“All media exist to invest in our lives with arbitrary perceptions and arbitrary values.”-Marshall McLuhan
The year 2014 is entering its final phase. Autumn is here, and winter will soon be upon us. Once again, the media and news sources are informing us of all the things we should be aware of, worried about, prepared for, and afraid of. It often seems that this time of year is the only time that the Center for Disease Control does any work or research. The latest perseveration is focused on the Ebola virus and the onset of flu season. Media experts would argue that they are merely informing the American public to take caution, use good judgment, and stay healthy. On the surface, this seems plausible. However, as someone who works in the field of mental health, I can also see another side.
“We become what we behold. We shape our tools and then our tools shape us.”-Marshall McLuhan
It’s a basic principle of the human mind to see what it looks for. The human brain is wired towards recognition of evidence that confirms what we already believe. It’s a way that we navigate the world and maintain our sanity. Much of what 21st century people believe is influenced and shaped by others and has very little to do with our own, personal experience. Most of us have very strong opinions on politics, sports, medicine, and entertainment that are largely influenced by people we have never met, and things that we have never experienced. We have the perception that we are in the loop on a lot of these things, because we have instant access to almost anything going on, anywhere on the planet, at any time. We believe we are being educated and informed, creating a perception that we are intelligent, aware, and living life fully. Are we? Or are we being negatively influenced by sensationalism in order to keep us tuned in?
“Television is the opium of the people.”-Edward R Murrow
The fact is that, while a secondary goal of the media is to inform and educate, the primary goal is to sell products and make money. Advertising drives the media. In order to keep us tuned in, media outlets use what is called the “teaser,” which keeps us watching over a longer period of time. You’ve seen it and heard it, “What are the chances of the Ebola virus appearing here? We’ll have the details tonight at 11.” Statements like this one are designed purposely to rent space in your head and get you to stay up till 11 to find out. Since people tend to focus on negative stories such as this one, media experts know that a teaser like this works well. As humans, our survival instinct tells us that we need to be prepared for potential catastrophes. In the 21st century, the media tells us what those catastrophes are. Is it any wonder why stress related illnesses and sales of anti-anxiety medications are at an all-time high?
“In the future, everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.”-Andy Warhol
In 1968, when Andy Warhol made this often quoted statement, this seemed implausible. In 2014 it is entirely possible. The Internet has made it possible for anyone, anyplace in the world, to become famous for 15 minutes or even more. And, if you can’t be world famous, you can become famous among your 453 Facebook friends, and all of their friends, and their friends friends, and so on. While social media has tremendous opportunity to bring people together, it also has greater potential to do the opposite. (See http://mindbodycoach.org/?p=1187) Unintelligent use of contemporary technology has the potential to leave people more isolated, anxious, and fearful than perhaps at any time in man’s history.
The facts are, if you believe in statistical analysis, that we are living in the safest time in all of human history. Here are some facts:
Fewer people are dying young, and people are living longer. In 1950 the average age of death worldwide was 47. In 2013 it was 70.
The standard of living, worldwide, has increased by all major indicators over the last 20 years.
People, worldwide, in many research studies, are reporting greater senses of happiness and life satisfaction than at any other time in human history.
War is becoming less frequent, and less deadly. While this doesn’t make sense to many of us, it is statistically true. I often recall the quote that Nazi mass murderer, Adolph Eichman, made in 1960, “When you kill one person, it’s a tragedy. When you kill 1 million, it’s a statistic.”
Rates of murders and violent crimes have declined markedly since the year 2000.
Discrimination, in the form of racism, sexism, homophobia, and ageism has declined drastically. Studies show that most people consider these issues to be of importance to them, not only in the United States, but worldwide.
Whether you find these statistics comforting or not is irrelevant. While it is important for all of us to remain informed and aware, we must also be cognizant of the fact that there is a tendency of the news media toward sensationalism and trying to create an emotional reaction. To get the audience more deeply involved they must emphasize the negative aspects of the story, no matter how low or risky. News outlets are literally competing with thousands of other sources of information, and their goal is to get you to tune in to them exclusively. Gone are the days when a newscaster told you facts and relayed information. Today, they must move you emotionally, entertain you, and hold your attention. As the Eagles said years ago, “Get the widow on a set, give us dirty laundry.”
The negative impact of this brand of journalism is a population walking around in a heightened state of anxiety, worried about things out of their control, waiting for the next media inspired disaster. Make no mistake about it, we must be informed and aware. There can be a healthier, more logical, middleground:
Limit the amount of television news that you watch each day. Don’t fall for the “teaser.” Decide what news stories are important to you and read about them on the Internet and in print journalism. Studies show that print journalism provides more memorable information with less emotional involvement. Those who get most of their news from television are bombarded with the same story over and over again, imprinting negative images on the brain. Those who read their news tend to view situations more rationally and less emotionally, clearly a better choice.
Rely more on radio news and commentary. Unless you are adamantly liberal or conservative, use talk radio judiciously. Talk radio tends toward the same sensationalism that television does. Listening is fine, but just be aware that there is probably a particular political slant of the programs that you are listening to.
Try listening to 30 minutes of radio news, decide what stories are of interest, and read about them. No need to go to a library, or even by a newspaper or magazine. Everything you need to know is available in print, on the Internet.
Use the Internet for information, doing your own research and formulating your own opinions. Not only is this likely to give you a more rational outlook on the world, it’s good for brain health. Keep in mind that there is more to the Internet than Facebook, social media, and celebrity gossip. Certainly these things are not bad for you, but a steady diet of this is definitely mind numbing.
Question the information that you get from the media. As young people, we are told to “Question authority.” It’s probably a better idea to “Question the media.” Just because we heard it on the news or read it in print doesn’t mean that it is true. Do your own research, find out for yourself.
Careful use of technology has the potential to make us more connected to our world and other people than ever before. The world of the 21st century is potentially that Global Village that many talked about 20 years ago. Pay attention to what you choose to focus on, as that will become your view of reality. Seek to balance your need to be informed with your need to know the truth.
P. S. Contact me if interested in mindbody coaching or online cognitive behavioral therapy. Please check out my author’s page at amazon.com/author/johnsannicandro or using the Amazon link on this page. Follow me on Facebook, Twitter, and social media. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.