We could all do with a laugh

Last week I suffered a rare bout of depression. I was pursued by the Black Dog due to a situation over which I had no control. It wasn’t the Coronavirus pandemic but that didn’t help. Nor did the news media.

I negotiated my way out of the darkness with the help of my wife, my brother and a good friend. I realised most of the stresses in my life – like editing a newspaper – had been matters over which I could exercise a measure of control and my black mood was caused not by the current situation but the fact that I couldn’t fix it.

The depression lifted with the realisation that I had to rely on others to resolve the issue.

However, before I got to that point, small things grew disproportionately large. Physics was turned on its head and, instead of negative attracting positive, my negativity attracted more gloom.

It was helped in no small measure by what I was reading, seeing and hearing in the media. It was unrelentingly dark.

Yes, my depression would lead me to see a world of doom and gloom, and I need to make allowances for that. However, I have looked back post-fug and I still see an overwhelming level of negativity in our print and broadcast media.

You might say that is to be expected: After all, the world is in the midst of a deadly pandemic and Auckland has had a resurgence of Covid-19.

That explains why 20 of the front-page lead stories in the  New Zealand Herald over the past month have been about the virus, compared to about half that number in the other metropolitan dallies. For a week, they were preoccupied with the sentencing of the Christchurch mosque terrorist.

In fact, over that month it was hard to find a positive lead story, unless you rate a teenager making an early discovery of testicular cancer in the shower, or a Dunedin student bar being allowed to remain open until 3am. Oh, there was a record number of building consents in Christchurch (many of them apartments, rentals and retirement units) and, if you believe it, the announcement that Transmission Gully will open a year from now.

Here is a selection  of front-page headline over those four weeks:

  • Infection beggars belief
  • Team of 5M: “We’re over it”
  • Fear and Covid in Tokoroa
  • Covid-19 scare hits Hobbiton
  • It’s back
  • Border chaos as heat goes on Government
  • Going back into Level 2 a ‘kick in the guts’

Of course, there is nothing new in reporting bad news. Sociologist Herbert Gans spent a decade in American newsrooms examining the processes in deciding what’s news (he wrote a book with that title) and concluded that much news is reported because it is undesirable or a violation of values (crime, for example).

I became concerned as editor of the  New Zealand Herald, about the level of bad news and, in particular, the amount of crime coverage. I had (almost) a rude awakening over breakfast one day when I found a crime story on every news page. I endeavoured thereafter to corral all but major crime stories on one inside page. With a wider concern about the propensity for media to carry mainly bad news, I also designated one day a year as a Good News Day. Each page had to carry at least one Good News story. It turned out to be less contrived than you might think, and readers applauded it.

In spite of moves like that, we have news media that largely devote themselves to negative stories. 

I thought that now the Black Dog is back in his kennel, I could cope more easily with an onslaught of bleak news, but I had not reckoned with the insidious effects of a pandemic.

I am finding it hard to read doom and gloom from start to finish. I’ll read a few paragraphs and turn the page. I’ll watch the beginning of a television news item then turn to a diversion on my iPad. And it’s not only the wall-to-wall coverage of Covid-19: Bushfires on the U.S. west coast, Trump’s latest affront to intelligence, species facing extinction, Putin’s poisoners, Chinese totalitarianism, the aggrieved of every description, shortcoming across every sector, victims of crime and deprivation…the list is almost endless and my general anxiety levels on behalf of humankind (and every other species) are red-lining.

Anxiety is high because pandemics and wars do that to people. Scientific American describes what the world is going through as “the biggest psychological experiment in history”. It says people face a multiple wallop: the threat of disease, loneliness of isolation, loss of loved ones, repercussions of job loss and ongoing uncertainty about when the pandemic will end. It quotes psychologist Anita DeLongis of the University of British Columbia: “This pandemic just ticks all the boxes in terms of the kinds of stressors that are going to be difficult.” 

The Washington Post reported last month that in the U.S., the national rate of anxiety tripled in the second quarter compared to the same period in 2019 (from 8.1% to 25.5%), and depression almost quadrupled (from 6.5% to 24.3%). In Britain, which has also had a severe outbreak and a long lockdown, depression has roughly doubled, from 9.7% of adults before the pandemic to 19.2% in June.

We haven’t had it anywhere near as bad but we would be fooling ourselves if we did not admit that our collective levels of anxiety and stress have risen. And the pandemic isn’t over yet.

For every study of anxiety in the pandemic, there is another about resilience. Ann Masten is an expert in  child development and she recently gave a talk to the American Psychological Association on the role of resilience in the face of Covid-19. In it she said: “I think not only should we limit the media exposure to the situation of our children, but also ourselves. I certainly have found that as time goes on, I’m beginning to monitor and watch out for how much time I spend watching the news, because there’s a lot of repeating, and there’s a lot of dire situations portrayed on the news. I’ve realised that I can only handle so much of that, and it’s beginning to affect what I’m thinking about, how well I’m sleeping…I think that many people around the world are doing lots of things to try to draw on their resilience, including thinking of different ways to calm their fears. Some of them may be actions to try to reduce exposure like I was talking about with the media, trying to be careful how much exposure you have to terrible news on television.”

I know what she means.

Just as I coped with my bout of depression by bringing perspective to my situation, the news media have a role to play in helping the public over their anxieties by bringing a new perspective to their coverage.

I am not suggesting for one moment that the threat of Covid-19 should be minimised. We can leave that to Donald Trump. The perspective needs to be in the totality of their coverage and its aim should be to increase our collective resilience.

Overall news coverage requires better balance. Life is not all bad, nor is it all milk and honey. We experience a mix of light and shade and it’s time our news media better reflected that reality.

The balance is not struck by following pages of negative news with a few pages of leisure and entertainment. Within the news and opinion and within the top part of news programmes we need stories about the positive things are happening in our lives. And that does not simply mean stories about recovery from the pall of adversity (which satisfies the journalistic craving for bad news before giving the good news).

Many journalists will scoff at such suggestions and tell me that the public want bad news, even if they won’t admit it. Their proof is a circular argument that people wouldn’t read, listen or watch the bad news on offer if they didn’t like it. It was challenged long ago by people like BBC newscaster Martyn Lewis who argued that the editorial priorities of the day’s news should weight positive stories on the same set of journalistic scales as we weigh negative ones: “And the balancing factor on those scales – the main criteria for commissioning and including stories – should not be the degree of violence, death, conflict or disaster they encompass or represent, but should be based on the extent to which these stories shape or change, or have the potential to shape or change, the country or the world in which we live.”

It may help to allay newsroom fears of circulation and audience collapse by noting a story last week in the UK Press Gazette about the increased demand for celebrity stories during the pandemic. Heaven forbid that our media should increase the number of stories about entertainers and the famous-for-being-famous who don’t have a hope in hell of qualifying for Martyn Lewis’ balancing factor, but it is an indication of the public’s desire to be freed from an unending diet of doom.

The need is all the greater because of the extraordinary time in which we are now living. “Unprecedented” is the grossly overworked word that is usually applied but it is not, in fact,  unique in terms of psychological impact. 

In March the Atlantic Monthly ran an article comparing Covid-19 and the Blitz in the Second World War. It looked at the factors that contributed to British resilience, factors that news media should now have at the forefront of their thinking. The author, David Brooks, said the lessons from Britain’s experience during the Blitz are pretty clear. In national crises, a sort of social and psychological arms race takes place. The threat—whether bombings or a pandemic—ramps up fear, unpredictability, divisiveness, fatalism, and feelings of weakness and meaninglessness. Nations survive when they can ramp up countervailing emotions and mindsets. This happens when countries take actions, even if only symbolic ones, that make frightening situations feel more controllable and predictable.

To my mind, that means making our media a better reflection of the lives we lead, the society in which we live and its light as well as shade.

Perhaps we might start with humour. We have a plethora of columnists and opinionated journalists with deeply dystopic views of the present and future. We have only a handful of writers like Steve Braunias who make us laugh … or at least smile. Yet the Blitz showed the importance of being able to laugh in the face of adversity. Before that, we had Stan Cross’ enduring depression-era cartoon ‘For gorsake stop laughing…this is serious’ that is still cited in studies that highlight the role of humour in increasing resilience.

And, right now, we could all do with a good laugh.

Bouquet: To the reading public of New Zealand for turning again to newspapers during the pandemic. Nielsen readership figures show that, between the first and second quarters of the year, the New Zealand Herald’s readership grew a massive 105,000 to 546,000; the Waikato Times was up 9000 to 56,000; the Dominion Post and The Press up 7000 to 145,000 and 143,000 respectively; and the Otago Daily Times up 10,000 to 104,000. 

3 thoughts on “We could all do with a laugh

  1. you are not on your own – a lot of us feel the same – I know I do from time to time. Currently with the advent of spring and the garden beginning to burgeon with new life its easier, but still not everyone has a garden or the calm to enjoy it if they are in danger of losing their job or home.

    We’re reading Tom Scotts new book on Charles Upham – its uplifting and wickedly funny at the same time.Good to be reminded of the old saying ” tough times never last but tough people do”.

    Personally I read the headlines and then decide if I want to read that particular article – anything about or said by Trump is only glanced at.

  2. Thanks for this, Gavin. I too get uplift from a garden blossoming into Spring and the tui thrashing around in our kowhai tree. For laughs, I read a chapter or two from Nick Hornby’s two collections; ‘More Baths Less Talking’ and Ten Years in the Tub.

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