Collected Journalism

Does the Media Make You Ill?


This piece was published in The Big Issue in January 2012.

Welcome to the 21st-century media vortex: the serious and the trivial, the mishap and the marvel, the powerful and the ordinary punter are all swept up in its hyperactive, irresistible cycle.

Detritus can move so quickly to the centre of the swirl, only to be tossed aside by the next sensation.

Tony Blair famously described the media as the “feral beast… just tearing people and reputations to bits, but no one dares miss out”. Anthropologist Thomas de Zengotita dubs the media “the blob”: all-engulfing, inescapable, smearing everything in irony and cynicism.

No wonder our consumption can leave us feeling queasy. But if you are at all curious about the world outside your door, you have no choice but to submit. You must enter the vortex; watch the beast wrestling with its latest prey; contend with the fact the blob is shaping your worldview.

Is the news actually making us unwell? The ubiquity of disturbing images – war, famine and disaster reaching daily into your office and living room – is why many dub CNN ‘Constant Negative News’. A 2009 University of Texas study into the impact of wall-to-wall coverage of the Twin Towers collapse after 9/11 showed the most avid viewers, who endured no loss of family or friends, suffered from nightmares, anxiety and depression.

When even financial experts struggle to understand (never mind translate) our current economic turmoil, attempting to follow the business of bonds ‘taking haircuts’ can induce head-pounding bewilderment.

At times the only alternative to this kind of confusion and frustration is to slide into a passive fog of top story inhalation (viewers of 24-hour news will be familiar with its energy-sapping tendencies: the same footage, the same thin analysis, something ‘breaking’ to start another stupefying loop).

So why do we keep on watching and reading on a daily basis? Dr Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center in the US, studies its impact on our psyche. “We do it because the human brain is hardwired to notice potential problems,” she explains.

“Evolutionarily speaking, it was more important for our survival to be aware of danger, or things that seem to change, or things that are unusual. Trees and flowers are lovely, but noticing tigers is way more important.

“Understanding things which seem like threats can create a sense of certainty. But if the amount of bad news is overwhelming, if we continue to think the world is chaotic, it will increase our sense of helplessness. It’s frightening to feel we cannot control our own destiny.”

Cary Cooper, professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University, is an American who has lived in Britain for almost 30 years. Professor Cooper thinks we’ve changed. He is shocked by the normality of people shouting at each other on the train (and everyone else filming it on their mobile).

“The country has become less British, in a sense,” he says. “The blame culture we’re in is totally new territory. We’re always looking for someone to blame everything on. That’s where the media comes in – as doom and gloommongers telling us the whole world collapses if the eurozone breaks up. The media makes people more negative. It makes people insecure and frustrated. People don’t perceive they have any control over their jobs or finances and you take that frustration out on people around you.”

We live in an age almost completely devoid of reassuring storylines. Journalists struggle to create anything like coherent, meaningful patterns among the big, ‘serious’ developments. Gone are the certainties of the Cold War and the post-Berlin Wall sense of western superiority.

Bad guys and good victims in need of help are harder than ever to identify. Corruption is difficult to uncover when we already assume the worst of our big institutions.

It may explain the rise and rise of celebrity. Bitesized chunks of human drama are so much easier to chew over. It’s simple. It’s fun. You get to digest the ‘journey’ of an individual and pass clear judgment on career decisions, sexual partners, hairdos and dress length.

Proper stars weren’t accessible enough, so we invited hundreds of ordinary people to join the merry-go-round. Now featuring a cast of thousands on the go at once – the cult of personality having infected politicians, newsreaders and even the PR gurus who once stayed behind the scenes – our media blob is one giant bitchfest.

But is it really rotting our minds? Psychologists say even gossip serves some important functions. Dishing the dirt shores up social norms by clarifying all those unwritten rules and spreading useful information about potentially harmful people and behaviour.

According to a 2009 study from the University of Michigan, sharing gossip reduces stress by boosting levels of progesterone in the brain. Backbiting also confers status and strengthens bonds – research show strangers connect more quickly through sharing thoughts about things they dislike than things they feel positively about.

But if ‘serious’ news has lost its basic function of reassurance, the tittle-tattle machine (at least in Britain) has grown dementedly out of sync with the idea of useful information. Paul Dacre, editor of the Daily Mail, once told a roomful of editors: “Public shaming has been a vital element in defending the parameters of what are considered acceptable standards of social behaviour.”

Yet as former News of the World chief reporter Neville Thurlbeck wrote in a recent blog, the tabloids’ laughably inflexible tone – hysteria turned up to 11 – has become self-destructive. The “dark agendas of hate…vicious character assassinations, gross invasions of privacy, sensational misleading headlines [and] cliché-ridden copy” are turning off a generation of young people.

“To the under-25s, we are as cutting edge as Alvar Lidell reading the BBC news on the wireless in a dinner jacket.”

Like Thurlbeck, former Daily Star reporter Richard Peppiatt has given evidence at the Leveson inquiry, where he revealed some rather damning stuff about fabricated tales written to correspond with gaudy headlines. Peppiatt has no regrets about turning whistleblower.

“Peeping into people’s bedrooms is not making us a better society,” Peppiatt insists. “When you look at how papers can whip up storms over nothing, cause faux-moral outrage; the way they bring down politicians who they are tired of or don’t agree with, I actually think it can be quite dangerous to democracy. Editors are unelected, so why should they act as moral arbiters? Tabloids encourage a rubbernecking culture that isn’t healthy to anyone.”

Evolutionary psychologists talk of ‘supranormal stimuli’ to explain how primal urges go awry.

One famous study shows how birds that lay small, pale blue eggs speckled with grey will ignore their nest and sit instead on brighter blue plaster dummies painted with black polka dots, if given the option. We are not the only animal roused by hyperreality.

But rational creatures need not be slaves to instincts gone beserk. Power is moving away from a top-down media model. An increasingly sophisticated audience is re-shaping the headlines through its social networks, directing friends to things of specific interest, wisecracking about the quality of the story (as well as the subject), and checking veracity or bias through multiple sources.

Having taught us how to sneer, newspapers, radio and TV news broadcasts are now subject to mockery and mistrust.

Regardless of what kind of regulation Leveson recommends, a certain kind of reporting may have passed. So few people take the latest burst of media hysteria seriously, so owners and editors will have to adjust to the arched-brow scepticism with which we treat every story.

We still crave information in an uncertain world. We still need stuff to talk about. But if we are to learn to stop worrying and love the blob, it will have to treat us a little less like idiots.

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