Warning! Graphic Content Ahead! You can turn back now … or choose to read further.
Have you ever gone to an online news source to suddenly, surprisingly encounter a gut-wrenching headline or photo? Did it make you feel sucker-punched in the stomach?
Now, don’t get me wrong: I think as citizens we have an obligation to know about certain events that may be tragic, hurtful, sad, distressful or disturbing. I’m not saying that horrible events shouldn’t be reported. However, as a psychologist, I would argue that as a society we should have somewhat ‘safe spaces’ in which we can receive news without the proverbial punch in the stomach, if we know, at least in that moment, that we just simply can’t handle it.
As a psychologist, I work with veterans, many with PTSD. Sometimes, they, like many of us, log onto online content to feel more socially connected. Like a self-therapeutic gesture, we do this to sometimes feel more soothed, or distracted from dark or lonely feelings as we delve into novel online content.
Typically, when looking for that sense of connection, or delight, or enrichment, one may turn to news of recent politics, world news, sports scores, entertainment news, comedy sites, book reviews, health & science news, pictures of natural wonders, and so on. However, for many seeking engagement with the news in such a way, they may instead find that their initial encounter will be overshadowed by abrupt headlines detailing deaths, deaths of children, or tortured children on the front page of a particular news site. Even if one is Internet-savvy enough to skip to the front page of these news sites and go straight to their section of interest, horrific headlines and pictures of death and torture will await them on the sidebars. These are non-sequiturs popping up on the same page as articles devoted to meditation, real estate, sports, comedy, and parenting.
Not being able to control encounters with this type of devastating news can be psychologically problematic. It’s not just a problem with combat veterans, or those with PTSD. In fact, I repeatedly hear about this problem from people from many walks of life. Combat veterans and parents of young children are particularly vocal about it. I believe this phenomena causes something that I’ve coined as “news blues.” News blues causes distress when one is not expecting it or prepared for it. It often causes the reader to disengage in that moment from reading the news altogether.
As an avid online news reader, I too have personally felt the news blues. There has been the sting of an unexpected photo, the headline of atrocities to children when I am expecting to read something more benign at night, such as sustainable architecture awards.
Yes, I listen to horrible stories of atrocities for a living. I am able to listen fully, in the right context. For me, there is a large difference between learning about tragedy and atrocities when one feels empowered to help in some way, as a psychologist helps a patient, and then reading about it passively from a new source, with no way to help. The other piece of this is the element of surprise. It is easier to cope with news of such events when it is expected. This allows people to then prepare for such news and work to be emotionally ready for it.
We are rapidly losing control over when and how we are exposed to devastatingly detailed headlines and their accompanying graphic photos.
Some news sites are better able to provide content of all types without the surprise gut-wrenching punch from the headline itself. Although they don’t have a perfect track record, the New York Times often is able to report on crimes important to the nation and world without giving the reader panic attacks or news blues from the headline.
In contrast, the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast -– ironically, two of my favorite news aggregator sites — do so less well. Recently, both sites had headlines on their front page announcing the murder of children in Afghanistan, accompanied by an actual photo of the corpses of these dead children. There was no warning label obscuring the view. There was no “click here” for those who were willing to see. In other words, the visitor on the front page/home page of these sites had no choice but to see this.
What can happen from not being able to control what one sees? For those adults with anxiety and mood disorders, this can set off a whole slew of anxious and harmful sequelae. For those adults without mental health issues, I contend that this can cause news blues. A common emotional response is difficulty in processing the surprise graphic encounter with a horrible atrocity and tragic image, followed by a decision to shut off the news site all together, and ending, at least for the time being, seeking out news.
My concern, apart from the emotional health of readers, is that news blues has the potential to contribute to a civic crisis. When adults stop reading the news, our responsibility as a populace to be informed is eroded. Everyone may not be experiencing news blues. Yet, many report they are becoming desensitized, and this is also problematic. We need to be informed and maintain compassion for other humans.
The social norms of what can be shared in the U.S media have shifted. Where are the honest-but-gently-worded headlines that beckon readers to read more about an important tragedy within the content of the article, instead of disclosing the most disturbing aspects within the headline? Where are the online hyperlinks that can protectively place graphic and upsetting photos behind further ‘clicks’ for the intrepid, willing, and prepared adult readers? Where are the warnings that inform and caution the reader that “some of the following photos may contain graphic content” ?
If, while reading online, we want to know what the “7 Foods We Shouldn’t Live Without Are” or where the “Happiest Cities in the World” are, we have to get there by a dozen clicks and endure slow-loading slide shows. Yes, I know that’s how these sites gauge our engagement which they then use to earn money from advertisers. But why hide this benign information behind a multitude of clicks and slow-loads and then put images of the corpses of dead children openly on the front page and openly on the side-bars of every news page?