My Word: Consumed by news consumption

Reading between the lines, that’s good news for journalists. News cycles can have you running in circles. May we all be blessed with good news, good health and the good sense to appreciate them.

 A MAN HANDS out  the ‘Maariv’ newspaper in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.   (photo credit: Illustrative file photo: Eli Dassa/Maariv)
A MAN HANDS out the ‘Maariv’ newspaper in Tel Aviv’s Rabin Square.
(photo credit: Illustrative file photo: Eli Dassa/Maariv)

As a journalist, the saying “No news is good news,” reflects more of a professional hazard than a deep-seated desire. But even a news junkie like me now and again has too much. While I was walking through the newsroom this week, wondering out loud what to write in this column, a senior staff member suggested: “Write something positive.” 

No sooner had I returned to my desk than I came across a story by The Jerusalem Post’s Tzvi Joffre with the headline: “Apologies: Too much news consumption may cause physical ill-being.” More what the doctor ordered than what the editor had suggested, it nonetheless seemed worth pursuing. Call it a news flash of inspiration.

The study was published on August 24 in the peer-reviewed journal Health Communication. Joffre noted the built-in irony of writing about a report that determines that immersing yourself too much in news consumption might make you feel unwell.

The research paper with the wordy title “Caught in a Dangerous World: Problematic News Consumption and Its Relationship to Mental and Physical Ill-Being,” was written by Bryan McLaughlin, Melissa R. Gotlieb and Devin J. Mills, all from Texas Tech University. 

Their conclusion is: “People with an obsessive urge to constantly check the news are more likely to suffer from stress, anxiety, as well as physical ill health.”

 NASRALLAH AND HER ‘mother’ Keren Ravensky, a feel-good story.  (credit: COURTESY - Keren Ravensky) NASRALLAH AND HER ‘mother’ Keren Ravensky, a feel-good story. (credit: COURTESY - Keren Ravensky)

Judging by personal and professional experience, I assume in a lot of cases it’s not the news that defines a reader’s mood but what mood someone is in that determines what they are looking at in the first place. Even looking compulsively for good news stories can be a form of escapism. For me, it’s either that or cat videos on Facebook.

“The economic pressures facing outlets, coupled with technological advances and the 24- hour news cycle have encouraged journalists to focus on selecting ‘newsworthy’ stories that will grab news consumers’ attention."

Bryan McLaughlin

“During the last two years we have lived through a series of worrying global events, from the COVID pandemic to Russia invading Ukraine, large-scale protests, mass shootings and devastating wildfires,” the social scientists noted. “For many people, reading bad news can make us feel temporarily powerless and distressed. For others, being exposed to a 24-hour news cycle of continually evolving events can have serious impacts on mental and physical wellbeing.” Those who have high levels of news addiction report “significantly greater physical ill-being,” they noted.

“Witnessing these events unfold in the news can bring about a constant state of high alert in some people, kicking their surveillance motives into overdrive and making the world seem like a dark and dangerous place,” said McLaughlin.

“For these individuals, a vicious cycle can develop in which, rather than tuning out, they become drawn further in, obsessing over the news and checking for updates around the clock to alleviate their emotional distress. But it doesn’t help, and the more they check the news, the more it begins to interfere with other aspects of their lives.”

The researchers note that “having a maladaptive relationship with the news differs from being a ‘news junkie’... That is, we argue it is not the amount of news that one consumes that is problematic, so much as the nature in which it is consumed.”

So when you read or see something and think to yourself, “It makes me sick,” apparently, you’re right. Skepticism, it seems, is healthy.

Although the study is hot off the press, the precept behind its findings made headlines years ago. “If it bleeds, it leads,” is a phrase made famous by New York Magazine writer Eric Pooley, who in 1989 crowned it the unofficial motto of local TV news coverage. Veteran US writer Eleanor Randolph gave the phenomenon the name “Bodybag journalism.” Yellow journalism paints the world black. It can make you yellow with fear. 

Israel's news obsession

IN ISRAEL, news is a national obsession. The news might be unhealthy but nobody dies here of boredom. More than 1,000 rockets fell on the country less than a month ago and that’s already considered old news. The Iranian nuclear threat, on the other hand, is so pervasive, that people tend to tune it out. It’s easier to concentrate on the possible teachers’ strike or the threatened walk-out by medical interns and the rising cost-of-living. Some news is good only for those who need to raise their blood pressure.

Among the extraordinary news items that grabbed headlines this week were the hard to swallow reports that led to the recall of frozen string beans and other products by Sunfrost, a subsidiary of food giant Tnuva. The plastic bags weren’t just full of beans; part of a snake, a bird’s leg, half a mouse and a snail were discovered in different packets. Not surprisingly, the reports left most consumers feeling nauseous. It wasn’t the news that wasn’t fit for consumption. The memes on social media understandably went viral.

If you’re looking for new things to worry about, read on: In another strange story, a doctor at Netanya’s Laniado Medical Center figured out what was bugging a 70-year-old woman suffering from intense pain and noise in her ear. Dr. Jay Wohlgelernter saved the day, the woman’s sanity and the cockroach he pulled out live from its resting place on her eardrum. 

Meanwhile, social media on Monday erupted with stories and video footage of a young bull that escaped and ran amok in a branch of Bank Leumi in Lod. Jokes about a bullish market were inevitable. As a committed vegetarian, I found the likely eventual fate of the bull more distressing than that of the cockroach – well up there with finding animal parts frozen in time in packaged vegetables.

Feel-good news

But my favorite local story this summer is a feel-good one: It is the surprise fan club of Nasrallah – no, not the Hezbollah leader: Nasrallah, the Ben-Gurion Airport cat. The black cat’s fame spread from the Facebook group “Faulty Cat” (Hatul pagum) to being the star of her own profile under the name “Nasrallah, my love” (Nasrallah, ahuvati). Travelers passing through Tel Aviv airport seek her and her family out to snap selfies with her. Nasrallah’s “mother” Keren Ravensky, who works in border control, is adopting the cult cat and one of her brothers and taking them home. (The others prefer their indoor-outdoor lives at the airport where they are well cared for by staff.) 

In more heartwarming news, Ravensky met her boyfriend through their mutual love of the airport felines. Since black cats usually get bad press in this part of the world, where they’re considered unlucky by the superstitious, Nasrallah’s popularity is purr-fect PR-wise.

For those wondering about the female cat’s unusual moniker, Ravensky explained that, unaware of her future fame, the poor kitty originally hid and howled in the air vents near conveyor belt 14. When she was finally coaxed out, she was given the name Nasrallah because it reminded a co-worker of Hassan Nasrallah hiding in his bunker in Lebanon. I guess hard news is always at the back of our minds. 

“The economic pressures facing outlets, coupled with technological advances and the 24- hour news cycle have encouraged journalists to focus on selecting ‘newsworthy’ stories that will grab news consumers’ attention,” said researcher McLaughlin.

“However, for certain types of people, the conflict and drama that characterize newsworthy stories not only grab their attention and draw them in, but also can lead to a maladaptive relationship with the news. Thus, the results of our study emphasize that the commercial pressures that news media face are not just harmful to the goal of maintaining a healthy democracy, they also may be harmful to individuals’ health.” 

The researchers suggested that instead of cutting off news consumption completely, as is usually the case with other types of addictions, people should instead focus more on developing a literally healthier relationship with the news. Totally tuning out could mean missing important information regarding health and safety, they warned. 

Reading between the lines, that’s good news for journalists. News cycles can have you running in circles. May we all be blessed with good news, good health and the good sense to appreciate them.

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