Today we’ll be talking about ‘doom scrolling’ and our addiction to negative news, even though we know how bad it is for the psyche.
Despite complaining about the doom and gloom fed to us through the media, we can’t quite get enough of it. Psychological studies have shown that people’s brains have a bias towards negative or sensational news. So even today, in the time of CovidNSW – The Rising, we leap upon the latest bad news – Gladys vs Dan, etc.
It seems to matter not if we (a) don’t live in NSW (b) have had our first or second shot or (c) have that Aussie character trait that says “F*** you, I’m fireproof.”
One of the drivers of the news-consuming business is what’s known in social media as FOMO (Fear of Missing Out).
News consumption has changed so much from the 1990s through to 2021 it is hard to make comparisons. We’ve always had the tabloid press and its TV equivalent and their blitz, ban, shock horror headlines.
Those of you who have a smart phone and/or a tablet will know the phrase ‘doom-scrolling’. This describes interminable flicking from one disastrous story to another, with few opportunities to absorb positive news.
The bad news is dominated by those daily 11am briefings when the Premier of the day reports the latest Covid active cases. Do we really need to know? Sure, New South Wales has a recurrence of Covid, and this time it is the highly contagious Delta variation.
But do we really have to tune in to the live press conferences on morning TV? I mean, who does that?
Well, probably many of the 11,682 people who told the Census in 2016 they use Auslan (sign language) to communicate.
Since the media began doing live crosses and 24/7 coverage of disasters (floods, bushfires, pandemics), an Auslan interpreter has been part of State government live press conferences. This may well be because Deaf Australia is an influential lobby group. This year, they have convinced the Australian Bureau of Statistics to include Auslan as a language spoken at home. So the 2021 Census may eventually reveal that the number of people who use and understand sign language is more like 20,000. I’m a bit fascinated so sometimes mute the audio and try to figure out what’s happening by watching the Auslan dude. It’s a skill. (The sign for a coal miner was a revelation. Ed)
While the 24/7 news cycle is wholly preoccupied with Covid news (with an occasional glance over to Afghanistan), some media outlets are starting to provide respite.
The ABC recently started including three or four stories at the end of its online newsfeed labelled ‘Good News’.
This is where I found out about a tiny community in South Australia (Venus Bay) which planned to buy a 100 acre block and restore it to wetlands and bush. At the time the story was posted (June) locals were prepared to put in $1,500 each.
The alternative is the land will be sold to a developer and become a golf course. (Remember when Maleny residents raised enough money to buy the block near Obi Obi creek but the owners reneged on the deal? Ed)
There is absolutely no downside to the Venus Bay story (apart for the developer, who may not get to fulfil his plans for the land).
The lesson is, as you are doom scrolling through the ABC’s online newsfeed (Police get tough on anarchists planning second Sydney lockdown protest), eventually you will get to Good News. In fact, you can customise the newsfeed so Good News is elevated to the top.
It’s not hard to find uplifting news stories. But it is much harder to convince news editors to give them a run.
Once, when I had aspirations to be an education reporter, I suggested we should send a reporter and photographer out to Chinchilla. Why? Well, four Year 12 students had received an OP1, the top academic score in the land.
What a great human interest story, I said, particularly if one or more of these kids was from a humble background. But no, at the time (and maybe still), education stories tended to focus on the negative.
Sometimes I wonder what happened to those four brainy kids. My idea of journalism would have been to write that story, then revisit it, 10 or 20 years down the track.
The Guardian’s Stephen Pinker found that the key problem is that positive and negative news stories unfold on different timelines. The news is now more like a play by play sports commentary (Ed: with similar inanities uttered at inappropriate times).
“Whether or not the world really is getting worse, the nature of news will interact with the nature of cognition to make us think that it is.” Pinker wrote in 2017.
“Bad things can happen quickly, but good things aren’t built in a day, and as they unfold, they will be out of sync with the news cycle.”
He quoted peace researcher John Galtung who opined that if a newspaper came out once every 50 years, it would ignore celebrity gossip and political scandals and instead report “momentous global changes such as the increase in life expectancy.”
As things stand now, plane crashes always make the news. Car crashes, which kill far more people, almost never do. Likewise, tornadoes and cyclones make for better television, even if they kill far fewer people than, say, asthma.
As ‘The Conversation’ found, multiple studies have shown that too much exposure to bad news can aggravate depression and anxiety. It can even bring on post traumatic stress syndrome in vulnerable people.
This is particularly so after major crises such as 9/11, the Australian bushfires or the Covid pandemic, where online news consumers can view stories and videos over and over.
The Guardian’s assertion that the media exaggerate news events for dramatic purposes can be illustrated by events in Sydney last weekend. The Australian media provided hyperbolic reports about people flouting the Sydney lockdown rules. While we who follow the advice are suitably outraged, She Who Also Doom Scrolls estimates that the 3,500 people who attended the ‘freedom’ rally represent just 0.07% of Greater Sydney’s population.
As part of what appears to be a coordinated global protest, people also gathered in Brisbane’s Botanic Gardens. Wait, we’re not in lockdown! Oh, you mean some of them believe the Covid vaccine is a de-population plot?
In France, President Macron has vowed to crack down on people who refuse to be vaccinated or protest about lockdowns.
Macron, if you remember, is something of a hard-liner. He was speaking after 160,000 people protested in France about a controversial new Covid pass that allows people who have been vaccinated to visit restaurants. France has also made it mandatory for health workers to be vaccinated.
Many marchers shouted ‘liberty’, saying that the government shouldn’t tell them what to do.
Macron urged national unity and asked, “What is your freedom worth if you say to me ‘I don’t want to be vaccinated,’ but tomorrow you infect your father, your mother or myself?”
I doubt that any of us will change our media consumption habits as a result of my asking the question. Nevertheless, here’s a few links to happy cat-rescued-from-a-tree stories and this unforgettable satirical song (Good News Week), by Hedgehoppers Anonymous.
Don’t shoot the messenger.