Dear Dana is a bi-weekly advice column for humans who engage in romantic relationships. Please send your dilemmas, issues, conundrums, assumptions, conflicts, anxieties, worriments, obstacles, complications, predicaments, queries, questions, and any other synonyms for “problems” to firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m having a rough time lately. It seems like every other week, there’s another horrific shooting or terrorist attack. The news is basically never good, and now we have to worry about Zika, too! On top of that, the presidential election is killing me. There’s just so much divisiveness and anger on both sides of the ticket. I can’t even get on Facebook anymore without being bombarded by hateful comments and sexist memes. Is the world going to shit? Or am I being too sensitive?
My anxiety these days is through the roof and it’s affecting not only my ability to sleep, but also my relationships. I find that I’m edgy all the time, I’ve taken down my Tinder profile, and am avoiding any social interaction with my friends. Who wants to be out in the world right now when the world is such a scary place? I don’t want to damage my relationships (and potential ones) any further, but I don’t know how else to manage. Can you help?
Sick & Tired of Being Sick & Worried
At the risk of sounding like a horrific high school valedictorian speech (“Webster’s dictionary defines ‘graduation’ as…”), I need to start this one off by backing it all the way up and defining our terms.
What is news?
News is new or noteworthy information—it’s information that is both interesting and timely. Stories that appear on the news are, by the very virtue of their being on the news, anomalies. It is the job of the news to show you things that are unusual. Newscasters don’t report on things going OK because things going OK is normal and therefore isn’t interesting. The vast majority of the time, people go about their daily lives without horrific things happening to them. Stories where things go as expected, or even where things are getting better, is not interesting and therefore not newsworthy.
I teach storytelling classes and when my students are looking for new material I always tell them to focus on something that went wrong. “No one wants to hear about that time you made a good decision and everything went well,” I joke. But it’s true. If TV newscasts decided to change their tactics and report on normal, boring, nice things, no one would watch.
The point of news is to report the unusual and the worrisome. This can be anxiety-provoking enough when the producers only have 30 minutes to fill (“What household item is killing you right now? Tune in at 6PM to find out!”), but when they have 24 hours to fill, the need to find interesting/unusual stories is intensified. And when you can’t find those stories, the next step is to shape benign information to make it appear to be more interesting/unusual.
Twenty-four hour news needs ratings to survive, and we ourselves have taught it how to get those ratings. Those few rare moments that are genuinely horrifying and heartbreaking have re-shaped modern news—the first days of the first Iraq War, OJ Simpson’s Bronco chase with the police, 9/11, Hurricane Katrina. Moments that rip into all of our lives and pull us to the TV screen show the producers what works, how to get and then keep ratings. Scare the crap out of us and we’ll stay tuned, hoping for a resolution, hoping for some sort of relief.
Always remember, it’s not the job of the news to show you how the world actually is—it’s the job of the news to sell ad space. It needs to keep you tuned in so it can attract, and then overcharge, advertisers. And I know this sounds cynical as fuck, but I was raised in a house where both of my parents were public relations professionals. The way other children are told to look both ways before crossing the street, I was told to never, under any circumstances, speak to the national media. Not that an 8-year-old would ever really have cause to do so, but I knew that if for some reason I woke up with news vans on our front yard that I was to only say “no comment” as I pushed past reporters on my way to the school bus.
Facebook is also a highly inaccurate reflection of the world. Facebook recently admitted to manipulating individuals’ newsfeeds as part of a psychological study to see how they would react to receiving overwhelmingly negative updates—would their own updates become more negative? Yes, of course they did. Facebook is constantly manipulating its algorithm to make you want to return to it, and to spend more time on it. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been scrolling through Facebook on my phone and thought: Why am I doing this? What am I looking for? What am I hoping to find? Do I really need to know all of this information about all of these people? Is this information helping me at all in any way? Or is it slowly making me more and more sad, removed, isolated, depressed?
When you feel safe and happy and relaxed you are not watching, you are not scrolling, you are not generating ad revenue. Facebook and the news make money by provoking your anxiety. Step away from them, not from your life.
The truth is that you don’t know how the world is doing—none of us do. It’s impossible to tell from our limited perspectives how things are actually going. For that we need hard data and unbiased scientists to analyze that data. That takes time, and does not at all fit into a 24-hour news cycle. I try to get most of my news from long form journalism, in-depth articles that take months and years to report and research. Which means that I don’t get a lot of breaking news, which is pretty great for my mental health.
Facebook and the news want you to think that the world is shitty so you’ll return to them to find a solution. But they’re the cause, not the solution. News is scary, not the world. The idea of Zika is terrifying, but so was monkey pox, and pig flu, and bird flu, and killer bees, and so will be whatever next big scary animal disease that emerges onto the scene. But none of them are going to get you. Really, very few things will actually get you, aside from your own worry.
Remove yourself from the sources of your anxiety, and spend more time out in the world. Start a strict regimen of self-care. Force yourself to stop using quick-fix news sources that provide 30 second headlines, and instead start reading your news, but only from reputable sources. If a news story is starting to affect your mood, stop reading it. The final stage of reading development occurs only when you realize that you don’t like something and you stop reading it—do that. Remove Facebook from your phone, remove the endless 24/7 news cycle drone of doom and gloom from your life. Replace it with people, in the world, who are not being reported on, who are actually doing OK, just like you.
Dana Norris once went on 71 internet dates, many of which you may read about here. She is the founder of Story Club and editor-in-chief of Story Club Magazine. She has been featured in McSweeney’s, Role Reboot, The Rumpus, and Tampa Review and she teaches at StoryStudio Chicago. You may find her on Twitter at @dananorris.