The Psychological Impact of Negative News

Negative News can Significantly Affect our Mental Health

Posted Sep 21, 2020

The way that news is reported has changed significantly over the last 10-20 years. Nowadays we can hardly avoid it, many of us actively feel the need to seek it out, and its modern-day tone is increasingly emotive, it’s medium increasingly visual and shocking, and its commentaries increasingly negative and fear-laden. It’s not surprising that there is also growing evidence that negative news can affect our mental health, notably in the form of increased anxiety, depression and acute stress reactions.

The role of the digital age has been significant in shifting the nature of news reporting. Alerts on our mobile phones keep us in direct contact with world events regardless of what we’re doing. As Mark Deuze writes in his book Media Life, the modern world has become one in which the media are ubiquitous, pervasive and cannot be switched off, and this is also true of news, where immediate daily information about world events has become an accepted reality of everyday existence. But a more significant impact of the digital age on news reporting has been the dramatic shift to visual imagery in news items, especially visual imagery contributed by the audience and garnered by journalists from social media.

User-generated images of important world events are now regularly captured on the smartphones of those close to or even directly involved in these events, and this new form of ‘news reality’ began to appear during the Asian tsunami, the 7/7 London underground bombings, and the Boston marathon bombings, developments that effectively allowed the audience to witness such events in what was virtually real-time[1].

Because of developments such as this, media writers such as David Altheide have argued that news has become increasingly visual, with images taken from multiple sources, and presented especially to convey fear, danger, excitement and risk[2]. Such user-generated images permit news broadcasters to present ever more dramatic and shocking images that were either not available or not permissible in earlier times.

For example, in news coverage of the 2015 terrorist attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris, images were made available worldwide of one of the gunmen shooting dead a policeman at point blank range[3]. By 2017, television news coverage of the terrorist attack on Westminster Bridge and the Houses of Parliament did not flinch at showing graphic smartphone-generated images of the injured, the dying, and the dead. The news audience is now effectively being transported to the site of an event by real-time graphic images so that those watching these images become directly connected to the distressing events that are happening and the affect these events generate – “the media does not merely report the scene but is part of the scene and action.”[4]

Given the dramatic virtual proximity the modern viewer has to news events like a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, the suffering caused by wars, famine and pandemics, it’s not surprising that many people viewing these events will develop emotional and affective conditions as if they were physically present. For example, exposure to media coverage of the Boston Marathon bombings in 2013 generated acute stress symptoms in many viewing this news coverage[5], and exposure to images of the 9/11 terrorist attacks on TV also generated post-traumatic stress symptoms in some viewers[6][7]. In addition, research we have conducted also shows that negative news can cause significant mood changes, generating anxiety and depression that subsequently exacerbate the individuals own personal worries and anxieties[8].

It’s not just broadcasting of the graphic visual imagery associated with news events that can generate fears and anxieties; the news media are also guilty of creating Doomsday scenarios and failing to convey the realities of the immeasurably low risk that most of these scenarios pose. One example of this was during the Ebola outbreak in the summer of 2014. While the world media reported the spread of the outbreak in Africa, those news media outside of Africa would invariably speculate on the possibility of Ebola spreading beyond that continent. Magdalena Hodalska, a specialist in the language and anthropology of the media, provides a particular example from the BBC who encouraged it’s viewers to “look at how Ebola might come here: everyday around 25 people arrive at Heathrow from the countries in Africa affected by the virus. We know they will be screened. But let’s imagine someone slipped through the net. One of them could be carrying the virus in their blood, without anyone knowing it. It’s a scary thought. Could I or any of us get Ebola from a stranger?”[9] 

The speculation has already instilled a ‘scary thought’, and it ends with a slight reassurance that its quite hard to catch Ebola, but then immediately afterwards ratchets up the fear once more with ‘the real fear is that it could mutate into a smarter virus. Turning airborne. It could infect with a single sneeze.’[10] No mention of the probability of these scenarios achieving the heady heights of reality, merely a mélange of scary language!

That brings me to more improbable Doomsday scenarios. The powering up of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in 2008 resulted in claims that it would create a ‘black hole’ that would suck, eat, or devour planet Earth, leading one newspaper to state “who’s afraid of black holes?” I suspect that more than a few people were after that headline! Thomas Kronschläger and Eva Sommer have argued that even articles about trivial or improbable threats can serve to fuel public fear about what apocalyptic dangers might be lurking.

The reason: Articles and programmes about improbable dangers, such as being swallowed by a black hole, often give most credence to those supporting the Doomsday scenario, and significantly less exposure to the experts who critique these scenarios[11]. Most people wouldn’t know what a black hole was even if it came straight up the toilet pan, dragged them screaming towards the singularity at the speed of light and ultimately spaghettified them. But the chances of that are very, very remote.

All of this and we still have to throw the growing phenomenon of ‘fake news’ into the mix. The politics of the modern world have polarized significantly in the past decade, and this may also have indirectly increased the willingness to believe so-called fake news because much fake news has a political purpose[12]. Political views are more divided than they’ve been in a generation, with divisive election campaigns in the USA, the Brexit vote in the UK, and the rise of extreme right-wing political groups in major European countries such as Germany and France. The greater the gulf in political beliefs, the more that people will seek information that confirms their beliefs and condemns the beliefs of their opponents, whether that information is true or false.

As columnist Roy Greenslade has argued, in today’s media there is often a lack of distinction between news and comment, especially when news outlets are cynically attempting to broadcast their own heavily angled political views, and news-as-comment is just one step away from fake news[13]. Winning the political argument is all that matters, it’s not important whether the information you garner to support your argument is heavily angled or even sheer fakery. This is because, by our very nature, human beings cannot allow their ingrained political or ideological beliefs to be destroyed by “facts” because for many people those beliefs define them and are a central component of their self-identity. To destroy those beliefs is to effectively destroy the person, so any information that protects these beliefs is valuable, even if it’s fake.

Clearly, whether negative news is sensationalized or emotionalized fact, speculative commentary, or whether it is even mere politically-motivated fakery, it’s psychological impact on the mental health of consumers is becoming increasingly recognized, an effect that is exacerbated as modern-day news becomes something that is increasingly difficult to avoid.

References

[1] Franklin, B, Newszak and News Media, 1997, 4

[2] Kavka (2008) Reality television, affect and intimacy. London: Palgrave MacMillan.

[3] Allan S (2014) Witnessing in crisis: Photo-reportage of terror attacks in Boston and London. Media, War & Conflict, 7, No.2.

[4] Altheide D (2014) Media Edge: Media logic and social reality. New York: Peter Lang.

[5] Jukes S (2016) News in the digital age: What does it mean for media literacy? http://eprints.bournemouth.ac.uk/23307/

[6] Butler J (2015) Notes toward a performative theory of assembly. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[7] Holman EA et al. (2013) Media’s role in broadcasting acute stress following the Boston Marathon bombings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1316265110

[8] Piotrowski CS & Brannen SJ (2002) Exposure, threat appraisal, and lost confidence as predictors of PTSD symptoms following September 11, 2001. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 72, 476-485.

[9] Davey GCL (2018) The Anxiety Epidemic. Robinson.

[10] BBC, Ebola: BBC Documentary.

[11] Hodalska M (2016) Ebola Virus Kills the Other, but Anytime It May Land Here: Media Coverage of an African Plague, [w:] There’s More to Fear than Fear Itself: Fears and Anxieties in the 21st Century, (eds.) Selina E. M. Doran, Bethan Michael and Izabela Dixon, Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, s. 123-135.

[12] Kronschläger T & Sommer E (2016) ConCERNs: An interdisciplinary analysis of the fear discourse connected with the implementation of the LHC at CERN. [w:] There’s More to Fear than Fear Itself: Fears and Anxieties in the 21st Century, (eds.) Selina E. M. Doran, Bethan Michael and Izabela Dixon, Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press.

[13] Johnston WM & Davey GCL (1997) The psychological impact of negative TV news bulletins: The catastrophizing of personal worries. British Journal of Psychology, 88, 85-91.

[14] http://www.theverge.com/2014/10/22/7028983/fake-news-sites-are-using-facebook-to-spread-ebola-panic

[15] Weeks BE (2015) Emotions, partisanship, and misperceptions: How anger and anxiety moderate the effect of partisan bias on susceptibility to political misinformation. Journal of Communication, 65, 699-719.

[16] Cassam Q (2019) Conspiracy theories. Polity Books.

[17] https://www.theguardian.com/media/commentisfree/2017/oct/09/how-a-blurring-of-fact-and-comment-kicked-open-the-door-to-fake-news-roy-greenslade

1] Allan S (2014) Witnessing in crisis: Photo-reportage of terror attacks in Boston and London. Media, War & Conflict, 7, No.2.

[2] Altheide D (2014) Media Edge: Media logic and social reality. New York: Peter Lang.

[3] Jukes S (2016) News in the digital age: What does it mean for media literacy? http://eprints.bournemouth.ac.uk/23307/

[4] Butler J (2015) Notes toward a performative theory of assembly. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

[5] Holman EA et al. (2013) Media’s role in broadcasting acute stress following the Boston Marathon bombings. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, doi: 10.1073/pnas.1316265110

[6] Piotrowski CS & Brannen SJ (2002) Exposure, threat appraisal, and lost confidence as predictors of PTSD symptoms following September 11, 2001. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 72, 476-485.

[7] Davey GCL (2018) The Anxiety Epidemic. Robinson.

[8] Johnston WM & Davey GCL (1997) The psychological impact of negative TV news bulletins: The catastrophizing of personal worries. British Journal of Psychology, 88, 85-91.

[9] BBC, Ebola: BBC Documentary.

[10] Hodalska M (2016) Ebola Virus Kills the Other, but Anytime It May Land Here: Media Coverage of an African Plague, [w:] There’s More to Fear than Fear Itself: Fears and Anxieties in the 21st Century, (eds.) Selina E. M. Doran, Bethan Michael and Izabela Dixon, Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press, s. 123-135.

[11] Kronschläger T & Sommer E (2016) ConCERNs: An interdisciplinary analysis of the fear discourse connected with the implementation of the LHC at CERN. [w:] There’s More to Fear than Fear Itself: Fears and Anxieties in the 21st Century, (eds.) Selina E. M. Doran, Bethan Michael and Izabela Dixon, Oxford: Inter-Disciplinary Press.

[12] Cassam Q (2019) Conspiracy theories. Polity Books.

[13] https://www.theguardian.com/media/commentisfree/2017/oct/09/how-a-blurring-of-fact-and-comment-kicked-open-the-door-to-fake-news-roy-greenslade