We have all been there, or at least seen it, a Facebook post or Twitter post about some political topic turn into a never ending cycle of back and forth. And for what? At the end of the day everyone walks away feeling more aggravated about the issue than ever before. I know this has happened to me on more than one occasion. So, why do we continue to consume media and share it the way we do when there is data that suggests it is harmful to our mental and physical health? It may well be because “the future of our nation” has become the most common source of stress according to The American Psychological Association (APA).
“While most adults (95 percent) say they follow the news regularly, 56 percent say that doing so causes them stress, and 72 percent believe the media blows things out of proportion.” – APA
So, I finally decided to conduct some research on the topic and implement some changes to how I approach friends and family on social media. Here is what I found and some recommendations on what to do about it.
The legal landscape of reporting news has changed
The first, and perhaps most important thing to understand, is that the legal landscape of reporting news by broadcasters has shifted. Back in 1949, The Federal Communication Commission (FCC) put in place a rule called The Fairness Doctrine. This doctrine had two rules. First, organizations with licenses to broadcast must report adequately on controversial matters of public interest and ensure the coverage fairly represented opposing views. Second, the news organizations had to provide individuals of interest to the story an opportunity to reply or rebut the broadcaster’s reporting.
For better or worse, the The Fairness Doctrine faced legal challenges which over time provided more free speech rights to Broadcasters. Ultimately, the courts would remand the decision of whether or not The Fairness Doctrine was constitutional to the FCC which decided to reverse the rule. Later a court would uphold this decision without making a determination on its constitutionality. Congress for its part passed legislation which was ultimately vetoed by the President at the time. When another attempt to revive the doctrine was made under a different President he threatened to veto the legislation which effectively killed it. The final pieces of the doctrine were eliminated between 2000 and 2011.
To this day no law states that news of important public interest has to be covered in an adequate or balanced manner. If we are in a new age where the media need not heed the adequacy of their coverage or other perspectives of their argument, it is no wonder we have more decisiveness now than we have in living memory.
The Information Age and the proliferation of Propaganda and Fake News
I believe it is important to draw a distinct line between news, propaganda, and fake news.
- News is the reporting of important issues to a society by journalists in a manner that is adequate enough to provide insightful details of what is occurring, and reporting that is inclusive of the major differing viewpoints so that citizens have an opportunity to hear multiple perspectives.
- Propaganda is information, especially of a biased or misleading nature, used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view. It is important to note that this form of persuasion may cite completely factual events or personal beliefs in order to persuade their audience.
- Fake News is the spread of false information under the guise or pretense of being true or accurate.
When the FCC first wrote the rules governing the Fairness Doctrine they could hardly have imagined a world with the internet where anyone with a connected device could easily and cheaply spread ideas without regard to accuracy or the effect it may have on our democracy. In those days the Big Three Broadcasters reigned supreme, ABC, CBS, and NBC. One report in the Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media found that “In 1980, more than 90% of television viewers were tuned into one of these three networks during prime time. By 2005, the season ending average prime-timeshare of the Big Three networks had fallen to 32%.” I’m sure that today the dilution of the Big Three has been further diluted.
This proliferation of media sources developed faster than our ability to understand the quality or accuracy of the information. Indeed, according to a recent Pew Research Study, a full 23% of Americans admitted having either knowingly shared fake news or later found out that they did so. In the same study, 88% of Americans indicated that they believed that completely fake news has contributed to either some or a great deal of confusion about basic facts or current events.
What can we do about it?
A lot of people in the FI/RE community have been promoting this idea that avoiding the news is the best way to optimize for happiness. They simply avoid the news all together. While I sympathize with the desire to avoid happiness sucking outlets, I don’t believe that engaging with real news produced by journalists does anything but enrich my life. In my opinion, staying up-to-date on the news and current events is a matter of love for my country and fellow humans that gives me a clear competitive advantage over people who forego staying up-to-date, or consume an information diet of propaganda and fake news.
“Don’t think it is enough to attend meetings and sit there like a lump…. It is better to address envelopes than to attend foolish meetings. It is better to study than act too quickly; but it is best to be ready to act intelligently when the appropriate opportunity arises… Speak up. Learn to talk clearly and forcefully in public. Speak simply and not too long at a time, without over-emotion, always from sound preparation and knowledge. Be a nuisance where it counts, but don’t be a bore at any time… Do your part to inform and stimulate the public to join your action…. Be depressed, discouraged and disappointed at failure and the disheartening effects of ignorance, greed, corruption and bad politics — but never give up.”
So, how can you stay informed and have civil discussions about the current events of importance without draining all of the happiness from your life? I have a few tricks that just might help.
- Always source your information from institutions with a long track record of legitimate journalism. Never trust a story that you see posted by a friend or family member without vetting the source, this is how fake news spreads. If you are going to engage, it is best to start with the truth. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is something that should be adhered to by your news outlet of choice. Wherever you source your news from you should put a premium on a staff of journalists, not just reporters. If you can’t identify a staff of journalists it is probably because there are none. Here is a short list of news outlets that employ real journalists and are widely recognized for the Pulitzer Prize winning quality of their reporting:
- The Wall Street Journal
- The New York Times
- The Washington Post
- Social media in general, and Facebook especially, is an awful source of unbiased information. Fake news sites attract a much higher share of their incoming web traffic through links on social media. Go directly to a trusted journalism outlet for your information.
- Avoid negative people (or posts) and interact with positive people (or posts). Facebook and other social media platforms have an ability to affect our emotions. Because these platforms thrive on our interactions with them they create feedback loops which in the case of negative posts can be especially dangerous to our emotional states. A few tips for avoiding negativity:
- Make exceptions with who you share posts to avoid negative people.
- Don’t share negative material, but do share positive material.
- Hide, snooze, or un-follow friends. When you select those three little dots on the top right of a person’s post you have a range of options that allow you to remain connected with a person without having to be subjected to their negative rhetoric or posts.
- Un-friend a person if they exhibit behavior that is unacceptable to you. You wouldn’t tolerate certain types of behavior in person, why would you tolerate it online?
- Limit your news intake to certain times of the day and limit the amount of time you spend consuming the news. Depending on whether you are a morning or night person will dictate when the optimal time for you to consume information is. In general, it is best not to dwell too much on things that our outside of our control.
- Read and share with a purpose. Have an understanding of why you are taking time out to read the news in the first place so you can optimize your news consumption. Be thoughtful in what you choose to share.
I hope you find this helpful and it allows you a few tools to employ as we head into another election season where politics will undoubtedly raise emotions.
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