Our access to the news is at an all-time high. Radio, TV, and newspapers are supplemented by streaming content on our portable digital devices, enabling us to catch up on the latest information in the blink of an eye.
But as hyper-partisan, sensationalized, and negative programming becomes the norm, the news can leave us angry, anxious, and generally stressed, pushing us into thought patterns that undermine our physical and mental health. And while the news has its upsides, it’s increasingly clear that we need to weigh them against these psychological costs.
There are many arguments in favor of news consumption (e.g., it’s a cheap source of entertainment). Still, the primary defense of news boils down to one key point: We need it to stay informed. But what does this actually mean, and why does it matter?
As it relates to the news, being informed implies some level of knowledge of local, national, and international events. In theory, if we’re staying informed, we’re continuing to learn, able to have more meaningful conversations, and potentially even using our knowledge to make positive changes in the world.
At this point, several qualifiers must be addressed. First, given the amount of exaggerated and factually incorrect content put forth by modern news outlets, we can’t assume that just because we’re taking these stories in, we’re becoming informed.
In addition, much of the time, we’re just hearing the same bullets time and time again, with rapidly diminishing educational returns on our time investment. Though longer interviews and articles offer a more comprehensive picture, much of the content available on news platforms has been reduced to polarized and sensationalized sound bites that distort and compromise our understanding of the topic.
Finally, and most importantly, in order for it to be practical to become informed by the news, we’d have to come away from the process with a net gain. And while it’s hard to pin down the studied benefits of news exposure, we do know some of the consequences.
In one survey, 56 percent of people said that though they want to stay informed about the news, it causes them to experience stress. Another study demonstrated that participants who were shown a negative news clip had increased anxiety and sadness compared to those who watched neutral or positive news material. Other research showed that when participants reported taking in the news with a more negative tone, they were more likely to report depressive symptoms.
To be sure, these data points mainly look at the effects of negative news exposure. Unfortunately, they remain relevant, as news has become predominately negative.
The bottom line is that if the news can make us stressed and unhappy, this has to be weighed against the value of becoming informed. It’s not that we need to cut news out of our lives completely; instead, we need a better way of approaching it. To this end, these three steps are key:
1. Develop an awareness of the outcomes.
The first step to improving your relationship with the news is to gain a better understanding of how it affects your thinking and alters your actions. At a very basic level, this means asking whether it raises or lowers the quality of your day. How do you feel after hearing the news? If you feel stressed or otherwise upset, was it worth it?
If you find you’re in a negative emotional state after watching the news, pay attention to what you do with that energy. Do you convert it into something helpful for yourself for others? Or, do you transfer the negativity to someone else?
Gaining these types of insights allow us to tweak our news habits to maximize the benefits and minimize the cost. It allows us to experiment with different timing, types, and quantities of news exposure to see what improves our quality of life.
2. Call it what it is.
Like food, the quality of our news varies tremendously. Though much of the programming we see, hear, and read is labeled “news,” this is no guarantee that it is accurate, unbiased, or remotely helpful. Some “news” is better described as reality TV, shock television, or mindless entertainment, the digital equivalent of junk food.
A great exercise in clarifying the quality of your news consumption is to ask yourself how it’s serving you. At the end of watching, reading, or listening to the news, did you learn about the world, or just hear people’s biased opinions and angry rants? This doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy the entertainment value of lower-quality news, but you shouldn’t assume it’s doing much to keep you informed.
3. Remember the opportunity costs.
When news consumption becomes an established part of our daily routine, we may forget to consider all the things we could be doing instead. Hours vanish as we tune in to our TVs, radios, smartphones, tablets, and newspapers.
Of course, this could, in fact, be a good use of your time. If you come away having learned about the world and having enjoyed the process, it may not be necessary to make changes. But if instead, you find these sessions leave you worse off or even unchanged, it’s worth remembering that there may be better ways to spend your time.