When detecting threats becomes the threat

I thought being a responsible democratic citizen meant being informed about what was going on. But I never thought about how informed the everyday citizen should be without feeling depressed and anxious.

I realize that’s a discussion we rarely have with students around media literacy. We instruct them on approaching information critically (reading laterally, reverse image searching, decoding, paying attention to emotional triggers) but don’t discuss how to consume media. By media, I mean the news. We’ve had discussions around screen time, social media, gaming, and entertainment for years. But what about the headlines? Would parents or educators be alarmed if students read a newspaper online or social media posts from news sources? No. All the time? No, we would be happy they are so apprised of world events.

But how can we teach our students to consume news without increasing anxiety and stress?

The changing nature of news

I don’t need to write about how news changed from static print on paper to 24/7 talking heads, alarmist headlines, constant updates, fact v. opinion distortions, graphic videos, etc. And with so much opinion and commentary seeping into sources, it’s hard to avoid consuming news online or on TV without some form of emotional reaction. And it can be as addictive as any online outlet by our propensity for entertainment and negativity: “the human brain is wired to pay attention to information that scares or unsettles us – a concept known as ‘negativity bias.’…The state of our survival depends on finding rewards and avoiding harm, but avoiding harm takes priority” (Heid 2020).

When detecting threats becomes the threat

Like ourselves, we want our students to make good decisions based on evidence. And when a catastrophic event happens like the pandemic, we want to be more informed to feel in control and know what to do. But the changing nature of the virus meant the response to it changed repeatedly. Such lack of certainly coupled with continued access to social media “was associated with increased depression, anxiety and stress: (March 2020).

But the key difference is in how people consume their news. This article writes, “after the September 11th attacks, young people who consumed news via online sources experienced more PTSD symptoms that those using traditional media. This effect was attributed to more graphic images online” (March 2020).

Tips for staying informed citizens without losing our minds

I am not suggesting we recommend students only read a print newspaper. But these suggestions can help all of us know what is going on without feeling the world will end tomorrow.

  1. Read reputable news sources: News from venerable institutions like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal (and not their op-eds, editorials, or opinion sections) strive to be informative without hyperbole. Of course, this is not always the case, but in general, their news journalists strive to avoid their gossipy peers’ tabloid, click-bait tendencies. And if students want to learn more topic context, direct them to Wikipedia, an accurate, crowd-sourced site of experts who strive to follow its neutral, objective mantra.
  2. Read the entire article: Some headlines are written (or posed as questions) to draw readers in by supposed correlations or hysteria. For example, a 2019 headline from the New York Times reads, In Month After ’13 Reasons Why’ Debut on Netflix, Study Finds Teen Suicide Grew. The headline gives the impression that this show caused suicide rates to increase. However, if you read the article, it states: “The new study was correlational, meaning the authors could not determine whether watching the show actually influenced the suicide of any viewer” (Carey 2019). Later in the article, a doctor says, “Suicide rates bounce around a lot more when cell sizes are low,” followed by “However, we must always be cautious when trying to draw causal conclusions from correlational data” (Carey 2019) That’s right: correlation is not causation. So, why was this article published with this particular headline? Because it would attract readers to an article about a controversial show. Now consider this headline from The New York Post: Israel reports first case of rare double infection of COVID, flu called ‘flurona.” I doubt many people picked up on the word, rare, or that the patient “reportedly experienced only mild symptoms of each (Steinbuch 2022)” Readers saw the word flurona in bold and likely felt more anxious as 2022 began. Scientific American writes in response to these headlines: “Those of us on the front lines hope to see media and influencers focus on matters that are proportionally more relevant to the masses, rather than sensational anecdotes” (Adiga 2022). Since that, unfortunately, won’t happen, we have to advise our students on how to consume media effectively and put headlines in context.
  3. Take a break. Designate a specific time to read or watch the news. Shut off alerts. If something vital happens in the world, students will know about it. Take a day, weekend, or week away from the news. Breaking news on Saturday will still be breaking on Monday and the following week.

I plan to spend my upcoming Spring Break as a vacation from the news. I’ll still glance at some headlines, but not every day and only about certain topics. And I’ll read most of my news, avoiding TV and social media where sensationalism and opinion flourish. But don’t worry; I’ll be back to consuming the hyperbolic in manageable doses. Like most things in life, the adage “less is more” applies more than ever to today’s media landscape.


Sources Cited:

Adiga, R., 2022. Flurona; Is a Great Example of How Misinformation Blooms. [online] Scientific American. Available at: <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/flurona-is-a-great-example-of-how-misinformation-blooms/> [Accessed 11 April 2022].

Carey, B., 2019. In Month After ‘13 Reasons Why’ Debut on Netflix, Study Finds Teen Suicide Grew (Published 2019). [online] nytimes.com. Available at: <https://www.nytimes.com/2019/04/29/health/13-reasons-why-teen-suicide.html?searchResultPosition=8> [Accessed 11 April 2022].

Heid, M., 2020. You Asked: Is It Bad for You to Read the News Constantly?. [online] Time. Available at: <https://time.com/5125894/is-reading-news-bad-for-you/> [Accessed 11 April 2022].

March, E., 2020. When too much news is bad news: is the way we consume news detrimental to our health?. [online] The Conversation. Available at: <https://theconversation.com/when-too-much-news-is-bad-news-is-the-way-we-consume-news-detrimental-to-our-health-146568> [Accessed 11 April 2022].

Steinbuch, Y., 2022. Israel reports rare double infection of COVID-19 and flu. [online] nypost.com. Available at: <https://nypost.com/2022/01/03/israel-reports-rare-double-infection-of-covid-19-and-flu/> [Accessed 11 April 2022].




Author: Leanne Ellis

I am a School Library Coordinator for the New York City Department of Education’s Department of Library Services. I plan and deliver workshops, provide on-site instructional and program support to school librarians, coordinate programs, administer grants, and am program coordinator for MyLibraryNYC, a program administered with our three public library systems.

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