With the outbreak of the new coronavirus, we’ve seen a deluge of sensational news causing fear and paranoia. Some stories warn against over-caution and denounce the media for blowing out of proportion the severity of this new virus when compared to the mortality rates of the yearly flu. Others emphasize the need for drastic action and the exponential growth of cases, with apocalyptic vocabulary propelling people to stock up on toilet paper and long-lasting food.
This change in narrative happened in the past with the climate crisis. Greta Thunberg, Rachel Carson, and Al Gore all presented messages that used fear as a tactic to incite behavioral change. Although fear may have caused other side effects, like spurring ecophobia in children who feel increasingly helpless and disconnected with nature, 350.org estimates that around 7.6 million people, including many youth, participated in the 2019 climate strikes. Is sensational news a requirement to incite mass mobilization?
When reading the news and assessing the implications for you and your loved ones, it’s important to follow a logical approach to maintain your own well-being and reduce stress.
1. Identify the news story’s purpose and audience
With all news stories, understanding the purpose and audience is crucial to interpreting the message. The media is a business that earns money based on click-through rates, advertising, and data. Companies and political parties can sway the media to tell stories from their own angle — even disguising sponsored content as legitimate journalism.
For example, Google has banned all mask ads amid the COVID-19 outbreak. However, one could argue that Google is most likely acting out of concern for its own public image and preventing legal action, not necessarily behaving altruistically.
Also, the media tends to focus on the poster children for certain issues, sometimes neglecting the issue itself. In late 2019, for example, much of the conversation around climate change focused on Greta Thunberg. Unfortunately, stories questioned whether she was brainwashed by her parents or fulfilling some hidden agenda, instead of reporting the larger issue of rising temperatures.
2. Take care of your mental health
There’s a fine line between caring about world news and advocating for change in the midst of crises — and becoming so overwhelmed that you struggle to find peace.
We need to celebrate small wins and community action in order to gain perspective and spread a healthy dose of hope and positivity. With COVID-19, we can point to Zoom giving out free video conference calls, Justin Trudeau announcing financial aid for low-income Canadians suffering economic instability, and families and friends who are sharing messages of solidarity during these challenging times.
With climate change, we should learn the names of other young activists, including those from indigenous groups, and take heart from these committed individuals who are deeply invested in saving the planet.
Constructive hope about climate change arises when a person understands the seriousness of climate change and concurrently feels there are positive goals within reach for addressing the issue. Young people who have constructive hope about climate change are significantly more likely to engage in positive environmental behaviors, compared with young people who lack hope and those who have hope based on denial of climate change.”
— Hope and climate change: the importance of hope for environmental engagement among young people, North American Association for Environmental Education
Hope and fear should go hand-in-hand, calling people to action while maintaining sanity and promoting an imaginative idealism for the future.
3. Appreciate the power of amplified, collaborative action
The media loves sensational news. With the rise of content sharing through social media, it is possible for compelling images and headlines to go viral in a matter of minutes. In the most recent climate marches, Thunberg presented an appealing image: a young, innocent schoolgirl holding corporations and governments accountable for their inaction on climate change with her provocative “I dare you” speech at the UN.
Likewise, with social and environmental issues, we are more likely to rally around emotionally compelling stories, like the doctor who blew the whistle on COVID-19 dying of the same disease, the lifeless Syrian boy on the beach, and the adorable at-risk animals in documentaries like “March of the Penguins.”
For many people, coronavirus is hitting much closer to home and having more immediate repercussions in their daily lives than damage caused by fossil fuels and pollution. Research shows how powerful collective paranoia and fear can be. Wharton management professor Sigal Barsade states, “I would argue that emotional contagion, unless we get a hold on it, is going to greatly amplify the damage caused by COVID-19.”
COVID-19 is causing us to ask important questions, given how quickly governments, academia, and businesses mobilized and coordinated in response. What if people reacted to climate change with as much urgency as they are responding to this pandemic? Why do certain stories and deaths go uncovered, while we spend days paying tribute to celebrities who have passed away? It’s very true, albeit sad, that one death is a tragedy, while a million is a statistic.
4. Choose hope and invest in community
The world’s a scary place. We may not have all the answers and that’s okay. We can’t always control our circumstances and we can’t control the sensational news, but we can change our response. We can strive to stay informed, reach out to community (even virtually), and take precautionary or preventive measures like social distancing, without losing sight of important values like joy, love, and faith.
The story will keep evolving, getting reinvented once the world tires of one version of the narrative. We must ask ourselves not only which stories we want to believe, but how we can be part of improving the reality.
About the Author
Leah Davidson is an environmentalist and social entrepreneur from Sherbrooke, Quebec, currently living in San Francisco. She is an alum of the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, and was selected as one of the Top 30 Under 30 Sustainability Leaders in Canada by Corporate Knights. Leah currently works as the co-founder of an ed-tech social enterprise Canduit (www.canduit.co).