Negative News and Fear Based Media

The media is awash with negative news; fatal accidents, ISIS terrorism, wars in the Middle East, hunger in Africa, Zika virus outbreak and so on. It often feels like the world is coming to an end. The connection between negative news and living with fear cannot be ignored. The media thrives on attention-catching news. It means showing emotionally gripping news, the most dramatic visual signals to maintain a hold on their audiences.

It has been shown that consistent exposure to negative news that provokes fear has a long-term negative effect on the mental health of a person. The human brain is wired to have a natural negativity bias which means that one pays more attention to dangerous and threatening signs, stories and situations. This is a self-preservation instinct. Negative and fearful news prolongs this negative bias such that it distorts the thinking of a person.

Dr. Graham Gavey is a British psychologist who has studied the effects of negative news on mental health. He says that some of the effects of negative news are anxiety, stress, depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It also plays on personal fears. News that emphasize on violence and suffering can make a person see his own worries in a more threatening and uncontrollable.

PTSD has been observed in people seeing news that provoke fear. A study done in 2001 showed that some people who watched the September 11 attacks on TV developed PTSD symptoms.  This has also been seen in journalists processing violent and graphic images develop PTSD symptoms like avoidance, re-experiencing, anxiety, depression and even physical signs of distress.

Fear is a major contributor to developing of PTSD symptoms. Medics have ascertained that it is not only individuals who have undergone a traumatic experience that will develop PTSD, but also other individuals who witness the experience. This has been seen in medical emergency team members and also law enforcement members. This extends to seeing violent images on the media.

Negative bias influences the way a person interacts with others and deals with normal daily situations. The mind becomes more attuned to seeing threatening and dangerous situations which subconsciously puts one on high alert even in mundane situations. This can make a person overreact to simple situations that are otherwise non-threatening. This negative bias also means one keeps picking out only the negative aspects of situations and getting into a vicious cycle of negative moods.

A study asked people to react to certain words. Individuals were seen to react faster to words that had a threatening aspect e.g. rape, death, bomb, cancer and so on. The reaction was slower to words like smile, happy, healthy and other words that had a positive aspect. This showed that the mind will develop a more aggressive reaction to negative news which can alter the way an individual reacts to daily situations.

In a study done at McGill University to see the preferences of people in news, test subjects were allowed to choose news to read on wide-ranging topics in world affairs. Most readers opted for stories that had a negative tilt e.g. war, corruption, divorces and so on. When asked about their preferences, the majority said that the media had too much negativity. This is despite the fact that there were other positive articles they would have read.  The study affirmed the fact that negative news enforces an attunement of the mind to more negativity.

The issue of sensitivity is also heavily influenced by news with negativity and fear. A person can become insensitive to such news as a way of blocking this news from being processed. A person becomes numb to seeing violent and threatening images. On the other hand, an individual can also become overly sensitive to such news. There is an overwhelming emotional distress when exposed to these fearful images.

Negative news can distort personal decisions from fear. News of a plane crash, for example, will make a person subconsciously rethink of travel plans.  The 2008/2009 economic crisis was accompanied by news of massive layoffs and properties being seized as people were hit by the financial calamity. This altered spending levels as people feared that their financial situations were threatened and the future was unpredictable.

Negative news can also alter the behavior of an individual by social learning. Humans learn from each other and the environment.  Negative news influence this learning process as an individual can also learn from the media. Just as the media influences fashion and other tastes, it can make an individual more likely to act out the images seen in the media. This is seen in individuals who play violent video games.

Negative news can also play on the fears of the larger society. The attack on Pearl Harbor triggered President Roosevelt to sign the Exclusion order targeting people of Japanese origin regardless of their stay in the US. This massive fear and hysteria on the larger population led to the forcible detainment of over 100,000 people of Japanese people.

The September 11 terrorist attacks have led to a fear of Middle Eastern origin. This has been further enforced by continuous news of wars and terrorist attacks in the Middle East. This has played on the fears of people in the US and Europe leading to rising cases of racist attacks on the people perceived to be of Middle Eastern origin.

This continued negative news from the Middle East has enforced the image of Arabs as suicide bombers and violent people. This fear is also likely to negatively influence government policy as the incoming president has vowed to keep away Muslims Arabs from the US.

Living with news that provokes fear can make an individual develop a habit of seeing the world with a wariness and suspicion that is unjustified. This can alter relationships at home and at work as the individual approaches every other person with an unconscious suspicion and cynicism which leads to issues of trust and overreaction to situations at home and at work.

-Guest Blogger, Metamora Films


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