Turn It Off

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.

6 thoughts on “Turn It Off

  1. Bill Brinkmoeller

    Deirdré, you have absolutely nailed it! I’ve been working in tv and involved in news for about 25 years, and I can tell you that I have watched it change in the time I’ve been in it. More and more, I see tawdry sensationalism being passed off as “news”. In almost any story, if we can show someone in tears, whether tears of sadness, joy, or suffering, we will do it. In news rooms, this is called “engaging the viewers”, but you were spot-on when you observed that it’s all just another reality show. People’s emotions are being played, and the tricks become more and more insidious each day, whether it’s by interviewing someone who has just endured some terrible tragedy, or the more mundane games, like trying to trick viewers into thinking that a commercial break isn’t coming up when one is. (Yes. The attitude of tv news organizations is that their viewers have the intelligence of an 8 year-old and the attention span of a gnat.) Very nice piece of writing, and even though you’re probably “preaching to the choir” in most cases here, I still commend you for saying it!

    You’re pretty damn cool.

  2. Deirdre Straughan Post author

    Thanks! That piece was written in a burst of furious inspiration after a friend said on Facebook that she was “heartbroken” about the tornado. That’s when I realized that even many intelligent people don’t get this.

  3. Sally Kibblewhite

    Thank you for that, Deirdre’. Good to be reminded of the purpose of “The news”. For years I have refused to listen to the early morning news because it is usually bad news ( of course) and not a good beginning to a fresh new day. Nor do I read the daily paper. Yes, thank goodness for publications like “The Economist” which give a balanced , considered perspective on current affairs.

    I recommend the non religious, non political global organisation AVAAZ which uses the internet to spread information and give little people like me the opportunity to sign a petition on a topical issue. These petitions do influence politicians. Another way of overcoming that feeling of helplessness and “doing something”.

  4. Robyn

    Hey Girl, You’re preachin’ to the choir. I never was a big fan of TV news but I stopped watching it completely when Ceausescu was executed, that was enough for me. When news is written down it is easier to filter the facts as reported from the sensationalism and the editorial slant. R

  5. Harriet Green

    You are 100% right about this. I have preached it for years. When I went to work in TV, interviewing, I was told to always ask the “how do you feel” question. Unfortunately stories about all the troops who come back safely from war, all the kids who are not kidnapped, all the homes that are not destroyed, all the marriages that are working ok, and all the beautiful weather we may be having do not attract viewers.
    If we are not depressed by what we hear, we will not need the solace provided by whatever product is sponsoring the program. And to add to it, most advertising has to tell us how badly off we are (how fat, how yellow-toothed, how unfashionable, etc.) before it can give us the remedy–THEIR car, toothpaste, cereal, etc.
    No wonder we walk around depressed! (And, yes, tthey have a remedy for that, too!)

  6. Lyda Ann Baker

    Thank you for saying what I’ve been saying for years! I can’t think of the last time I watched a local newscast – it all seems to be tragedy TV. I know “good news” doesn’t sell – but that’s just sad. Maybe one of these days, the stations will realize these depressing stories aren’t selling, either.

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