Understanding how we digest the news has the power to stop us becoming passive media consumers and benefit our wellbeing, argues psychologist Matt Hersh
“Do we have to watch the knife and gun report again?” my wife and I would lament to each other every night early in our marriage. We eventually decided to stop watching the evening news, feeling relentlessly inundated with shocking images and sickening stories of greed, hatred, trauma and callous acts of inhumanity.
It’s not that natural disasters don’t exist or that there isn’t plenty of hard-hearted behaviour in this world. And a newscast might indeed include something positive. But it would typically be fleeting and overshadowed by darker and more fear-mongering stories. These stories were sure to grab a hold of your amygdala, the fear centre of the brain, and not easily let go.
As we watched night after night, we unwittingly and fairly mindlessly (at first) became products of a news media that portrayed our world as severely broken with no hope or sun behind the dark clouds.
“A mindful media diet is a very different endeavour to mindlessly tapping our phones checking for the latest crime, economic crisis or accident.”
Why was the news affecting us so much? Why did we choose to turn away from most news sources?
How we consume and digest our news media are two vital factors to consider that can help answer these questions. Fortunately, they are also two such factors that we have more personal control over.
News media consumption
We can think about how we get our news as akin to how we consume our food. Consumption is basically all about the patterns and frequencies with which we take in something external to us – like saturated fat, sugar or vegetables.
So when we ask about how often an individual or a particular demographic tunes in to watch the nightly TV news or checks out a news article on a smart phone news app, we are seeking relatively quantifiable data about news media consumption. For example, the vast majority of American college students are constantly on their phones wherever they go, and the vast majority actively seek out “breaking news” much more than “sports news” or “local news”. And because smart phones are a veritable extension of the arms of most college students (and most other demographics for that matter), students are more or less consuming their (breaking) news on autopilot – simply because it’s there. (Remember the last time you finished off that bag of crisps just because they were already open and on the table in front of you?).
News media digestion
If news media consumption is all about patterns and frequencies of taking in different types of news, then digestion can be thought of as the process of how the media actually feels when it “goes down,” how it gets absorbed into our psyches, and how it affects us emotionally and socially over the short and long term. Our past experiences, personalities, sensitivities, proclivities, relationships and cultural climate all influence the digestive process.
Think about food again for a moment: if you constantly eat foods high in sugar, you will most likely feel the physical, emotional and mental effects of such a consumption pattern. And if your spouse snacks on sugary treats throughout the day, you may follow suit more or less mindlessly as is often the case with food consumption patterns in families.
News media digestion is really no different. If you surround yourself with particularly pessimistic people, hearing about the latest crisis in the Middle East, for example, might further your sense of hopelessness about a resolution to any geopolitical and religious battle across the globe. If you tend to be a highly optimistic person, perhaps even the most horrific of breaking news stories may not break your sense of hope for a more positive world.
Mindless consumption, unhealthy digestion
Imagine running into friendly people wherever you go, and these people hand you delicious chocolates. Just a few pieces at a time, every few hours, here and there. Presuming you are otherwise healthy, the effect might be a subtle change in your behaviours and attitudes. If you enjoy chocolate, you might change your daily routine to make sure you got more. But chocolate also has a way of attracting our attention; even if we weren’t intending to consume it, we might if it were handed to us.
So here is the rub: in our contemporary digital media age, we are bombarded by news media of which we are not fully in control. Images and stories are handed to us, like the chocolate, at the supermarket checkout line, on our phones, on TV, on the radio. This doesn’t allow for conscious consumption to fuel healthy digestion.
“We must remember that there is more right with this world than wrong with it.”
A promising solution: the mindful media diet
Mindful awareness is the act of intentionally bringing our attention to our present moment with curiosity and acceptance. It is one way to help ourselves simultaneously stay grounded, inquisitive and informed.
By adopting a mindful media diet, we are purposefully choosing to tune in or tune out based on our current mood, our short-term goals, and our longer-term values. This is a very different endeavour to mindlessly tapping our phones while standing in line for coffee and checking our automatically set alerts and notifications about the latest crime, economic crisis or accident.
Here are some suggestions for specific ways to adopt a mindful media diet:
1. Look for the silver lining
We must remember that there is more right with this world than wrong with it, no matter what we perceive or are told. We deserve this as a matter of being human. From a purely utilitarian vantage point, it helps us stay grounded, positive, and better able to solve the real problems before us. Fred Rogers, champion of kindness and host of the popular Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood children’s show, captures this tenet beautifully: “When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’”
2. Purposefully and intentionally seek out news sources that are constructive, honest and forward thinking
These can serve to illuminate the hidden treasures and gifts of the world, whether they manifest as good deeds of an individual or group or as the compassion and connection that already exist around us.
3. Cultivate curious and intentional awareness as you consume your news
This can facilitate a healthier and less disruptive digestive process. Ask yourself how this “news meal” might feel as it is consumed. Pause for a moment before tapping your news app and ask yourself “what is my intention right now?”. Project into the future for moment to help determine what it might feel like to continue consuming in this way. Then decide for yourself (rather than have external forces decide for you) what and how you consume next.
4. Limit your news media minutes
Following a mindful media diet entails making sure you are not consuming news on autopilot, spending hours a day lost down the rabbit hole of global crises or chronic problems of your country. Literally setting a time limit for smart phone news use can be very liberating (albeit awkward at first). And turn off your TV after a few minutes of news rather than feeling compelled to tune for a full 30 or 60 minutes just because that’s how long the news show lasts.
News media consumption is an art with tremendous real-world application. When you consciously and intentionally gain more influence over what you take in, you can digest with greater peace of mind and with greater benefit to yourself and everyone else around you. What we take in about our world can actually influence what we give back. Let’s all start our mindful media diet today!
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