Is the news making us unwell?

3 March 2021

7:00 PM

3 March 2021

7:00 PM

Since the start of the pandemic I’ve been observing friends and family and their reactions to the virus. Broadly speaking they fall into two groups; at one end of the spectrum there are the insouciant, apparently unconcerned about a viral threat they think has been exaggerated; at the other are the corona-obsessives who have avidly consumed every scrap of information they can find – of which there has been no shortage. They’ve become minutely informed on everything from T-cells to lateral-flow tests; their lives have been subsumed under a tsunami of technical information.

Of the two groups it is the wilfully ignorant who seem happier. The well-informed, who have become armchair Covid experts, have not found serenity – on the contrary their expertise has made them fearful and unhappy. And I think there’s a general lesson to be drawn: too much news is bad for you.

Many mental health professionals have been warning that we can expect an upsurge in mental illness because of the pandemic. In fact, they say, we are probably already experiencing one but because people are staying in their own homes and not contacting their doctors it’s a hidden epidemic. They ascribe this – surely correctly – to the effects of lockdown and the social isolation it entails. But what is less often cited is the negative effect of the daily deluge of virus information.

In its 2020 review, which only covered the first part of the pandemic, The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that the coronavirus crisis had substantially increased news consumption from mainstream media in all six countries where research was conducted. A very natural response because people wanted to understand what was happening. The BBC, for a while, rediscovered its primary purpose and the true meaning of public service broadcasting. When faced with a new and alarming public health emergency the Corporation threw itself into providing the information people needed to comprehend the nature of the threat and what they could do to protect themselves.

But, after the novelty wore off, and when in truth there was little new that could usefully be said, the amount of time the BBC devoted to all things Covid, far from easing off, increased. This is a problem familiar to anyone who has worked in news: once a story gathers sufficient momentum very quickly you get saturation coverage and overkill. Every bulletin, every day, concentrates on the one big story. And this inevitably raises anxiety levels.

This is not mere hearsay; in November researchers at the American Sociological Association published a paper looking at the effects of news consumption during the pandemic on people’s sense of well-being. They concluded that increased consumption of news would lead to heightened anxiety levels and an increased (and not necessarily proportionate) sense of threat from the virus. The field work for the study was done in March last year so there is a strong possibility that this effect will have been exacerbated as the pandemic continued.

Theirs is not the first study of the potential damage that consuming large amounts of daily news can do. Go online and it is very easy to find reports of academic research suggesting that too much news damages our sense of well-being. Some psychologists argue that exposing ourselves to a constant parade of bad news focusing on tragic deaths, bloody conflicts and economic problems wears us down; we are being asked by the broadcasters to empathise and be concerned about distant situations which we cannot possibly affect however much we care. The result of this frustrated empathy is that we end up feeling bad about the world and ourselves.

So the question is what to do? Clearly we cannot expect the news providers themselves to voluntarily limit the amount of news they generate; it would be against their nature to do so. The remedy lies in our hands and what is required here is an understanding that bingeing on news, rather like bingeing on sugar, is bad for your health.

Most of us are familiar with the acquaintance who announces, often with a misplaced sense of pride ‘I’m a bit of a news addict’. Apart from the fact that very often these people turn out to be crashing bores they are likely to be doing their mental health no good at all – like all addictions an obsessive interest in the daily news warps the personality. However, another piece of research from the Reuters Institute published last October turned up an intriguing fact; whereas the consumption of news rose sharply at the beginning of the pandemic, after a few months this effect wore off. Furthermore, what the researchers term ‘news avoidance’ rose somewhat; about one in five of us now go out of our way notto listen, watch or read the news. An instance perhaps of when ignorance is bliss – or at least a prophylactic against depression.

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