Are you feeling terrible about the state of the world? Do you become numb or depressed as shock after shock unreels before your horrified gaze, 24 hours a day, on multiple live “news” channels? Have you been feeling that way since, oh, at least December (or November, if you voted for Romney)?
It doesn’t matter what this week’s specific disaster is: you don’t need to know about it in the lurid detail that the TV news is so pantingly eager to provide.
Yes, it’s terrible, but things just as terrible happen all over the world, every day – many of them preventable or directly man-made, which (to my mind) makes them worse tragedies. But the fact that the news operations you watch can get camera crews to a particular scene, and that the suffering people at that scene look more or less like you, and speak the same language as you, makes it seem far more personal, overwhelming, and tragic. The news crews milk that for all it’s worth.
Remember that the “news” is not the product – your attention is. The aim of most TV news channels and newspapers is to hold your attention so that they can sell it to advertisers. Audience share, ratings – that’s all jargon for getting you to watch as long as they can, so that they have more advertising slots to sell.
So they pile on the drama. A real-life event becomes just one more reality show, in which your natural empathetic reaction to others’ suffering is played upon, over and over and over. That empathy, too, is served up to keep attention glued to the tube: “Tell me, ma’am, how did you feel when you saw it happening?”
The solution is simple: turn it off. Unless you or someone you love is in the path of the hurricane or the building with the shooter, you are likely not affected. You can read the facts in a newspaper (preferably a non-hysterical one; personally, I recommend The Economist). If you want to express your empathy, do it in a useful way: donate what you can to a reputable charity that is actually doing something to help.
Then go about your day. Your feeling terrible about the state of the world is not helping the situation, and it’s certainly not helping you. But it sure keeps those advertising dollars flowing in.