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Texas Tech Professor Addresses Dangerous News Consumption

May 21, 2024

Texas Tech Professor Addresses Dangerous News Consumption

Bryan McLaughlin knows it’ll be an intense election year, but he is focused on the wellbeing of the voters.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. If you're experiencing mental health distress, Texas Tech has resources available at Beyond Okay.

The research happening at Texas Tech University is geared toward making the world a better place. The College of Media & Communication's Associate Professor Bryan McLaughlin is performing research to help people feel less stressed. 

The stressor: news consumption. 

With an intense election season ahead, McLaughlin encourages individuals to assess their relationship with the news, to be aware of traps easy to fall into, and to be kind to one another. 

Washington, We Have a Problem 

No matter what one's relationship with the news looks like, everyone has one. News is globalized, streamed 24/7 and accessible on every device we own. The threats displayed have no end: political strife, mass shootings, large-scale protests, natural disasters, climate change and even a disappearing OceanGate submersible. 

It's inescapable and unavoidable. Even those who pay little attention to the news are surrounded by headlines.  

But many are a willing audience, and a presidential election can be quite the show. 

“It's going to get bad,” McLaughlin said of the 2024 election. “In terms of tone and coverage, I think there's going to be a lot of conflict.” 

Bryan McLaughlin
Bryan McLaughlin

McLaughlin suggests most of this stems from a place of frustration for both parties. 

“I think the biggest thing is people don't really like the (repeat) candidates, and wish there were more options,” he said. 

But without self-awareness, frustration can quickly lead to fractious behavior. 

McLaughlin's research set out to help in this regard. 

In the research study titled, “Caught in a Dangerous World: Problematic News Consumption and Its Relationship to Mental and Physical Ill-Being,” McLaughlin collaborated with Texas Tech's Melissa Gotlieb and Devin Mills to discover how news consumption affects an individual's wellbeing. They also wanted to discover at what point individuals might realize they have a problem. 

They found people fall into four groups: those with non-problematic, minimally problematic, moderately problematic and severely problematic news consumption habits. The study found a correlation between individuals with moderate or severe problematic news consumption and higher levels of mental and physical ill-being. 

When individuals fixated on threatening news, there was an increased likelihood of developing chronic stress, anxiety, inflammation, long-term physiological responses and even disease. 

“Unfortunately, a lot of people won't realize there is a problem until they're super anxious or upset,” McLaughlin said, reflecting on his own experience. 

Breaking the (News) Cycle

McLaughlin is a longtime expert on political communication. He earned his master's in communication from the University of Illinois, Chicago, and he earned his doctorate in mass communications from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

He and his wife, Melissa Gotlieb, came to Texas Tech in 2014 to further their careers. After years of absorbing political news, McLaughlin began to feel not like himself, as he puts it. 

“I wasn't sleeping well,” McLaughlin said. “I was constantly on my phone instead of being present with my son. I was having higher levels of generalized anxiety.” 

While McLaughlin's attention to the news was primarily for research purposes, it didn't make it any less distressing. As he observed his growing sense of unease, it inspired his next step. This resulted in the 2022 study, but it also sparked other manuscripts and some grant funding. 

It's important to note that non-problematic consumption isn't synonymous with a lack of news consumption. McLaughlin and his colleagues aren't telling people not to watch/read the news. As with everything in life, balance is key. 

When individuals realize they have an unhealthy relationship with news, a common response McLaughlin sees is “news avoidance.” 

“This is when someone who has severely problematic habits just drops the news completely,” McLaughlin said. “You haven't changed your relationship with the news; you've just temporarily stopped using it.” 

Rather, McLaughlin suggests lessening news consumption and adding in other habits, such as reading books. 

This kind of material often fulfills the need for information in a less distressing manner. According to McLaughlin, those who watch a lot of news have what is called a “high need for cognition.” They tend to think a lot and get more wrapped up in their thoughts, needing outlets for the overwhelm their intellectualism causes.

In preparation for this year's election, there are many ways to stay informed without constantly watching clips on social media or having the news on the television. 

“There are a lot of great books on these same topics, but you'll likely get more well-researched, positive information,” McLaughlin said.

There are many ways to fill the gap for those who need a lot of mental stimulation. And for those who still prefer news stories, McLaughlin encourages them to read longform journalism. Of course, there are exceptions, but overall, longform journalism takes the time to provide more detailed context and nuance that provides a fuller picture. 

Emotional Traps

With consumption of political news, we're often like a frog in slow-boiling water. 

With algorithms designed to keep the scandals coming, it's hard not to click on the next biggest disaster. While McLaughlin was careful to state algorithms and fake news are not his specialty, he knows bad news sells, and most news outlets are businesses that need to sell. 

“There's heavy incentive for editors to select what's considered newsworthy,” McLaughlin said. “To be newsworthy, you must get people's attention. Unfortunately, nothing is more attention-grabbing than bad news.”

Research in this area shows headlines that trend negative are more likely to be clicked. What becomes especially problematic though is the more bad news is clicked, the more bad news is delivered. 

It becomes a dangerous cycle, causing increased levels of emotional distress. 

The only way to break the cycle is adopting a level of self-awareness and putting distance between yourself and those negative headlines. McLaughlin has done just that. 

In the past years, he took his own advice and reassessed his relationship with the news. 

“I developed new habits,” he said. “Instead of looking at the news first thing in the morning, I work out and eat breakfast with my family.” 

In the evenings, McLaughlin has instituted a “no-news-before-bed” routine for himself. He turns his devices off an hour before going to sleep. As a result, he is better rested.  

“I try to read a book before bed, or sometimes my wife and I will watch a movie,” he said. 

The idea is to remove themselves from the heavier topics they study throughout the day. But the key has been replacing bad habits with new ones. 

The Cost of Conflict

There are signs other than anxiety that indicate a relationship with the news may be unhealthy. Especially in terms of political news. 

McLaughlin observes political conflict costs people relationships. 

For those with unhealthy consumption habits, it can come out in their interpersonal lives. It becomes all-consuming. Even when they're not watching a clip or reading an article, it's the most pressing issue on their mind. 

“We've seen a strong correlation between problematic news consumption and political hostility,” McLaughlin said. 

Political hostility comes out in many ways, one prevalent way is called “online flaming.” This is when someone says something offensive or incendiary to someone online. The purpose is to start conflict, not listen to the others' perspectives. 

According to McLaughlin, the number of individuals who are this radical online is small, but their impact feels large.

“Some people have higher conflict orientations,” McLaughlin said. “These individuals are generally more comfortable engaging in conflict. But there's a flip side to that coin. These people also get more involved in activism.” 

McLaughlin says the takeaway isn't that a high conflict orientation is necessarily a bad thing, but that the energy should be used in productive ways. 

The trouble starts when someone with a high conflict orientation consumes too much (polarized) news, and it becomes their entire reality. 

“People can get so caught up in political news it becomes the most pressing part of their life,” McLaughlin said. “While the news represents reality, it itself, is not reality. It's often a distorted reality.” 

When people lose the ability to separate what they see in the news from the present moment, McLaughlin says that's when most of the trouble starts. When two of these personality types clash online from different partisan perspectives, McLaughlin likens it to two lightning bolts drawn to one another. 

McLaughlin hopes people consider the role these arguments have on their wellbeing. 

“I don't want to minimize the reality there are some people who are just impossible to have a reasonable conversation with,” he said. “They are intolerant, and they aren't interested in other human's rights. I don't think anyone owes it to them to have conversations. It's not safe or productive. 

“At the same time, I think people also can be a little bit better at being self-reflective, and seeing the extent to which maybe they're intolerant,” he adds. “There might be an opportunity to at least listen to what the other person is saying and try to understand their perspective.”

McLaughlin and his colleagues have found individuals with problematic news consumption report losing friendships at higher rates than those with healthier consumption habits. 

These were rarely close familial relationships, although that did occur. The lost relationships were often with friends and acquaintances. 

A Healthier Approach

At the end of the day, McLaughlin knows the news can be a helpful tool. 

“Being informed can lead to positive things like voting, activism and more engagement in communities,” he said. 

The key is making sure the news serves you, not the other way around. 

“None of this is to say the things we see in the news are not real,” McLaughlin said. “There are real reasons to be concerned, and sometimes, even angry. The problem comes when people think that's all there is. They can't separate the good from all this negative coverage they see.” 

And McLaughlin would argue there is plenty of good, too. 

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