How to Cope With Constant Stream of Negative News
A global pandemic that has killed millions of people worldwide is frightening for many people, especially in the early stages when little is known about how to prevent infection. And the media is tasked with telling the truth, regardless of how unpleasant that may be. But in some cases, how they present the facts can be jarring for consumers.
Dr. Goali Saedi Bocci, a licensed clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at Pepperdine Graduate School of Education and Psychology, recalls a particularly striking Newsweek cover during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It was basically saying that COVID was signaling the end of time,” she explained.
Dr. Bocci has published several books about the toll social media and digital devices can take on mental health, including the Digital Detox Deck and the Social Media Workbook for Teens. She points out that “being exposed to such severe media really brings up existential concerns for people.” And many people are experiencing bad news fatigue, feeling worn out, overwhelmed, unmotivated, hopeless, and depleted.
Why Are People Experiencing News Fatigue?
There are a multitude of factors that play a role in the level of news fatigue that people are experiencing.
The News Is More Negative
Combing through decades of the New York Times and the archives of BBC Monitoring, which reports on worldwide mass media, reveals that the tone of news has been on a downward trajectory since 1945. But even in the midst of a downward trend, the US mainstream news coverage of COVID-19 wasn’t just negative; it was uniquely negative.
As reported by the New York Times, roughly 87 percent of COVID coverage from the national US media in 2020 was negative, a stark difference from international media, which was 51 percent negative; US regional media, which was 53 percent negative; and scientific journals, which were 64 percent negative. That overlapped with coverage about the Trump administration, which received the most negative news coverage of any recent presidential administration. And just two years later, soaring inflation, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continue to cause Americans stress.
of COVID coverage from the national US media in 2020 was negative
of COVID coverage from the international media in 2020 was negative
of COVID coverage from US regional media in 2020 was negative
of COVID coverage from scientific journals in 2020 was negative
Technology Promotes Consumption of Negative News
The Pew Research Center reports that 8 out of 10 Americans get their news from a digital device and nearly half of Americans get their news specifically from social media. A recent study showed that negative content can drive engagement on social media. In fact, some companies such as Facebook knowingly promote negative news stories.
Adding fuel to the fire, studies consistently show that more than half of news readers only share the headline. Headlines are designed to communicate information quickly and drive readership. They can also be emotionally evocative.
“Once the emotions are activated in that way, people don’t always question the logic,” Dr. Bocci said.
The human tendency to be emotionally driven can lead to a functional hijacking of the mind, she explained. In this state, people are susceptible to cognitive distortions—irrational patterns of thought that create a false picture of reality, potentially resulting in poor decision making, and feelings of panic and despair that can cause or worsen anxiety and depression.
People Have Cognitive Biases
A cognitive bias is a systemic, unconscious defect in reasoning that impacts how people interpret the world and make their decisions. Cognitive biases differ from cognitive distortions because they are a part of how someone thinks, whereas a cognitive distortion is either caused by strong feelings of panic and despair, or are symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Regular consumption of negative news, either all at once or throughout the day, can make people feel like they have “mean world syndrome,” a hypothesized cognitive bias caused by too much negative media exposure that makes people feel like the world is inescapably bad, leading to emotional distress and even depression.
Other biases that may affect media consumers include: the negativity bias, which is some people’s propensity to react more strongly to negative news; availability bias, which is when people believe something is more likely to happen based on how easily they remember it; and the illusory truth effect, which is when people believe something to be more true based on how often they hear it.
Mental Health Plays a Role
Similarly, people with mental health conditions may respond differently to negative news coverage. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, 1 in 5 people have a mental illness, which is roughly 52.9 million people in 2020. Anxiety and depression, for example, make some people susceptible to having a “sticky mind,” where people get “stuck” in periods of obsessive rumination. Others may seek out negative news stories that confirm their worries, a coping mechanism known as “monitoring.”
1 in 5
people in the US had a mental illness in 2020
There is also a phenomenon dubbed “concept creep.” Increased news coverage of traumatic events or topics may trigger involuntary trauma responses from people who have experienced similar events. For example, the #MeToo movement led to increased coverage of sexual violence, which may have caused survivors to more frequently see triggering stories.
What Are the Effects of Consuming Too Much Negative News?
Consuming negative news story after negative news story without even noticing how much time has passed is known as “doom scrolling.” Doom scrolling can change a person’s perception of the world without them even realizing it.
“When you go down the rabbit hole, you’re not starting to see how you’re viewing everything through this lens that could very well have been constructed by news media sources,” Dr. Bocci said.
While a significant amount of attention has been paid to how consumption of specific types of media can lead to radicalization, doom scrolling can also have a number of adverse consequences on a person’s mental, physical, and emotional health. Regular, prolonged exposure to negative news can contribute to stress, triggering anxiety and depression-like symptoms such as hopelessness, obsessive rumination, and anguish. Stress can also cause physical symptoms like digestion problems, muscle tension, and chest pain. Similarly, extended amounts of screen time can lead to eye strain, headaches, and sleep disturbances.
Dr. Bocci observed the effects of consuming negative news late into the night in others. She’d see people the following morning experiencing bad moods, feeling unproductive, and lacking motivation.
“They just get in this habit that, over time, can lead to depressive symptoms,” Dr. Bocci explained.
Even consuming negative news at regular intervals throughout the day or scheduling a specific time for consuming negative news can have consequences. Dr. Bocci recalls the early days of COVID-19, when she received the latest updates about the pandemic first thing in the morning.
“My day would start off on a really negative foot because I just exposed myself to all of it,” she said. By the end of the day she would feel better, but she knew that if she continued this pattern it would eventually become a habit. And for some, doom scrolling can lead to addiction to the Internet.
How to Address the Effects of Negative News
Some people feel like they need permission to limit or stop their consumption of bad news because they think they have an obligation to be informed.
“There is absolutely that necessity of giving yourself the grace and leniency to take a step back from news coverage,” Dr. Bocci said.
As a therapist, Dr. Bocci has been taught to put on her own oxygen mask first. It’s advice she offers to everyone, as it enables people to show up as their best selves.
She also encourages people to work through challenges with a therapist. Therapists can help people identify triggers, work through difficult emotions, and practice coping strategies. Dr. Bocci practices cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) with many of her clients. Part of that entails learning to identify and find alternatives to cognitive distortions.
But there also are a number of strategies and practices that individuals can use by themselves to help to mitigate stress and fatigue associated with too much bad news.
Take a Therapeutic Approach
Use thought labeling to label your feelings and let them pass without engagement by grounding yourself in the present moment. Remember the acronym APPLE:
Acknowledge: if you’re experiencing worry, label the feeling as “worry.”
Pause: sit with the feeling of worry.
Pull back: do your best not to indulge the worry.
Let go: allow the worry to pass without engagement.
Explore: connect to the present moment.
Practice putting feelings into words by talking, writing, or even singing about these. This technique, known as affect labeling, has been shown to lessen the severity of feelings.
Identify when you’re in a state that may make you more vulnerable to adverse effects of negative news and “HALT” before continuing to read. Remember the acronym HALT:
Embrace positive psychology, which helps to “find meaning in transcendence and appreciation of joy and beauty,” Dr. Bocci said. Engage in positive psychology by:
- Keeping a gratitude journal
- Savoring positive experiences
- Seeking out emotions such as joy, laughter, and excitement
Make Lifestyle Changes
- Establish a foundation of healthy eating, exercise, and sleep.
- Break the habit of mindlessly checking your phone or using it when bored.
- Practice deep breathing, which has been documented to promote calmness.
- Spend time in nature, which can help improve mental health and sharpen cognition.
- Designate times of day or amounts of time to dedicate to reading news.
- Reconsider starting or ending your day by consuming news.
- Unfollow social media accounts that share negative news.
- Uninstall apps on your phone that provide constant news notifications.
- Let people know if you don’t want to talk about certain news stories.
- Consider a digital detox to make space for healing.
Changing Your News Sources
Individuals may also want to consider whether they need to rethink what types of news outlets they engage with. Sensationalist news sources may be more likely to take an emotional toll on individuals. Signs that a media outlet is engaging in sensationalism include:
- Using emotionally evocative language to induce strong emotions.
- Intentionally leaving out crucial information.
- Misrepresenting or exaggerating information out of context.
- Fear mongering or scapegoating.
- Framing every story as “breaking news.”
- Making use of stereotypes.
- Citing highly partisan, pessimistic, or pseudoscientific sources.
However, the onus is not just on consumers, Dr. Bocci said. The journalism field needs to report responsibly.
“Scaring people, terrifying them, that may boost your numbers and finances, but is that ethical journalism? I don’t believe that it is,” she said.
Consumers can send a message to news companies by being choosy. So before sharing articles or clips, individuals may want to think twice about whether they are contributing to a healthy news environment or adding to a chorus of outrage, dread, and anger.
Created by OnlinePsychology@Pepperdine, the Online Master of Psychology program from Pepperdine University.