Volcanoes are erupting in The Philippines, but on-fire Australia received some welcome rain. The Iran war cries have been called off and The Donald’s military powers are about to be hamstrung by the Senate. Meanwhile, his impeachment trial is starting, and we’re all on Twitter for a front-row seat.
In March, when the COVID-19 epidemic locked Americans indoors and scared the bejeezus out of us, news reading spiked. The unheard-of numbers of eyeballs lasted about two weeks before coronavirus fatigue set in and the information deluge of rising cases, changing science, and guesses of how the world would change a month, year, or decade from now became too much to handle.
Pre-pandemic, news avoidance had been growing worldwide. It will likely surprise no one that in the data from 2017, this is in no small part because respondents felt that the experience of reading it was depressing and disempowering. Many feel it’s better to avoid the news entirely than deal with the stress it brings.
And yet journalism is critical for a functional democracy and is a massive player in mobilizing public sentiment and catalyzing change. Giving up on it should not be our go-to just as sacrificing our mental health on the altar of its negativity shouldn’t either. Is it possible to stay informed and engaged without destroying our faith in humanity every morning?
Yes. The key is learning how to read the news with an understanding of both its structure and your own brain’s, a critical (but not distrustful) eye, and an equanimous, long-term perspective. We’ve gathered these ideas into a five-step approach for how to keep reading the news—without losing your mind.
#1 Remember the Nature of the Beast: News Is Negative by Design
News covers the negative because that’s what it’s designed to do. There’s not much of a story in a longstanding government program operating the way it’s supposed to or the daily routine of the rising global middle class. And yet that’s currently the story of the majority of life here on planet Earth. While the problems you read about in the news are real, remember that the news is not painting a complete picture of daily life, and it’s not meant to. Extraordinary accidents, crimes, and deaths; tragedies of all kinds; sundry societal dysfunctions that don’t meet our standards of morality—it’s a sign of a well functioning society that the negative is the exception. Don’t mistake it for the rule.
In May 2019, a helicopter pilot crashed into a building in New York City and died. A flurry of articles followed from ABC, CBS, CNN, NBC, and Fox News, among many other outlets. Forbes reported that the crash was the sixth in NYC in twelve years; The New York Times published “Though Accidents Are Rare, Crash Highlights Perils of Flying Copters Over City,” which included the gruesome, memorable details of at least half of those rare accidents. What can get lost in the horrible stories of the lives lost is just how safe flying a helicopter in NYC really is.
Between the 12 years Forbes covered in their piece, July 2006 to May 2019, annual helicopter flights numbered in the tens of thousands until 2016, reaching a peak of around 60,000. Post 2016, the city cut the number of flights in half, to around 30,000. Which means that in 2019 alone, there were 29,999 helicopter flights that took off and landed safely. “28,765th Helicopter Lands Safely This Year” is just one extremely boring headline that you did not read in the news in 2019. “Helicopter Fatality Rate for the Last Twelve Years at .0012%” is another. Since information at the end of a sentence is always the most resonant to a reader, even simply switching the order of The New York Times headline to “Crash Highlights Perils of Flying Copters Over City, Though Accidents Are Rare,” changes the impression you’re left with—this accident, although tragic, was unusual. Very unusual.
The news has room for improvement in this regard, and there are folks who are trying to change it from the inside. The Solutions Journalism Network is one organization on the case. They are training journalists to reframe their storytelling by including ongoing or potential solutions to the issues they report on. We could push for more of this from our publications of choice through comments, letters to the editor, and widely sharing exemplary articles.
For now, remember the nature of the beast. The news is filled with negative stories. That doesn’t mean the whole world is negative.
#2 Remember Your Psychology: Baby, You Were Born This Way
It’s not just the structure of the news working against you—it’s your own brain. Psychologists have identified various “shortcuts” our mind uses to function efficiently in the world, called heuristics. And while they’re helpful for survival purposes, they’re not in maintaining a rosy, or even realistic, view of the world.
One heuristic is the availability bias, which explains why you might be more frightened of earthquakes than hepatitis, despite the fact you’re likelier to die from the latter. As the author and public intellectual Steven Pinker explains in The Guardian, the availability bias means that “people estimate the probability of an event or the frequency of a kind of thing by the ease with which instances come to mind.” What kinds of things easily come to our minds? Things we’ve seen recently or frequently. Things that are especially frightening or grotesque.
Terrorism is a good example. You’ll likely remember the terrorist attacks in the West that dominated the news in 2016. A truck plowed through a Christmas market in Berlin, Germany, killing 12; 77 in Nice, France, died when a truck drove through a crowd on Bastille Day; and 50 people were killed at the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando, Florida. Global terrorism rates were on the decline in 2016, but it was the deadliest year for terrorism in OECD member countries since 1988, excluding 9/11 data. The deaths in OECD member countries totaled 265. To put that in perspective, in 2016 there were 267 suicides solely in the state of Montana. The US’ most suicidal state that year, Arizona, had 945.
This isn’t to say that terrorism is not an important issue, and there’s an argument to be made that the numbers may be low precisely because of the amount of government attention that has gone to terrorism prevention. But as a news reader, be wary of assuming that the attention an event gets is necessarily the attention it deserves, and especially of connecting heavy news coverage with assessment of risk in your own life. It might be more productive to take steps to improve your community’s mental health than to fret about a terrorist attack.
The second heuristic working against you is our negativity bias, which means that we’re more prone to pay attention to the negative than the positive in the first place. You can easily see this in action in your daily life: a friends’ backhanded comment stings for longer than the good feelings from a compliment last; we lie awake at night worrying about what could go wrong in the future, not basking in gratitude about what has gone right in the past. There are media personalities across the political spectrum who trigger this bias by reminding us of all the ways we could be heading toward destruction, some of which have enough basis in fact to be truly hair-raising. The Washington Post in September 2020: “What’s the worst that could happen? The election will likely spark violence—and a constitutional crisis.” National Review, in response: “The Democrats’ Dangerous Delegitimization of the Election.”
But history is littered with examples of very popular, terrifying predictions that never came to fruition and were eventually forgotten. This fun “retro report” from The New York Times, for example, looks back at a claim that seems ridiculous now but was taken as gospel then: that overpopulation would cause hundreds of millions to die by the 1970s. (It did not. And as we now know, we’re more likely at risk of underpopulation in the future.)
Remember your psychology! First, just because you read a lot about something scary does not mean that the resultant fear is an accurate assessment of risk. Second, there is a difference between news and alarmism. Trust evidence-backed reports, but don’t assume that anything speculative will definitely manifest in the future.
#3 Remember Your Math: Don’t Freak Out About Lonely Numbers
Journalists like numbers because they’re hard proof of what they’re reporting on. But even numbers can be misleading. The late global health professor Hans Rosling, who made it his life’s mission to spread awareness about basic (but surprisingly positive) global stats, called this the “size instinct”—as he wrote in his 2018 book Factfulness, “recognizing when a lonely number seems impressive and remembering that you could get the opposite impression if it were compared or divided by some other relevant number.”
One example of a lonely number in the wild is the June 2019 Fox News opinion piece “Border crisis puts everyone’s health at risk,” which warns against epidemics caused by illegal immigration to the US. Commentator Heather Higgins made her argument for fixing the “porous border” based on fears of such diseases as measles:
Consider related facts that are not well known: Measles aren’t a grinning excuse for skipping school as shown on The Brady Bunch episode “Is There a Doctor in the House?” According to the CDC, measles can cause serious illness that can lead to permanent brain damage and even death. Globally in 2017, it caused 110,000 deaths.
Yikes. Scary, especially now in the context of the COVID-19 era, where we’ve seen firsthand the death and damage a pandemic can cause. Should we be concerned that illegal immigrants will bring measles to our country and kill us all? The reason why these facts aren’t well known is because measles has been considered eradicated in the US since 2000. It is simply not a present concern for almost all of us here. So while the CDC global death number is correct, these US-based numbers are also: in 2017, the year Higgins references, there were 120 measles cases. The main outbreak that year, in a Somali-American community in Minnesota, was caused not by illegal immigration but by declining vaccination numbers, starting in 2008, due to concerns over autism. There were 0 deaths linked to that outbreak.
You can see the number of cases in the US over the last ten years in this graph from the CDC. The 2019 spike was mainly from outbreaks in New York in unvaccinated communities. And as of August, there have been 12 cases in 2020.
It’s also worth noting that while measles deaths have increased globally since 2017 by 30,000, the bigger story of humanity versus measles is one of great progress. According to the CDC, between 2000 and 2018 there was a “66% decrease in reported measles incidence” and a “73% reduction in estimated measles mortality.” During these years, “measles vaccination prevented an estimated 23.2 million deaths.”
It’s not only in opinion pieces that lonely numbers can confuse and mislead us. Approach articles with numbers but no context for them with caution—eye-popping figures are not always what they seem.
#4 Remember the Long Game: In Case of a Crisis, Zoom Out
The word crisis gets a lot of exercise in the news. During one week in June 2019, news outlets reported on the following crises: child-care, college dropouts, immigration, the climate, opioids, Sudan, homelessness, cops’ mental health, rural healthcare, retail landlords in the UK, lead, farming, money laundering, guacamole, sex abuse, the automotive industry, Iran, Moldova, India’s GDP, Pakistan, Venezuela, Israeli bacon, Trump’s reelection prospects, Boeing’s 737 MAX, the world economy, pastoral courage, and Canadian national unity.
That is a lot of crises to keep track of. And, with no disrespect to the importance of Canadian patriotism or avocados, they cannot all possibly be a crisis.
In 2018 the Los Angeles Times and others reported on “an epidemic of nicotine addiction among kids” because of the rising numbers of teens who had tried vaping, or electronic cigarettes. CDC figures attest that between 2011 and 2018, there was a 1.5% increase in high schoolers who reported that they used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days and a .6% increase in middle schoolers.
Meanwhile, during this nicotine “epidemic,” cigarette, cigar, and smokeless tobacco use all went down during the same period for high schoolers, with a 7.7%, 4%, and 2% drop, respectively. (Hookah use stayed the same.) And lest you still think that today’s kids have just switched from Marlboro to Juul, take a look at these long-term numbers from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. This is the percent of students by grade who smoke cigarettes, including traditional cigarettes, e-cigarettes, cigars, pipes, and hookah, daily from 1976 to 2018. Since the seventies, and consistently from the late nineties on, youth tobacco use has been plunging:
So are we in the midst of a nicotine epidemic, or simply a changing landscape in the midst of a long-term success story? The point is not that we shouldn’t be concerned by teenagers vaping—we should, especially if new companies are specifically targeting young people and nonsmokers. There is a reason why this story appeared in the news, and tobacco use hasn’t dropped so dramatically because action wasn’t taken.
But as always in the case of a crisis, take a moment before you panic, and try zooming out. No one has the time to research the wider long-term narrative of every news story they read. You can, though, keep in mind that there often is one.
#5 Remember You’re Not Alone: Change Does Happen, Just Slowly
Problems are inevitable in any society, and it is journalists’ job to cover them. But the existence of problems, even large and complex ones, doesn’t mean those problems are unsolvable, or that those capable of solving them won’t.
The various injustices and issues journalism shines a light on can be difficult to read about. Sometimes they are devilishly complicated or morally outrageous. Most of the time there’s not much you personally can do about them, and you end up feeling like nobody else is doing anything, either. But while you personally might not be in a position to do much, others are—and often do, despite assumptions to the contrary. (Federal politicians are not the only ones in the universe able to enact change!)
But the larger a transformation is needed, often the slower it goes. Keep going, and keep the faith even when it seems like nothing is happening. It might be—it’s just that change often operates at a slower pace than the news does, and you might not have heard yet what’s at work.
In June 2016 Mother Jones released Shane Bauer’s “My four months as a private prison guard,” which documented his time working inside a for-profit prison run by the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and highlighted its abusive conditions from the staff to the inmates. The initial government response was uncharacteristically swift. Within weeks, the Obama administration announced that it would stop using private prisons. CCA’s stock plummeted, and a few months later, the intense public scrutiny led to their rebranding as CoreCivic.
When Trump became president, the Department of Justice reversed course, contracting CoreCivic again. But Bauer’s article ensured that the issues with for-profit prisons have stayed in the national conversation, and in 2018 the journalist was still optimistic about the future, noting that the consciousness around for-profit prisons has made room for “opportunity to make progress on the state level.” A 2019 Vox article picked up on this thread, reporting that now 22 states (both Democratic and Republican-led) don’t use private prisons. Three have banned them outright, and more are planning to. “Some in the industry,” reporter Catherine Kim wrote, “have begun to accept that private prisons may not exist in the decades to come.”
Your awareness of an issue is not for nothing. Many movements—civil rights for women, LGBTQ folks, and minorities, to name a few big ones—have made profound strides due to cultural shifts driven by public support. Mother Jones itself recently raised almost half a million dollars in grassroots funding for their efforts investigating corruption. You don’t exist in a vacuum, even when reading the news alone on your couch.
#6 Bonus: Remember Why You Read the News to Begin With
Holding these five points in your awareness as you read the news can be a gamechanger in keeping yourself sane while keeping yourself informed. If you have room for one more, remember that the news, in its essence, is a public service. Journalism exists to inform and empower us, not the opposite. We can take the best from it to introduce us to the world, guide our voting choices, civic engagement, and community-building, and to expand our minds—not lose them.