how the news broke us
If you’ve tuned in to the news lately and feel like the world is falling apart and everyone is at each other’s’ throats, you’re far from alone. Today, the news has become synonymous with talking about the latest stunt pulled by a populist to score points in a culture war, and that’s been stirring a lot of negative emotions from all sides. Some people simply no longer want to read the news to preserve what’s left of their sanity. Others are hyperventilating with every crisis and becoming more and more politically active to stop their pollical opponents. Others still are furious that their favorite populist isn’t being given the credit he’s due and the news keeps pointing out his shortcomings and missteps.
Those aren’t just idle observations. They’re the results of a study which looked at Americans’ relationship with news media through structured interviews with test subjects. Their views mimic those of Western Europeans who also find the news tiresome, emotionally exhausting, and see a very similar split between opinions on populism rather than left vs. right divisions. In other words, we have more news than ever, but they aggravate us more than they inform us, partially due to the effects of today’s gerontocracies giving up on democracy in the face of rapid change, and partially to the news’ deliberate decisions to behave like tabloids, focusing on aggravating content and incendiary opinionating.
One of the most prominent examples of this can be seen in Fox News, which decided to openly become the de facto state propaganda organ under the Trump administration. Stories of what’s been called “Fox News brain” among American boomers have become endemic, and similar phenomena of more anger, more paranoia, more conspiracy theories, and more affinity for fake news and social media hoaxes from older generations appeared in Australia and the UK. In fact, wherever Rupert Murdoch’s news empire was allowed to flourish, you can expect a steady drip of stories designed to keep people angry and afraid of change and anyone different, at great profit to his clan and right wing politicians happy to use fear as a get-out-the-vote tool.
Of course, this is not to say that other news franchises are much better because they too like to latch onto anything they can make controversial or outrageous to catch our attention. While they might not be on a mission to unnerve us for financial and political gain, they want to grab our eyeballs by any means possible and if that’s by needling us with “controversial opinions” and insisting on “presenting both sides” of stories that by all measures should only have one, they’ll do it. And if that doesn’t work, they’ll trivialize important topics, treating elections and policy debates like sports where two teams compete to win, which is exactly the wrong way to both cover and approach laws, regulations, and programs that will affect millions of lives.
So, it’s no surprise that the end result of all this is anguish in which we seesaw wildly between feeling like everything matters because everything is falling apart but also like nothing matters because it doesn’t seem like a functioning adult who actually cares about fixing problems, not just scoring cheap political points for cheers and votes, is allowed to get near a mic or elected office long enough to have any real influence. And it’s also not a big stretch to see why many would want to simply tune out to save themselves the heartache and aggravation, feeling that the idiots in charge will manage to fuck everything up anyway, so why bother. In a way, we broke the news with the web and social media, and now, the news broke us in return.
See: Wagner, M. C., Boczkowski, P. J. (2019). Angry, frustrated, and overwhelmed: The emotional experience of consuming news about President Trump, Journalism, DOI: 10.1177/1464884919878545