Since I arrived in Nepal, I have been pondering the effect of the news media on people’s wellbeing. My first few months in my new life here included a deliberate downtime from the media both on and offline. This radio silence mixed with a programme of exercise, meditation and healthy eating engendered a profound sense of wellbeing. Sabbatical over, the time came to get back to work, which brought with it a necessary reengagement with the news media, as well as a wealth of iDevices to more easily feed my cravings for news, news, news. After the hiatus, however, I noticed how reincorporating the news into my daily life affected my sense of wellbeing. I noticed the overwhelming negativity; the focus on and manipulation of the human fear function; the massive disparity between the news diet we are fed, populated with evil deeds and bloody conflict, and my daily life filled with a healthy mixture of great, good and sometimes bad. So, if the world I experience daily comprises a balance of factors – good, bad and indifferent – why then does the news media portray such a radically different vision of forces in the world?
‘If it bleeds, it leads’ is the oft-cited mantra of the news industry (and a money making industry it most certainly is!) The big question this adage prompts for me isn’t about the news media itself, but rather about us, the news consumers: why do we need the blood, the gore, the fear to prompt and define our consumption of world events. The answers are manifold but it has become abundantly clear to me that the manipulated and skewed vision of the world we are being fed is unhealthy for our bodies, our minds and the societies we live in.
I was always shocked when people admitted to me that they never watched the news or read (broadsheet) newspapers. Ever since school, we have been told that consuming news is a democratic duty, the check-and-balance for corruption, the marker of the rounded and intelligent mind. And, of course, investigative journalism plays a vital role. One only need live in a country like Nepal to see the negative effects an incompetent and ineffective news media plays in failing to detect and deter corruption. Considered journalism, investigative journalism, journalism that makes you think is of the utmost importance. But this is not at all what we are getting. Our news is packaged as snapshot thrillers, designed to engage our fear responses, to make us feel unsafe, to make us worry about the future. The news is the prime source for people *feeling* insecure in the world.
The Japanese tsunami and Fukuyama incident played out while I was offline. I knew this terrible event had occurred and I considered very deeply the implications for those affected – I was profoundly moved to know that this had happened. Did I, therefore, lose something by not having a ‘breaking news’ rolling horror film of devastation broadcast on my television and You Tube? If I had seen all this footage – bereaved families crying, waves impacting, real-life stories of destroyed lives – would I have felt more sympathy? Absolutely not – my empathy was already engaged to fully consider the suffering these events entailed. How could it not be.
What purposes then for all these images and recounted tales of misery and destruction? The simple answer is entertainment, social control and profit margins. On the one hand, the modern media’s prime motivation is selling advertising and increasing shareholder value (or in the case of the BBC, maintaining viewing figures sufficient to compete with commercial news media and thereby retain its status). On the other hand, consumers now demand news provided in the form of gossip: ribcage nudges of shocking disaster, hand-cupped whispers of missing child hunts, watercooler banter about sleazy murders. Our news has been degraded to the level of ‘circle of shame’ articles about celebrity sweat patches. It is telling that Britain’s most popular online news source, The Daily Mail, offers shock-horror headlines adjacent to titillating pictures of some Z-lister’s visible tit tape.
More worrying still is the role today’s news media plays in stoking fear: fear of mortgage rate increases, fear of child rapists, fear of Hungarians/Romanians, fear of terrorists, fear of terrorists, fear of terrorists… It is always very important to consider what the purpose actually is of all this mining of the human fear complex. Apart from thrilling us with fear in the manner of funfair rides, it also acts as a powerful means of social control. Societies in fear, neighbours fearful of each other, communities fearful of ‘the other,’ peoples fearful of other peoples, nations fearful of other nations. This climate of fear makes it vastly easier to enact unpalatable policy, to neuter real debate, to pass off ludicrous claims as truth (e.g. Iraq WMDs, etc.), to make people accept the unacceptable. Governments know full well that fear is the best and strongest way to motivate conformity and passivity – it has always been thus. But, importantly, now consider: who is it that is feeding us all this fear?
This may seem highly cynical, even outlandish, but I am not a conspiracy theorist. Rather, I am interested in how the mind works and in what makes it work more beneficially for oneself and the world. What I now understand is that consuming soundbites of misery, constantly feeding our minds with snippets of rare and ugly misfortune is a highly deleterious act for ourselves and others. And so I have cancelled my many subscriptions to news feeds, I have deleted my news apps, I have emptied my newstand. In so doing, I am removing this unending diatribe of negativity from my daily existence.
Does this then represent me sticking my head in the sand in the light of world events? Certainly not. I will continue to seek information about world events but in other forms: considered comments and analyses; news reviews that deliver well-rounded debate; journal articles that seek to extract the truth about current events. I will find mechanisms to ensure I hear about world events without the corporate and government filters imposed by today’s news media. I will also remember to factor into my critical analysis and longform consumption of world events, the fact that for every Jimmy Saville there are many hundreds of amazing people I know who work to protect, educate and provide loving homes for children. For every awful, self-centred perpetrator of bad deeds, there is the multitude of altruists who define their lives by how much they can help and nurture others: people working to bring water, clean fuels and education to their isolated villages; vegan reforestation projects seeking to create new social models for near-to-zero environmental impact; therapists and teachers dedicated to growing human potentials; animal rescue volunteers; good parents; strangers who share a heartfelt smile.
So adieu “news”. It has been lots of sordid fun. But as with any unhealthy addiction, I have become aware of your negative effect on my mind and on the world. I will now seek more balanced information and I will ensure to ground any view of the world presented by others in the reality I see around me: good, bad and otherwise. It is the truest thing to say that we create our own reality. And, as with food for our body, we must be very very careful about what and how we feed our minds.
This fact reminds me of a Cherokee Indian’s tale about the battle between two wolves that live inside us. He said:
‘My son, the battle is between two wolves inside us all.
One wolf is Evil. It is anger, envy, jealousy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego.
The other wolf is Good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth and compassion.’
The grandson thought about it for a minute and then asked his grandfather: ‘But which wolf wins?’
The old Cherokee simply replied, ‘the one you feed.’