking heads in the tiny window on the corner of my TV screen methodically escalated their description of nothing at all, I willingly ingested it because I considered it my duty to be informed. When I became aware of what I’d allowed to happen to me, I felt chilled, then icky, like I’d just vomited.
I don’t know with whom I was more horrified—the news station who was intent on keeping my attention glued to their channel, drumming up “patriotic” support for a questionable invasion, while increasing advertising revenue? Or myself, for not thinking critically about what I watched and for mindlessly going along with it?
Because, until that exact moment, I wasn’t consciously aware that I was participating in my own manipulation. I didn’t even think to question it. And that’s not acceptable.
Have you ever lifted the lid of the washing machine to watch the spin cycle? When the dizzying spin of the barrel miraculously extracts most of the water, leaving clothes stretched, damp, and limp? It reminds me of an amusement park ride I once rode.
The “rotor” is basically a giant metal cylinder sitting on top of a motor. Riders brace themselves around the smooth circumference of the inner wall, with no divider bars or safety belts. They just stand there, waiting.
The cylinder begins to rotate until it’s spinning fast enough for riders to be stuck in place along the wall by centrifugal force. It’s funny for about three seconds, then the bottom drops out. Literally. The floor of the cylinder drops away as riders are stuck helplessly to the wall like refrigerator magnets.
It was intense. It was uncomfortable being subject to g-forces that made me unable to move, and I remember the unnerving sensation of trying not to swallow my tongue. I felt so overpowered that I couldn’t do anything until the ride ended. And then, my equilibrium was shattered, and my head kept spinning for hours.
That’s how I feel being wrung out by the 24-hour negative news cycle: helpless, ready to choke, unbalanced, and joyless.
Spin is a form of propaganda. It’s a calculated effort to influence public opinion by sharing intentionally biased and misleading information. It goes beyond tweaking the facts to advertise the awesomeness of a product or fabricating questionable stories to sell pulpy tabloids at the checkout counter. Spin is the use of certain techniques to deliberately manipulate and influence our society’s perception of truth and reality.
The old journalism chestnut “If it bleeds, it leads” still holds true.
It claims our power because it gains our attention.
Sensationalized stories and alarmist, fear-mongering language are used by news organizations to overpower us, wear us down, and lead us to believe an alternate, parallel reality—much like the shock and awe of the Iraqi invasion used overwhelming force to paralyze the Iraqi perception of the war and destroy their will to fight back.
Repeated exposure to deliberate spin is one of the ways we’re being manipulated, and it can have harmful effects on our psyche and our well-being.
Our brains process information by comparing what we see and hear against what we already know, to see if we recognize anything familiar. Even if we’re told something that is patently false, if we hear it repeated often enough, the falsity will start to feel familiar. If the brain hears something a second, third, or fourth time, it runs through the familiarity-check-cycle even faster, creating a stronger connection between what is false but seems familiar.
And many times, we misattribute what is familiar as a signal for truth. Like, “Oh, I’ve heard that before, it feels familiar, it feels right—so it must be true.” This tendency to believe that false information is true is called the illusory truth effect. It’s a quirk of our brain’s information processing that is being exploited by many in our news cycle, through the constant repetition of false statements.
Other deliberate forms of disinformation that mess with our minds include:
Fake news: False claims or exaggerated stories that are used to sow confusion by deflecting our attention away from legitimate news stories. Ironically, the term fake news was blasted into our social vocabulary by the same constant repetition described above. Such a weird Catch-22.
Deepfakes: Digitally altered videos that are created with artificial intelligence in which a person can be made to appear as if they’re doing and saying anything. Frighteningly, these can be used to target vulnerable populations, such as the app that perpetuates image-based sexual assault through the virtual undressing of women (thankfully removed by its creator, after an outcry).
And even Jon Snow’s apology for the ending of “Game of Thrones.”
Gaslighting: A form of manipulation in which a speaker seeks to sow doubt through lies, denial (even when there’s proof!), and projection to make us question our sanity.
Gaslighting disrupts the way we process information by altering how we recall memories and interpret events. Fake news and deepfakes also challenge our reality and make it harder to discern what is real and what is not.
What’s the cost of a 24-hour negative news cycle to our mental and physical health? Many of us find it hard to feel calm and present in our daily lives because the internet and social media put the entire world at our fingertips. We love having immediate access to options and opinions, but being subjected to negative language or viewing and reading about frightening or violent events on the regular can trigger our fight-or-flight instinct and leave us in a constant state of arousal and anxiety.
It causes us to escalate our own worries and anxieties, contributes to persistent negative feelings and thoughts, and can interfere with our memory and ability to concentrate. We think this is okay, that it’s the price we must pay to stay aware and informed.
According to The Pew Research Center, about two-thirds of Americans say they get some of their news via social media. Yet, research by the American Psychological Association also shows that more than 50 percent of Americans report that news and over-reliance on social media cause them stress, including mood swings and PTSD. An adrenal rush of chemical activity cascades through our bodies, making us stressed, angry, frustrated, and sick. If left unaddressed, prolonged stress leads to high levels of cortisol and inflammation, which cause other long-term health problems.
We’re just spinning along with the media, without stopping to think about what we’re exposing ourselves to. According to the data from the 2018 Edelman Trust Barometer, 59 percent of respondents claimed to be unsure about the truthfulness of data they see in the media, and 7 out of 10 respondents worry about the weaponization of fake news. The lines between ethical journalism, neutrality, and editorial opinion have been blurred. It’s hard to know which sources of information are trustworthy and whether the information we’re reading is vetted and accurate.
“If people in the media cannot decide whether they are in the business of reporting news or manufacturing propaganda, it is all the more important that the public understand that difference and choose their news sources accordingly.” ~ Thomas Sowell
We’ve spent a lot of time and effort to practice self-care and be mindful of what we put into our bodies nutritionally. We must also be diligent about what we consume mentally. In The Art of Thinking Clearly, author Rolf Dobelli claims that news is to our minds what sugar is to our bodies. Any energetic input—mental, emotional, physical—deserves to be of the highest quality for a healthy environment that keeps us balanced and well.
I’m responsible for my media consumption and my well-being. So, I stopped watching the nightly news, cold turkey. I still want to remain informed, so I choose to read my news once a day in a quiet space so that I have control over what I expose myself to, and so I can think clearly and critically.
Here are some other tips for mindful news consumption:
Don’t multitask: Take a mindful pause and give your full attention to what you’re doing. Rapid scrolling through sensationalized or emotionally charged stories only heightens a sense of anxiety.
Vet the source: Look for trusted sources of information that have been fact-checked or peer-reviewed. These include .org, .edu, and other trusted .com news sites that have demonstrated journalistic ethics and limit the insertion of personal opinion without clearly identifying it as editorial. Want to know where your favorite news site stands? Check out this media bias chart.
Tips for evaluating internet resources: Who is the author? What is the purpose? Is it objective? Is it accurate and reliable information? Is it current?
Georgetown University Library has a great evaluation tutorial here.
Think before liking and sharing: Read and think first! Is this something you really want to share and that you can stand by? Otherwise, mindless liking and sharing is the same as gossip.
Turn off your notifications: Constant news updates are an attention grabber and they zap your energy.
Media fast/news diet: Try a news detox. Think about your news diet as you would your food diet. Be smart about what you ingest. Set one specific time per day for updates and then give them your full, critical attention.
No blue light at night: Turn your phone off at night, or charge it in another room—at a minimum, if you must keep it on. Scrolling at night is disruptive to the circadian rhythm, may contribute to obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, and increases the risk of breast and prostate cancers. This is so important and something easily under our own control. Here’s another study by the National Institute of Health.
Address stress: Practice mindfulness and get proper nutrition and exercise. Seek out sources of positive news, like Elephant Journal and others.
Get involved: Don’t give in to fear or learned helplessness. Disconnect from the media cycle and interact with real people. Find an outlet and show up in person to make a positive impact on others and our collective community. It strengthens us and keeps us going.
Fortify yourself with goodness. You can’t save the world all by yourself.
“But we can do small acts with great love.” ~ Mother Teresa
…and that can make a world of difference in someone else’s life.
What could be better than that?
Taking back our collective power and attention from the onslaught of negative news is possible when we take personal responsibility.
Doing our part and taking care of ourselves is our first step. Focusing on our health and well-being strengthens us to be of benefit to others.
We have to work together on the side of integrity and truth. We are needed now, more than ever.