THE BLOG

Overwhelmed By Bad News? You're Not Alone

08/07/2014 01:50 pm ET | Updated Oct 07, 2014

It feels as though we've been drowning in terrible news all summer, and every day seems to bring more waves crashing down on our hapless heads. Some people I know -- people who pride themselves on being well-informed -- have told me they've become so emotionally drained and depressed that they've had to stop reading and watching the news.

When did this current onslaught begin? Maybe it was May 5, when Abubakar Shekau, the Nigerian maniac who heads the band of murderous Islamist thugs called Boko Haram, released a ranting video combining ostensible religious fervor with a threat (and borderline sales pitch) to sell into slavery 250 or so girls whom the group kidnapped two weeks earlier.

Or maybe May 23, when Elliot Rodger, a deeply disturbed 22-year-old man, went on a rampage in Isla Vista, Calif., shooting and stabbing six people to death, wounding 13 and then killing himself. Like Shekau, Rodger had made videos containing clear evidence of his mental illness and left behind a rambling written autobiography of sorts. Media outlets generously labeled it a "manifesto," as if it expressed a well-considered philosophy of life, rather than the scribblings of a profoundly sick man.

The pace picked up in June as the retrograde rebels of ISIS (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria -- which now prefers that we use, thank you, the simpler brand name "Islamic State") began seizing Iraqi cities and territory from overmatched forces of the struggling and generally discredited central government.

ISIS forces have persecuted and brutalized Muslims whose religious beliefs differ from theirs and evicted Christians from a community in Mosul that had co-existed with a succession of conquerors for some 1,600 years. The ISIS extremists struck another blow for ignorance by destroying the shrine of Jonah, the prophet honored by the traditions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity alike.

Add to all this Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, shot out of the sky on July 17 -- almost certainly, if mistakenly, by forces armed by Russia in eastern Ukraine. Some 300 innocents perished horribly. Remember, too, some blowhards of Murrieta, Calif., who just before the Fourth of July found the courage to denounce and spew hateful threats at busloads of migrant children, alone and fleeing violence in their Central American home countries and needing temporary refuge while the U.S. judicial system works through their cases as required by law.

Speaking of upsetting developments, is anyone really in charge of the CIA or do operatives decide on their own to spy on the Senate committee responsible for intelligence oversight, as was confirmed last week? And there seems little comfort in news that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) -- whose labs were recently found to have mishandled samples of anthrax, bird flu and smallpox -- built the facility at Emory University in Atlanta where two very sick Americans infected overseas with the Ebola virus have been brought for crucial treatment.

But to the battered sensibilities of news consumers this summer, nothing has been more frustrating and depressing to try to follow than news of the conflict in Gaza between Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and the militant Palestinian group Hamas.

It began on June 12 when three Israeli teenagers were kidnapped and murdered in the West Bank, allegedly by Palestinians with Hamas sympathies. On July 2, a Palestinian teen was kidnapped and murdered in East Jerusalem, allegedly by extremist Israelis. Hamas launched rockets at Israel from Gaza, and on July 8, the IDF launched Operation Protective Edge against Hamas activities in, around and under Gaza.

The two sides disagree not only on matters of interpretation and opinion but also on virtually every fact, making authoritative coverage all but impossible. About the only thing Israel and Hamas seem to share is a determination to shape and spin coverage to their respective advantage. Indeed, the PR battle has been fought with as much vigor, if less armament, as the physical combat and continues even as the conflict has begun to show signs of winding down.

Israeli officials, for example, have strongly disputed the media's focus on civilian deaths and injuries and accounts of Israeli shelling of schools-turned-shelters run by the United Nations, the latest just Sunday. They emphasize the Hamas practice of positioning missiles in and around civilian neighborhoods and challenge the impartiality of Gaza-based agencies that compile casualty figures.

Human rights groups working in Gaza have asserted that of the estimated 1,800 Palestinians killed there since fighting began, roughly 80 percent have been non-combatants.

On Saturday, Aug. 2, however, Israel's deputy foreign minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, told Channel Two television in Israel that such claims were flatly incorrect. Hanegbi cited new Israeli military research establishing that "at least 47 percent of the fatalities are terrorists" and that the researchers had identified them "with photographs and names."

News consumers might be forgiven for feeling even more dispirited by that report and noting the parallel arithmetic conclusion: 53 percent of the fatalities -- more than half -- have been non-combatants.

No wonder some news junkies say they're kicking their habits. But is that a solution?

In his recent essay "Taking a News-Out," John Cassidy of The New Yorker noted the recent pile-up of awful news developments, cited surveys indicating that most Americans do not want U.S. military power involved and pointed out that disconnecting from distressing news doesn't stop distressing news from happening.

Seeking out credible assessments of coverage is another approach. At Reuters, for example, the terrier-esque Jack Shafer holds media organizations to a high standard, praises them when they meet it and nails them when they don't. Shafer was particularly sharp in June tracking shameful media transgressions in coverage of the release of Army Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl after five years of captivity by the Taliban in Afghanistan.

NPR's "On the Media" takes on media-related issues each week, helping listeners sort out what they read, watch and hear. The program also offers a not-quite-tongue-in-cheek "Breaking News Consumer's Handbook," which is really one page listing nine cautionary truths about breaking news. Number One: "In the immediate aftermath, news outlets will get it wrong."

And on Aug. 6, this publication was scheduled to partner with the Jewish Community Center and the Jewish Community Relations Council for a live panel discussion of Israel-Gaza news coverage followed by audience questions, the latest installment in the "Can We Talk?" series.

One final reminder: When bad news becomes overwhelming, as it does with some regularity, the cable news channels are not your friends. Your need for clear understanding and a healthy state of mind are incompatible with their on-air and online business plan, which depends on you being anxious and staying tuned in. Giving them up is easier than you think.

A version of this commentary originally appeared, in print and online, in the St. Louis Jewish Light.