The Impact of Bad News


A terrifying jihadist group is conquering and butchering its way across big swaths of Iraq and Syria. Planes are falling out of the sky on what seems like a weekly basis. Civilians are being killed in massive numbers in the Israel-Gaza conflict. Others are falling prey to Ebola in West Africa. The world, in short, is falling apart.

That’s how it feels, at least, to those of us who sit at a blessed remove from the death and destruction, but who are watching every bloody moment of it via cable news and social media. It raises an important question: In an age when we can mainline bad news 24/7 if we so choose, what’s the psychological impact of all this exposure to tragedy at a distance?…

Before getting into the effects of all this, it’s important to state what a steady diet of bad news won’t do. It won’t give you PTSD, anxiety, or depression if you weren’t predisposed toward those conditions, McNaughton-Cassill said. Causation is tricky here: It may simply be that depressed or anxious people are more likely to seek out bad news, and bad news could in turn worsen the effects of these conditions in certain ways.

But those of us without mental illness could be affected in different, subtler ways that could have a major long-term impact. “When I’ve done studies and people watch coverage of, say, 9/11, they don’t then meet criteria for depression in the DSM,” she said. “But if you ask them how they feel about the world, what they end up with is this malaise: ‘Everything’s kinda bad’ and ‘Why should I vote? It’s not gonna help’ and ‘I could donate money, but there’s just gonna be another kid who’s starving next week.’”…

In addition to a burgeoning sense of helplessness, she said, cognitive shortcuts triggered by the news can also lead us to gradually see the world as a darker and darker place, chipping away at certain optimistic tendencies.

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Weekly Meanderings, 17 March 2018

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