Friday, 18 February 2011

should the Daily Mail come with a mental health warning?

An enterprising young man wants to persuade his mother to stop reading the Daily Mail, so has set up a group on Facebook which lists all the paper's cancer scare stories over the last few years. It is an astonishing list, painstakingly linked to each article on the Mail's website - almost 150 carcinogens from flip-flops and hugging, to talcum powder and till receipts. Smoking isn't mentioned.

I remember Mike Yaconelli once saying that good satire doesn't always need to provide witty commentary. Sometimes it is simply enough to hold up a mirror to what someone has said or done. The Facebook list does just that, and speaks for a news agenda that plays on our fears and anxieties.

It is a little unfair, I suppose, to single out one newspaper. The front pages of papers are dominated by bad news, and can leave one gasping for hope amidst the litany of woes that are the headlines. What does our exposure to all this news of greed, violence, and catastrophe do to our state of mind?

Michael Moore's conclusion, in his film Bowling for Columbine, is that the anxiety created by the news agenda in the USA is responsible for the number of people who own - and consequently discharge - guns.

Others have suggested that levels of anxiety, depression, panic attacks and social withdrawal are linked to fear stoked by the news.

But it is not all bad news, of course. The media is limbering up for the overboard coverage they are sure to give the royal wedding. Sometimes a good news story can spread itself across a dozen pages of a tabloid newspaper. And remember the coverage given to the remarkable rescue of the Chilean miners?

There is another argument. We don't actually get enough bad news, because our diet of reality is diluted by celebrity gossip, political commentary or those feel-good 'And finally...' stories. Editors know that it is hard for us to swallow too much depressing reality and must leaven the mix to keep readers engaged. Attention-grabbing headlines, that draw us in by playing on our fears, give way to cheering human interest stories to remind us that everything is fine really.

Writing in the Church Times (£) a few months ago, Giles Fraser suggested that the instinct to tone down the news might have something to do with how we wish to see ourselves.
I wonder why it is women who write best about evil: Mary Midgley, Gitta Sereny, Gillian Rose, Hannah Arendt. Perhaps it is because, unlike men, they do not so readily refocus their distress at hearing [stories of human atrocities] into some passionate expression of retributive anger. This allows time and space for a more disturbing reality to dawn: that we might have more in common with the perpetrators than we are comfortable acknowledging.

News of inhuman treatment towards others is appalling to read. Part of that shock is realising the capacity of some people to do things we would never dream of. And yet perhaps within us is an understanding that what drives people to commit acts of terror, assault, abuse or murder is the same sorry collection of fears, insecurities, shame and hatred that we all have to confront within ourselves. We may not be driven to the same extremes, but which of us hasn't had moments when we could have cheerfully throttled a colleague or family member? Or fantasised about the 'disappearance' of a difficult person from a challenging situation?

Reading the paper may or may not be bad for our mental health. But perhaps it should prompt us to examine closely the state of our spiritual well-being.

No comments:

Post a Comment