This just in: consuming mainstream news might just make you more depressed.
Film at 11.
America is sort of a depressive nation. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, about 10 percent of adult Americans (18 and over) will experience a depressive disorder in any given year. That’s about 18 million people, with nearly twice as many women experiencing depressive disorders as men. There’s good evidence that the pervasiveness of negativity in mainstream news media, print, online and visual, is a non-trivial contributing factor to this phenomenon.
Let me come clean about one thing: I don’t own a TV. I also don’t have any newsmagazine or newspaper subscriptions, and I don’t read web-based news. Once in a while I’ll pick up a New York Times or Wall Street Journal or this little rag called the Vanguard when I’m on campus and looking to kill some time. But I’m not looking for news: I’m looking for financial and investment information or pertinent local campus news that might affect me. And in sum, I’m a pretty happy guy in part, though not exclusively, because of this.
I wasn’t always so news-avoidant. When I worked as an ice cream man I devoured an entire Wall Street Journal every single day. Around September of 2001 I read a lot of news online. When I was a kid, I read the Oregonian every day. Well, at the very least I read the funnies.
Nowadays, I do my best to avoid news of every type. You might find this preposterous and ignorant. How can I be a well-informed, responsible, educated citizen, and a student of Oregon’s largest public university, literally an agent of the largest liberal bastion of critical thinking in the entire state, and not stay aware of current events? It’s a ridiculous proposition. Clearly, I’m just an ignorant mug who can’t see further than the end of his own nose and isn’t sophisticated enough to want to. Why would I do such a thing?
Because the news is uniformly negative, that’s why.
Bullhonkey, you say. The news reflects the state of our world. To avoid it is to avoid being
informed and engaged in our world.
Au contraire! Let’s take a quick survey, shall we? If I fire up Mozilla Firefox right now, there’s a
little button I can click that says “latest headlines.” Let’s take a look at what’s happening in the world right now: “Hunt for Bali bomber’s identities.” “Crises talks on Turkey’s EU bid.” “Tour boat capsizes in NY lake.” “Palestinians clash in Gaza city.” “Typhoon hits southern China.” “German CDU looks set for a boost.” “US hunts Al-Qaida in Iraq.”
I had to read through six stories about bombs, drowning, clashes, crises and typhoons before I even got to a story that had a semi-positive word in the headline, and the story I read was a neutral piece about political parties in Germany that included somebody dying.
This phenomenon is not relegated to web reports, either. Online news, being the slick-haired, iPod-toting bastard stepchild of print journalism, is merely reflecting the prevailing trends in both offline print and broadcast journalism.
Case in point: according to an InSite survey of 250,000 viewers across the nation, fewer people
watch local television news than ever before. Between 10 and 33 percent of those surveyed no longer watch local news shows. People are also less choosy about which station they watch, while at the same time having less station loyalty and station satisfaction than ever. All three figures have declined steadily for the past three years.
About 40 percent of those surveyed cited the balance between “good” and “bad” news as their primary source of dissatisfaction, and 30 percent reported their local news coverage to be “irritating” and/or “intentionally misleading.” Twenty-seven percent of respondents wished their local station would stop underestimating their intelligence.
Perhaps John Fiske, writing in 1987, said it best: “‘The basic definition of news as factual information that its viewers need in order to be able to participate in their society gives us only half the story.”
Part of the problem with TV news is that what qualifies as news is defined as that which departs from “the norm” and disrupts the idealized state of peace and harmony we are all supposed to be living in. In this way, news programs hinge on an ideological construction of reality, rather than reality itself.
A rape, for example, is presented alongside a tale of government philandering. Both stories are lumped into the category of “the abnormal” that departs from underlying and subtle proscriptive normative statements of how the world ought to be, but clearly, if we are to believe the news, is not.
Broadcast journalism may be a wholly constructed reality (as Fiske competently argues in “Television Culture”), but print journalism, online or off, has the same challenges. The adage “if it bleeds it leads,” comical as it may seem today, exists for a reason.
Working on a newspaper staff, I know first-hand how challenging it is to present news objectively, without pandering or condescending. I’m fully opposed to the assumption that we, as reporters, can ever fully remove our biases from what we write and thus, I heartily endorse the divulging of all relevant biases alongside the presentation of “the news.”
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy the intellectual process of digging through a Times story and trying to figure out the author’s political leanings, but this exercise should be an indulgence, not a requirement.
Part of the problem with reporting news is that we, as humans, have biases: and no matter the medium, our biases tend to seep through our best attempts at objectively reporting “just the facts.” This is precisely why I wanted to write for the opinion section of this paper, and why I have tongue-in-cheek discussions with my colleagues on the news side, suggesting they desert their dry, factual articles and come fly their opinions proudly with me in this section.
Hey, I do what I can.