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The Problem with the Media

Posted 44 Days Ago by Gareth Ogden

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I can’t help but think that in our societal battle for better mental health, we’re overlooking something hugely important.

And it’s time we took a moment to think very carefully about our part in it. By ‘it’ I mean ‘the media’ - and I think the problem is actually us.

In the last week, I’ve seen a surge of social media content calling for the boycott of major newspapers and even the introduction of a law which will criminalise something defined as ‘journalistic bullying’ and harassment (although I’m not entirely sure what that means). This comes as a response to the tragic news that Caroline Flack took her own life. Naturally, the shock of such news provokes a range of reactions; from deep sadness, right through to anger. It’s perhaps from the far side of this continuum where you see a public urge to find someone (or something) responsible, and many seem to be pointing the finger in a very specific direction – ‘the media’. In this case, it’s the tabloid press specifically - for a restless spate of negative attention aimed at Caroline during which time she lost her job. On some level, I’m on board with the outrage. But here’s the thing, the tabloid media has capitalised on a simple premise for decades, an idea that we are largely complicit in – the negativity bias. The notion that, even when of equal intensity, things of a more negative nature (e.g. unpleasant thoughts, emotions, or social interactions) have a greater effect on one's psychological state than neutral or positive things. In other words, we’re drawn to this horror, and that’s why they write it.

This goes deeper though. According to a 2019 study by Ofcom, only 38% of adults use newspapers as their main source of news, the majority of which are over 65. This means that most news, specifically about celebrities (you know the kind, that adores them one minute and vilifies them the next), is accessed online through search engines and social media. When it comes to young people and the very same topic, only 6% of their news consumption comes from print press, the bulk is made up of online content.

What’s my point? This garbage is powered by an almost limitless source of fuel… us. There was a saying that I remember as a kid – today’s news is tomorrow’s chip paper. At the time this seemed intuitively true, but it certainly isn’t anymore. The problem with ‘news’ now, at least for those in it, is that it sticks -  it really sticks. And all the while you can see the outpouring of public opinion, all passing judgment as if they themselves are morally flawless and free from regret. This, of course, is all set against the backdrop of the filter phenomenon. This is the world that social media in particular has lured us into. A world that offers everyone the chance to showcase nothing but their material wealth, their best life, their highlight reel. So, whilst we sit there thinking everyone else has got a stress-free life (because their Ibiza pictures look amazing), we quietly agonise over our imperfections, limitations, and general lack of progress. Imagine having no immunity to this, and belonging to an industry where all of the above applies on steroids? Then imagine screwing up, and standing by to watch what seems like your whole life crash around you. ‘Whole life’ you say? Bit dramatic isn’t it - it’s just a bit of bad press? Is it though? That headline isn’t wrapping chips anymore, it’s being circulated over and over, each time with more opinions, more judgment, more hate, more lies. So, you see this is my problem, when we say ‘the media’. Who are we actually talking about? It seems to me that the collective ‘we’ has all the power here, and the answer is (or at least could be) surprisingly simple:

 

1. Stop Sharing

We stop sharing ‘news’ about people that is inflammatory or hateful. Full stop. No exceptions, even politicians. Unless we want to become that behaviour that we hate, this must become culturally unacceptable. I’m not advocating oversensitivity here, where people are immune from criticism. I’m talking about a norm where we discuss bad ideas using evidence, instead of just labeling or criticising people.

 

2. Stop Judging

We stop judging people by a standard we can’t authentically hold ourselves accountable to. I routinely see people calling politicians bullies, and then the same people circulating memes of celebrities containing 4 letter words.

 

3. Silence Toxic Media

Rigorously fact check anything you consider sharing. Report anything that could be contributing to the spread of lies, particularly if about a person. News outlets pay a huge amount of money to appear on your newsfeed as sponsored content. Then they charge other companies to advertise on their pages. The more clicks they get, the more they can charge for their own ad space - and if you share their content, you’re giving them exposure free of charge. Put simply, the news outlets buy your attention and then sell it on to the next highest bidder. This is an important source of revenue for them, so they will do their absolute best to get your interest. Spreading fear…misleading or just plain lying…whatever it takes. Your clicks and shares are the heartbeat of their business. If we stop feeding the monster, it will have to go away.

 

The effect of social media on our mental health has become so well documented it’s as though we’ve grown to accept the price. The question is whether the price should be so high - and whether we’re  motivated enough to play a part in changing it?

 

References:

Ofcom Report Wikipedia - Negativity Bias

Tags:

Social Media Mental Health Negativity Bias Caroline Flack

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