We are all familiar with the saying ‘you are what you eat’: it’s a very simple but effective summary that has made us increasingly aware that the way in which food is produced, and the way it is consumed will affect our physical health. Well, food is to the body what information is to the mind. The way it is produced, and the way it is consumed will affect our mental health.
Our information diet may seem less visible but its just as powerful and just as important for our overall wellbeing. The news is one of the most invasive and negative information streams that we feel pressured to tune into but it’s impact on our wellbeing is often unexamined. There is, however, over a century’s worth of research that documents the potentially harmful effects of the excessive negativity in the news on our mental health, the health of our democracy and society.
In short summary, the evidence shows that this negative imbalance over long periods of time can have harmful effects on our mental health. We can develop things like anxiety, depression, a feeling of helplessness. We become desensitized to the information that we are being given so we care less about the people affected by these problems and tragedies. We can also care about each other less because it can fire up feelings of contempt and hostility towards others. We have tragically witnessed the hate-fuelled attack in New Zealand last week and whilst the blame for this evil attack cannot be wholly apportioned to the news industry; they can certainly be assigned their fair share. Britains Counter-Terroirism Chief, Neil Basu agrees and recently said that far-right terrorists are being radicalized through mainstream news coverage. With false headlines like “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for Jihadis” published in The Sun in 2015 alongside a chilling picture of the infamous ‘Jihadi John’ holding a knife, it groups moderate Muslims with terror organisation that fuels widespread fear, anger and division. This irresponsible reporting was lightly held to task by IPSO who deemed this story “significantly misleading” after it received over 3,000 complaints. Although a retraction was issued, it was a small consolation, as considerably less people saw it and the hateful seeds had already been sewn. And finally, we may switch off from the news altogether to try and avoid these feelings. and that’s a real problem.
More recently, there is a growing body of research investigating the impact of reporting solutions. We are not talking about light hearted, uplifting, entertaining puff pieces; we are talking about “rigorous journalism that reports critically on tangible progress being made in order for us to understand how issues are being dealt with”. So, we still learn about the problem but we also learn about how these problems are being resolved. What solutions are being put in place and ask if they’re working.
The research shows that by having a healthy balance of problems and solutions it provides context and helps paint a much more accurate picture of the world. And this reduces anxiety, increases engagement, improves mood in the short term and shifts our mindset in the long term. Moreover, learning about restorative actions can help heal the media driven hatred as it helps restore our faith in humanity and improves social cohesion. It can also lead to active coping where we approach and address problems rather than avoid them as a result of us ultimately feeling more empowered. This is because learning about solutions increases our feelings of hope, optimism and self-efficacy. With all that we hear about in the news, being optimistic can be seen to be insensitive. It’s not. It is a powerful mental state that helps us constructively engage with a negative reality and gives us the courage to contribute to making the world a better place. If we are to turn this feeling into action, we require some evidence that our actions are able to make a difference; sometimes you need to see it to believe it and witnessing others overcoming adversity and achieving progress can give you the necessary belief in your own potential to overcome challenges and make a constructive difference in the world.
When we look at these responses it might seem as if I am saying that reading problems focused news is bad for us and reading solutions focused news is good for us. It’s not quite that simple. There is no denying that reporting on problems and failures is a good thing. But we have too much of it; the excess has moved it from being helpful to becoming harmful. When I realised this, I found that it was not about switching off the news but about consuming it in a different way; in a more constructive and balanced way. My new book “You Are What You Read” explains all of this in much more detail and invites all consumers to have a much more constructive approach to their information diet.
Keen to change your own media diet? My book ‘You Are What You Read’ gives you a step by step guide. To get started immediately, use my Starter Kit to start including some solutions-focused news sources into your news diet today.