When Following The News Is A Bad Idea

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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Words to live by: “[W]hatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable — if anything is excellent or praiseworthy — think about such things.”

…And this, too: “You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed.”

Easier said than done — especially in this racket.

If you’re a journalist or commentator — someone for whom closely following the news is a requirement — this is a struggle, much like a Supreme Court Justice following the “judge not lest ye be judged” thing, literally.

One might have entered this pursuit thinking it would entail horse race politics and worrying about political “optics.” But the real world has a way of intervening.

Think about what has happened in just the last week, or so. Ebola, Robin Williams’ suicide, a police shooting in Ferguson, Missouri — which touched off rioting and looting — and reignited racial tensions. And now, the beheading by ISIS of a gutsy journalist named James Foley, who risked his life to report the news from dangerous locations.

The gruesome act was filmed and posted on social media. And the way Twitter works now meant that people casually scrolling their timeline would automatically see screen shots of the atrocity propagated in their feed.

Increasingly, it’s hard to hide from bad news and disturbing imagery — to filter it out. One need not consent to seeing this violent image. It was just there.

This is true for all of us on social media, of course. But a civilian can, perhaps, guard her heart. She can take a media vacation — stay away from social media when the news gets too depressing. But what about those of us who can’t?

What’ s the cumulative effect of years and years of relentless bad news, day in, day out? And what about those poor bastards who are charged with covering the truly gruesome stuff? If you don’t think it takes a toll, consider that, according to the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma (“a project of Columbia Journalism School”),

Journalists working with a steady stream of uncensored violent imagery generated by the public are at increased risk of adverse psychological consequences, according to research published earlier this week in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine Open. The study of journalists and user-generated content, led by psychiatrist Anthony Feinstein, MD of the Sunnybrook Health Sciences Center in Toronto, finds that frequent, repetitive viewing of violent news-related video and other media raises news professionals’ vulnerability to a range of psychological injury, including anxiety, depression and posttraumatic stress disorder.

At the macro level, there might be something positive to come from a nation who can no longer hide from the existence of evil in the world.

But at the micro level, ignorance is bliss.

To be sure, there are plenty of valid, if hypothetical, things one could spend his life worrying about. But I suspect this is counterproductive, leading to depression, illness, paranoia, etc.

I suspect I was happier when I knew less.

Matt K. Lewis