Why Negative News Is Stealing My Empathy

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Do I really need to know every bad thing that happens in the world? Do I gain something by being more “aware?”

I used to think so, but now I’m not so sure.

This year has brought so many terrible things into the public conscious. Racially motivated shootings. Terrorist attacks. Military coups.

When the first mass-shooting happened this year, I was outraged. I read articles. I had conversations with friends and family. But then another shooting happened. And then another. Then a bombing. So many things happened so quickly that I couldn’t keep up.

“Didn’t I just get emotionally wrapped up in [the previous thing] … and now this?!”

It seems that now, more than any time in history, we can be easily informed when horrific things happen. News no longer takes days or hours – it takes minutes or seconds, and often is even seen live as it unfolds.

And bad news sells. Whether it’s 24-hour news networks, newspapers, or even blogs, everyone is trying to get the most readers so that they can sell more ads.

Let’s not forget that news outlets and websites are businesses. Their main purpose is not to inform us, it’s to convert us into advertising revenue.

People say that you should consume the news so that you “become more informed,” but when is enough, enough? How many murders, thefts, or kidnappings do I need to hear about before I can count myself as “informed?”

It all just seems so arbitrary.

I’m being told I should be upset and angry, but it seems I should only be upset and angry at the news stories that make headlines. What about the 5-second story where a woman is raped or a child is abused by an alcoholic parent?  Who chooses what will be important to the public and what won’t?

As I’ve become hyper-aware of what is going on in the world, it seems I’m now left to one response: I’m tired. Seeing all of these things happen has drained me of my frustration and empathy.  There’s only so much I can do – so much I can feel without becoming numb. Jumping from one event to another just isn’t good for me.

Aside from being drained, I’ve even seen the effects on my outlook on life. Even though statistically, the world has become safer and healthier than ever (link), I have started to believe it’s getting worse. Even though amazing things happen every day, I never hear about them.

We’ve passed over the threshold of being “aware,” and have crossed over to the realm of perpetual pessimism and outrage.

There has to be another way. I look at friends who choose not to follow the news and to not be on social media. They don’t feel out of the loop (how many mass murders do you talk about at the office water cooler?). They’re really “uninformed,” but they actually seem happier.

I think it’s time for a change. While it’d probably be much harder to cut out news and social media altogether, I do think we’d benefit from some boundaries in this area. Here’s what this might look like:

  1. Putting local community first. When problems happen in other states or even other countries, our issues seem less immediate and less glamorous. As someone who has done several “missions” trips, it’s often easier to help with problems when they are far away. They’re easier to grasp. They don’t require me to change how I live. While I think helping in other places  is necessary at times, I think it’s often best to prioritize issues what is immediately around you: your family, your friends, your neighborhood, and your city. 
  2. Restricting news intake and social media use. Choose not to open the app or click on the headline. Choose selective ignorance! Remember, it’s not practical to know absolutely everything that goes on in the world. 
  3. Offsetting negative news consumption by reading positive news. Here’s a list of websites focused on good news.

What could we change by turning off the network and digital news more often? What if we set some boundaries on what we consume? Could it improve our happiness and restore our empathy? I think so.

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