What Happens When ‘Viewer Stress’ Turns Off Media?

NBC report on psychology study raises concerns about media attention
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An internet meme "quoting" Abraham Lincoln about internet truth has been a favorite for the past few years. The only thing better is a version of Lincoln's "advice" about not believing "everything you read on the internet" accompanied by an illustration of Benjamin Franklin. (I have been unable to confirm if the designer of the Franklin version was being ironic or ignorant - a fitting factor for this discussion.)

These admonitions came to mind as I reviewed an NBC report last week about "Headline Stress Disorder." Although NBC's focus was on the negative effect of non-stop downbeat news coverage, a larger issue emerges: How will media deal with the public's trust - or disdain - for media?

Does the bubbling desire to "kill the messenger" apply only to news channels (which are actually thriving), or could it ripple over to other conventional media content? Several analyses of the popularity of feel-good programming, such as Hallmark Channel's Christmas movie spree (for example: this Forbes story) characterized it as a way to escape the stresses of the season and of these times.

In the American Psychological Association study, which was the basis for the NBC report, and in a newer APA "Stress in America" study conducted by Harris Poll, 72 percent of Americans said they believe the media "blows things out of proportion." Most adults (95 percent) say they follow the news regularly, but 56 percent say that doing so causes them stress, according to the survey.

The new APA survey found that 59 percent of Americans "consider this the lowest point in U.S. history that they can remember"; APA pointed out that this negative mindset came from people who lived through World War II, Vietnam, the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

“With 24-hour news networks and conversations with friends, family and other connections on social media, it’s hard to avoid the constant stream of stress around issues of national concern,” according to Arthur C. Evans Jr., PhD, APA’s CEO. “Understanding that we all still need to be informed about the news, it’s time to make it a priority to be thoughtful about how often and what type of media we consume.”

Trust in Media (?)

Although media itself is not in the top rank of personal stress factors, it is obviously the vehicle via which people learn about the problems that do unsettle them. "The medium is the message," as Marshall McLuhan intoned five decades ago.

APA said that the major stress inducers are health care, the economy, trust in government, hate crimes and general crime plus global war and terrorism. The recent APA report is loaded with other, fascinating demographic differences - e.g. women have significantly higher stress levels than men (5.1 vs 4.4 on a 10-point scale). The study did not explore whether such differences are affected by the amount of media consumption - a topic for further scholarly exploration, no doubt.

Amid all the analyses of Americans' stress situation is the more serious and expansive issue (which is being examined elsewhere): What are the political and societal implications of a devalued news industry? Is it a prelude to disbelieving everything? Beyond today's behaviors, such as only tuning in to the news sources that match your opinions, will future consumers choose to ignore it all?

If you're in or around the telecom/media biz, there's an extra stressor - depending on how close you are to the deals afoot. Friends and neighbors - "civilians" (or mere consumers) in the digital era - think you must know something about net neutrality, Disney-Fox, AT&T/Time Warner or any of the other landscape changers that have become part of the stressful media environment. Do you want to give them the right answer, presuming you KNOW the right answer? Or are you too consumed with the uncertainty of how these changes will affect your life. That is: more stress.

The NBC report included an APA checklist of things to do to reduce the media stress. It's a familiar roster ranging from avoiding social media, "no news before bedtime," and cold turkey (cut off completely). Although some viewers may adopt some of the recommendations, for people in the media/telecom industries, the options may take on a more ominous impact.

Stress will, in some yet-unknown ways, change the ways in which audiences actually consume what the industry wants to deliver. You can believe that - even if you see it on the "Interwebs."

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