Overwhelmed by News: Helping Students See the Bigger Picture

Not long ago, there was a massive explosion in Beirut. Videos of the blast were unbelievable. Hundreds were killed, thousands were injured, and hundreds of thousands became homeless. Do you know what has happened since then? Not likely. That story was dropped. It was pushed aside by other stories. It is yesterday’s news. There are new horrible events to cover.

We live in an era of information overload. Students are bombarded with an enormous amount of news. Television channels provide 24 hours of non-stop coverage, and social media sites link to articles and comments. Online news sources are everywhere. According to the Pew Research Center, people often get their news from television about three times as often as from print, from websites roughly twice as often as from print, and from social media about 25% more often than from print.

Unfortunately, much of this news is negative. These were the top stories as I wrote this blog:

  • Wildfires tear through California and Colorado
  • COVID-19 spikes in France
  • USPS may not be able handle all the mail-in ballots for the presidential election
  • Violent protests in Portland
  • Large restaurant chains are going bankrupt

What is the overall sense of this news? Is the world in good shape or bad? How many stories produce anxiety? Sadly, we have more emotional response to negative news than to positive news, just as one negative comment from a parent about your class consumes your thinking much more than five wonderful comments do. That matters. Negative news affects our worldview and traps us in negative thinking, as Psychology Today noted in this article.

Looking for the Bigger Picture

We need to give students an ability to defend themselves and their mental health. You can start with these tips on helping students prepare for reading and analyzing the news.

1. Offer big picture context.

Students need to realize that headlines alone impact their thinking and affect their emotions. As schools were opening virtually, this headline appeared: “How to Protect Children’s Eyes During Remote Learning.” On its face, this headline suggests something scary—remote learning harms my eyes! Worry! But put this news in context: is it remote learning, or is it time in front of screens we should worry about? Don’t kids spend time in front of screens anyhow? What kind of harm are we talking about? Can’t we counteract some potential problems by limiting non-school screen time?

Prompt students to think of all the questions a critical reader should ask. Lead them to big picture questions such as “Has vision changed dramatically since remote learning started?” and “How would screen time affect eyes?" In this case, looking at the big picture makes us realize that children’s eyes are not in significant danger.

2. Teach about headlines.

They are designed to attract attention. Advertisers pay based on viewership ratings and when people click on the online stories. For some reason, news about horrible and tragic events often gets more attention. This can mean that many news stories are selected not based on importance but rather on ugly sensationalism. Teach students that a headline alone may not provide the full story with needed context.

Consider this headline that showed up in the “What’s Happening” sidebar on my Twitter feed: “A child in Hidalgo County died from COVID.” Discuss with students: Why would Twitter choose to highlight this story from an obscure Texas county? How was it designed to get attention? Would you click on a story that read “Every child is well in Arapahoe County” or “An old person died in rural Texas”? Explain that they need to add context. Is this truly representative of COVID’s impact on children? Is COVID a child killer? Of all the COVID deaths, how many have been children? Is COVID more deadly for children than other diseases? Point out that headlines are designed to be dramatic and can fail to give the big picture of what's happening.

"Teach students that a headline alone may not provide the full story with needed context."

3. Pick an online news site to analyze.

Note the types of stories on a given news site and whether they are positive or negative. Have your students look up “Mean World Syndrome” and share the Psychology Today article mentioned earlier. Then, provide a balance to the negativity of news. Have students search for uplifting stories. Looking at the bigger picture helps us to see that there are lots of wonderful things happening on the planet too.

4. Offer global perspectives.

The Beirut explosion is portrayed as a horrible event, picked by news organizations to increase the belief that the world is terrible. “Something bad happened somewhere” is all that many of our students might get from this story. Use the news to further your students’ understanding. Where is Beirut? What is happening in the region? How might this event have bigger implications than the original information suggested? Who is stepping in to help? A tragic event can be a springboard to understanding more about our world.

5. Suggest limits.

First, tell students to limit the number of sources they look at. Not all “news” is news (see this blog for help with teaching media literacy). They need to get out of the habit of reading headlines and clicking on stories from random sources. Second, tell students to limit how often they look at the news. It’s okay to take some time off. Explain that it’s important to stop beating themselves up with non-stop negativity. Take a break from trauma generated by COVID stories and weather disasters. Have a news-free day.

Bottom line: Students are all overwhelmed. But if they understand the news game and how it fits into the bigger picture of life, they can improve their mental health while becoming more media literate.

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Blog contributor Erik Palmer is an author of the HMH Into Reading and HMH Into Literature programs.

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