Our Thirst For Bad News

Why are we increasingly thirsty for bad news, and what are its effects on us as a nation, as a culture and as individuals? That’s the topic for my blog post.

It’s natural to like bad news about our enemies and to dislike bad news about ourselves, sometimes to the point of blaming the messenger. The latter is a sure way to remain ignorant, and it’s harmful if the message is important, as in affairs of state. We should not be more interested in how news feels than in knowledge. More generally, we tend to enjoy hearing reports of bad news more than reports of good news. In other words, we have a bias favoring bad news. Psychologists confirm this. A 2020 study from Psy.Post.org says it’s a world-wide attitude. And Psychology Today explains why – in a 2016 article that includes this thought, slightly edited:

‘Our capacity to weigh negative input so heavily evolved for a good reason—to keep us out of harm’s way. From the dawn of human history our very survival depended on our skill at dodging danger. The brain developed
systems that made it impossible for us not to react to danger and thus, hopefully, respond to it.’ In short, it’s the Fight, Flight or Freeze response. It’s not just with primitive people running from dangerous animals. Modern partnerships – public or domestic – react the same when one party attacks the other.

Salespersons, Ambulance Chasers, Scammers, Fiction Writers, and news sources know this bais, and use it for personal and group advantage. From giant corporate world-wide media (papers, radio, film, TV etc.) to individuals with personal accounts on Instagram, TikTok or Snapchat, there is increasing coverage about violence, protests, wars and natural disasters. Why is this? It’s a complex issue, and an old one. Obituaries are examples of bad news we enjoy. The first of these was in Ancient Rome, around 59 BC, in a ‘Daily Events’ journal, published by order of Julius Caesar! Of course those obituaries were about ‘important’ people; that’s still the case.

Not all media are grim. The public can find entertainment there too  – some melodramatic and some lighthearted. Upgrades of ‘old’ TV series keep reappearing, and still have audiences, although smartphones and streaming are replacing the big screens, at theaters and even in homes. In the Melodrama category: General Hospital, Days of Our Lives, Young & Restless. In the Lighthearted category: Who wants to be a Millionaire? Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, America’s Got Talent, et al. From what I’ve seen, Social Media products range from eye candy and shallow thinking to intentional hate mongering, and unlimited vulgarity. But my experience of these is limited by choice, so what do I know? And no, I’m not against free speech.

There’s no doubt that too much bad news is also bad for our health. Even so, it’s easy to get the habit of looking for it. It’s offered on all the popular media because they know what we like. Those who surveil our on-line habits, can target us with more of the same. It’s a vicious circle!  And it can reach the level of a dangerous addiction. Some people start DoomScrolling, and sources abound which are eager to feed that habit. A University of Florida article from January ’22 describes the origin and effects of DoomScrolling. I saw this proud claim posted on a street sign a year ago: ‘We practically invented DoomScrolling’. They’re an organization on Twitter, to which I did not subscribe!

What’s the right way to treat our neighbors, regardlesss of our natural preference for our own benefit? Moses, in the 10 Commandments – the Decalog – puts it primarily in negative terms (Thou Shalt Not), and he says nothing about loving God. In his view, God is to be feared and obeyed! In Leviticus, he adds this positive note ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourselves (19:18)’. In Matthew 22, Jesus affirms we should love our neighbor as ourselves, but loving God takes precedence. In his lesson about the Two Great Commandments, he is asked: 36 “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” 37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’b]”>[b]”>bb]”>] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

These are the views with which I was raised, but religious beliefs are more and more being replaced by trust in science and all it can do to improve our worldly lives. I don’t deny that science increasingly benefits enormous numbers of people world-wide (especially the well-to-do). But taking care of our neighbor needs more than technology. We need to develop genuine concern for them, which seems to be scarce in our polarized world. That takes work and practice, with a lot of help from above. Our natural tendency is self-concern. I admit the Bible is full of contradictions, but only on the surface. Its inner meaning can’t be found by science, but is a quest of the Spirit. From what I can see, the only spirit many people are looking for comes in a bottle. This includes Blacks, Browns, Asians and Native Americans and White women and men. It was was exacerbated by the Pandemic, but for the past twenty years, according to a NYT article What’s Behind the Growth in Alcohol Consumption, it’s a trend, mostly in poorer countries. Since the article is paywalled,  I’ll quote one relevant paragraph.

‘Between 2000 and 2016, according to research published in JAMA, alcohol-related deaths continually increased for white men (2.3 percent per year on average) and white women (4.1 percent), with middle-aged white Americans accounting for the highest increase in deaths. Rapid increases during this period in mortality related to alcohol and drugs like opioids among white Americans — particularly those without a college degree — have been termed “deaths of despair.”’

In sum, we need to find a spiritual solution to our problems, and look to the Loving One who can and will provide it, unless we refuse his offer. If we ignore this higher help, I believe it will be to our unimaginable peril.