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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.