A global pandemic that has killed millions of people around the world is frightening for many people, especially in the early stages when little is known about how to prevent infection. and the media has the task of telling the truth, however unpleasant it may be. but in some cases, the way they present the facts can be jarring to consumers.
dr. goali saedi bocci, a licensed clinical psychologist and adjunct professor at the 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,” he explained.
dr. Bocci has published several books on the toll that social media and digital devices can have on mental health, including The Digital Detox Sledgehammer and The Social Media Workbook for Teens. she notes that “being exposed to such harsh media really raises existential concerns for people.” and many people experience bad news fatigue, feeling drained, overwhelmed, demotivated, hopeless, and exhausted.
There are a multitude of factors that play a role in the level of news fatigue people experience.
examining decades of the new york times and the archives of bbc monitoring, which reports on the world’s media, reveals that the tone of the news has been on a downward trajectory since 1945, but even in the midst of a trend descending, US mainstream news coverage of covid-19 was not just negative; was exceptionally negative.
as reported by the new york times, approximately 87% of US domestic media coverage of covid in 2020 was negative, a marked difference from international media, which was 51% negative; US regional media, which was 53 percent negative; and scientific journals, which were negative by 64 percent. That overlapped with coverage of the Trump administration, which received the most negative news coverage of any recent presidential administration. And just two years later, skyrocketing inflation, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continue to stress Americans.
pew research center reports that 8 in 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, like Facebook, knowingly promote negative news.
Adding fuel to the fire, studies consistently show that more than half of news readers only share the headline. headlines are designed to quickly communicate information and attract readers. they can also be emotionally evocative.
“once emotions are triggered in that way, people don’t always question logic,” says dr. Bocci said.
The human tendency to get carried away by emotions can lead to a functional hijacking of the mind, he explained. In this state, people are susceptible to cognitive distortions: irrational thought patterns that create a false picture of reality, which can result in poor decision-making and feelings of panic and despair that can cause or worsen anxiety and depression.
A cognitive bias is a systemic and unconscious flaw in reasoning that affects the way people interpret the world and make decisions. Cognitive biases differ from cognitive distortions because they are part of the way someone thinks, whereas a cognitive distortion is caused by strong feelings of panic and despair, or they 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 “bad world syndrome,” a supposed cognitive bias caused by too much negative media exposure that it makes people feel like the world is inescapably bad, leading to emotional distress and even depression.
Other biases that can affect media consumers include: the negativity bias, which is the propensity of some people to react more strongly to negative news; availability bias, which is when people believe that 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.
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, accounting for approximately 52.9 million people in 2020. Anxiety and depression, for example, make some people susceptible to having a ” sticky mind,” where people become “stuck” in periods of obsessive rumination. Others may seek out negative news to confirm their concerns, a coping mechanism known as “monitoring.”
There is also a phenomenon called “concept displacement”. increased news coverage of traumatic events or topics can trigger involuntary traumatic 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 see trigger stories more often.
Consuming negative news after negative news without even realizing how much time has passed is known as “fatal displacement.” doom scrolling can change a person’s perception of the world without their realizing it.
“when you go down the rabbit hole, you don’t start to see how you’re seeing everything through this lens that could very well have been constructed by media sources,” says dr. Bocci said.
While much attention has been paid to how the 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 and prolonged exposure to negative news can contribute to stress, causing anxiety and depression-like symptoms such as hopelessness, obsessive rumination, and distress. stress can also cause physical symptoms such as digestion problems, muscle tension, and chest pain. Similarly, spending a lot of time in front of a screen can lead to eyestrain, headaches, and sleep disturbances.
“they just pick up this habit which, over time, can lead to depressive symptoms,” says dr. Bocci explained.
even consuming negative news at regular intervals throughout the day or scheduling a specific time to consume negative news can have consequences. dr bocci remembers the early days of covid-19, when he would receive the latest updates on the pandemic first thing in the morning.
“My day started off on a really negative foot because I was exposed to everything,” she said. at 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, scrolling doom can lead to internet addiction.
Some people feel they need permission to limit or stop their consumption of bad news because they believe they have an obligation to be informed.
“There is absolutely a need to give yourself the grace and leniency to step back from news coverage,” says dr. Bocci said.
As a therapist, Dr. Bocci has been taught to put on his own oxygen mask first. it’s advice she offers to everyone, as it allows people to be their best selves.
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 his clients. part of that involves learning to identify and find alternatives to cognitive distortions.
But there are also a number of strategies and practices that people can use on their own to help mitigate the stress and fatigue associated with too much bad news.
People may also want to consider whether they need to rethink what types of media they interact with. sensational news sources are more likely to have an emotional effect on people. Signs that a media outlet is sensationalizing include:
however, the responsibility is not only with the consumers, dr. Bocci said. the field of journalism needs to report responsibly.
“Scare people, terrify them, that can increase your numbers and your finances, but is that ethical journalism? I don’t think it is,” she said.
Consumers can send news companies a message by being selective. therefore, before sharing articles or clips, people may want to think twice about whether they are contributing to a healthy news environment or joining a chorus of outrage, fear and anger.
created by onlinepsychology@pepperdine, pepperdine university’s online psychology master’s program.