Is the public really being traumatized by negative news?

Is the public <em>really</em> being traumatized by negative news?
A Liberian woman crawls toward the body of her sister, who died of Ebola. The only suffering readers of news articles are asked to accept is that of knowing. (John Moore / Getty Images)

An interesting conversation cropped up on Facebook this week as a friend posted about the conflict she feels between needing to keep up with the news and be an informed citizen, and the feeling that there is so much horror and pain in the news that it becomes stressful at times.

The responses were varied and at some points perhaps disturbing, at least to a longtime journalist. There were several people who wrote that keeping up with the news was too much of an emotional burden. "I only read or watch the news if I am feeling strong," one wrote. "…I'm allowed to do what I need to do to stay sane."


Others put it in yet stronger language, that they are too sensitive to withstand news reports. "I know bad stuff happens but if I watch or hear (it) makes little me very unhappy so what I don't hear or see can't hurt me," one said. Another wrote that she stays away from the news because "I'm so sensitive, I tend to take it all internally and feel the suffering in the world too much."

These kinds of comments should have us wondering about our sense of perspective. The news tells the stories of people who are truly suffering, under regimes that kidnap their daughters, deprive them of basic human rights, kill them for not believing the same way. They die of the Ebola virus in countries that have almost no medical infrastructure. They must find the strength every day to try to survive in those conditions. The only suffering the reader is asked to accept is that of knowing; the only bruise is to our sense of contentment.

Or as another person who posted to the conversation said, "Does a great deal of the news bother me? Yes. Does it paralyze me? No. It is incumbent upon me to never partake in voluntary ignorance." Others echoed the sentiment.

Others clearly struggled with finding a balance. Some said the news had grown more sensational and untrustworthy; the recent abominable lack of reporting in a Rolling Stone story about an alleged brutal rape at the University of Virginia surely didn't help their trust in journalism. And some had found compromises. They would read the news, but also sought out positive-news sites to keep from despair. Or they would read the negative news — but just once for each story, rather reading it over and over in different iterations through the wealth of blogs, news and other sites on the Internet.

As we grapple with today's major news, a horrifying report about brutal torture conducted by the CIA and its dishonesty about its tactics, the question is renewed for us. How much are we responsible for knowing? What is the effect on us of being informed on a continual basis? Has something changed about the information or about how we receive it? Obviously, I'm asking people who care enough about information to be on this website to start with. But it is true that sad and terrible news has an effect on our happiness. The question is whether we have an obligation to give up some happiness in order to know. Can we truly be "traumatized" by news, or has the public grown too protective of its comfort?

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