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“Politics as a chronic stressor”: News about politics bums you out and can make you feel ill — but it also makes you take action – Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard

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Who would buy a product that reliably makes them sad, or anxious, or worried, or overwhelmed?

You wouldn’t go to a restaurant you knew made you feel ill, or listen to music that drove you up a wall, or go to a gym where the equipment gives you a new muscle tear every visit. You might do it once or twice, maaaaybe three times — but it’s unlikely you’d keep signing up for more pain, day after day.

And yet for many people, that’s exactly what they experience reading the news — especially news about politics. The act of consuming political news is, for them, just misery — a daily reminder of terrible things over which they have essentially no control. That’s particularly true for people who don’t have a strong attachment to a party or candidate; committed partisans at least get the occasional joy of seeing their side win the news cycle — for everybody else, it’s just a lot of noise.

We’ve written before about the phenomenon of news avoidance and the evidence that it’s on the rise in many places, thanks to some mix of the coronavirus, Donald Trump, and the general sense that politics has gotten uglier. And some new research out of Canada shows some of the ways political news leaves people down in the dumps.

The paper’s by Matthew Feinberg, Brett Q. Ford, Sabrina Thai, Arasteh Gatchpazian, and Bethany Lassetter. (All but Thai are at the University of Toronto; Thai is at Brock University.) It’s a preprint, meaning it hasn’t yet faced peer review, but here’s the abstract, emphases mine:

Politics and its controversies have permeated everyday life, but the daily impact of politics is largely unknown. Here, we conceptualize politics as a chronic stressor with important consequences for people’s daily lives.

We used longitudinal, daily-diary methods to track U.S. participants as they experienced daily political events across two weeks (Study 1: N=198, observations=2,167) and, separately, across three weeks (Study 2: N=811, observations=12,790) to explore how daily political events permeate people’s lives and how they cope with this influence of politics.

In both studies, daily political events consistently evoked negative emotions, which corresponded to worse psychological and physical well-being, but also increased motivation to take political action (e.g., volunteer, protest) aimed at changing the political system that evoked these emotions in the first place.

Understandably, people frequently tried to regulate their politics-induced emotions; and successfully regulating these emotions using cognitive strategies (reappraisal and distraction) predicted greater well-being, but also weaker motivation to take action.

Although people can protect themselves from the emotional impact of politics, frequently-used regulation strategies appear to come with a trade-off between well-being and action. To examine whether an alternative approach to one’s emotions could avoid this trade-off, we measured emotional acceptance in Study 2 (i.e., accepting one’s emotions without trying to change them) and found that successful acceptance predicted greater daily well-being but no impairment to political action.

Overall, this research highlights how politics can be a chronic stressor in people’s daily lives, underscoring the far-reaching influence politicians have beyond the formal powers endowed unto them.

In the two studies, Feinberg et al. asked more than 1,000 Americans to keep a daily diary for either 14 or 21 days. At the end of each day, they were to record the political story they’d thought about most that day and their emotional responses to it. They were also asked to report other more general details about their psychological and physical well-being and their motivation to take any political action.

Here’s an example of one person’s 14-day diary. The blue line marks how negative their emotional response to politics was that day — here, high means more negative, low means more positive. The red dashed line is a general measure of the person’s psychological well-being. You can see that the two lines seem to move in similar ways. On days 4 and 8, when they didn’t think about politics, they were feeling pretty good, all things considered. On the days with big political news — a government shutdown, a Dreamer being deported, a major protest — not so much.

The diaries were kept in two waves, one in late 2017/early 2018 and one in late 2018 (during debates over Donald Trump’s impeachment). What did the researchers find in that first wave?

Results indicate that day-to-day political events commonly evoke negative emotional reactions.

When thinking about the most salient political event of the day — even though our prompt was designed to be neutral and did not specifically ask about negative events — people felt at least some degree of any negative emotion (i.e., above the lowest scale point) on 81% of the days and felt stronger levels of any negative emotion (i.e., at or above the scale midpoint) on 45% of the days.

And those negative emotions were indeed associated with feeling worse, psychologically and physically. “Similarly, within-person effects indicated that when participants felt more negative emotion on a given day than they typically felt in response to a political event, they experienced worse psychological well-being and worse physical well-being.” And the results remained robust even after controlling for variables like age, gender, income, and ethnicity.

Politics can really ruin your day, in other words. In this study, Democrats and liberals had more negative emotional reactions to politics than did Republicans and conservatives — but it’s hard to discern how much of that is about partisanship and how much is just about the specific content of political news on the days being measured.

With those surveys in the books, researchers went back for a larger and more diverse group of people a few months later. The first study was specifically of people who said they think about politics on a daily basis; the second one didn’t have that requirement. Again, it found that politics tends to bum people out:

People felt at least some degree of any negative emotion (i.e., above the lowest scale point) on 75% of the days and felt stronger levels of any negative emotion (i.e., at or above the scale midpoint) on 53% of the days.

Do negative emotions about politics predict worse well-being? Replicating Study 1, stronger negative emotional responses to politics, in turn, were associated with worse psychological and physical well-being at the between-person and within-person level.

Many of the subjects reported using some sort of strategy to deal with their negative emotions, like “cognitive reappraisal; e.g., reminding oneself that a situation is not as bad as it seems, or that even bad situations can have silver linings,” “distraction; e.g., tuning out of distressing conversations, or changing the channel from upsetting news stories,” or choosing to “hide their emotions from others in daily life (expressive suppression).”

For those of us in the news media, distraction is the most germane technique, being tied to news avoidance. In the first study, subjects reported trying to distract themselves from politics on 80 percent of days. Those who did felt better, reporting lower levels of negative emotion, but crunching the numbers found successful distraction wasn’t a “significant predictor of negative emotions.”

In the second study, subjects reported trying to distract themselves on 56 percent of days, down from the first one. (Seems logical, given that the second study included people who think about politics less often.)

But…successfully distracting one’s self from politics also, predictably, reduced subjects’ interest in taking any form of political action — attending a protest, volunteering for a campaign, donating to a candidate, calling their senators, and so on. In other words, political news might make you feel miserable, but that misery can be very useful in prompting you to do something about it. That finding proved consistent among Democrats, Republicans, and independents.

I should note that this paper looks at the impact of thinking about day-to-day political happenings — not, explicitly, the day-to-day consumption of political journalism. But the two are so tightly intertwined that it’s hard to put much analytical space between them; media reporting is overwhelmingly the conduit that brings these political happenings to their attention.

Although most day-to-day political events occur far away in state and national capitals, politics and its controversies have become a salient part of everyday life for many in the general public. The day’s political events are a common, if not central, topic of conversation in both online and offline contexts. Political discord and scandal headline the news cycle, are joked about on late-night TV programs, and are debated at the dinner table and around the office water cooler. Yet as central as politics is to people’s everyday experience, its impact on people’s daily life is largely unknown.

[…]

In line with the conceptualization of politics as a chronic stressor, we found that daily political events consistently evoked negative emotions in participants. These negative emotions predicted worse day-to-day psychological and physical health, but also greater motivation to take action aimed at changing the political system that evoked the negative emotions in the first place at both the between-person (interpersonal difference) and within-person (intrapersonal difference) levels.

Furthermore, we found that people commonly employed emotion regulation strategies to cope with this chronic stressor. Particularly when successfully using reappraisal, people experienced greater well-being, but less motivation to take political action, pointing to a fundamental trade-off between protecting oneself and taking action that arises when people regulate their politics-related emotions.

In Study 2, we found a potential means for overcoming this trade-off: Participants who used emotional acceptance — a coping strategy that involves accepting emotions rather than trying to change them — experienced higher levels of well-being, but showed no signs of decreased motivation to take action. In all, our results highlight the broad impact daily political events have on the average person, revealing the political is quite personal.

[…]

Our research shows that using certain commonly used forms of emotion regulation to protect well-being can come at a fundamental cost to taking action — an important trade-off that can occur when individuals successfully down-regulate their negative emotional responses to daily politics…

For instance, feeling outrage toward an injustice might initially compel people to join a street protest, but if they use reappraisal to convince themselves the justice system will prosecute the perpetrators, their outrage may diminish along with the likelihood of actually joining the protest.

Similarly, if they employ distraction, possibly because they find their outrage too intense to reappraise, they may divert their attention from the injustice, thereby minimizing their likelihood of taking to the street.

Such insights are important for activists seeking to mobilize widespread collective action. To effectively harness people’s negative emotions, activists need people to not reduce those emotions. Finding strategies that achieve this end should help activists facilitate greater action. Yet, it may come at the expense of people’s well-being, suggesting a complicated ethical trade-off between mobilizing people for a cause and impairing the well-being of those taking action.

Journalists who write about politics or who program cable news shows face a similar trade-off: Making people mad at the “other side” can be an effective way to harvest their attention — but it can come at the cost of making them miserable.

Some people are news junkies, and they’ll keep coming back for more. But others are happy to go watch Netflix instead.

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How to talk to kids about the election and fraught politics – CNN

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Now, some 30 years later, it’s impossible for my kids to not pay attention. Their lives have been deeply impacted by the decisions made by someone far away. Their parents are emotional, the politicians are emotional and sometimes, adults express these emotions in a manner children are all too familiar with.
The election season civic lessons imparted to me as a child no longer feel adequate. Today’s kids have big questions and big feelings about this election year, and it’s up to parents to help them process.

Children are experiencing politics more intensely

There have been few moments in recent history in which children’s lives have been so directly affected by politics — think the 1918 flu pandemic, the Depression, World War I and World War II, the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“I think a lot about how children are on the front lines of all major political challenges today,” said Tamara Mann Tweel, program director at the Teagle Foundation and co-founder of Civic Spirit, a civic education initiative for middle and high school teachers and their students.
Two-year-old Aissatou Barry accompanies her father at an early voting center at Union Market Tuesday in Washington, DC.
“They have to do active shooter drills, they are directly confronted with climate change, and they are truly on the front lines of Covid, with school closures. Politics are not abstract for them. They’re corporeal,” she said.
This reality could help students grow into more active citizens as they see firsthand how decisions made from on high can affect them personally, Mann Tweel said.
But there is also a risk of trauma. “This could also end up being destabilizing and overwhelming (to children). And the level of hostility can be scary.”
Then there is the political discourse, which has changed substantially in the era of President Donald Trump. My husband and I put on the first presidential debate assuming our 7-year-old would turn to a book or Legos.
He was, like much of the nation, transfixed. What’s more, he attempted to psychoanalyze some of the name-calling using the same tools I had taught him to digest playground spats. “Mom, sometimes when someone calls someone else dumb, it’s because they’re worried about being dumb themselves.”
The debate unsettled him, and I felt I myself was to blame. I had, absentmindedly, allowed him to witness a complicated and uncomfortable chapter in American politics without giving him the practical or emotional tools to understand it.

Give them a sense of control

It’s important to not let the anger and noise remain anger and noise, Mann Tweel said. “You need to help them see how they are part of a country that they want to improve.” The key is teaching them that, even though they can’t vote, they do have some agency.
You could start with a conversation about how it feels to go to school during the pandemic and what they would want elected officials to know about it, she suggested. They could even write a letter to local politicians expressing their fears and frustrations.

Help them understand the rules

Children also benefit from understanding that, just like in their home, there are rules in the United States, and even our leaders aren’t always free to do whatever they want.
Kerry Sautner, chief learning officer at the National Constitution Center, suggested reading the US Constitution as a good place to start. “The Constitution tells us whose job it is to do what, and what power citizens have,” she said.
Children might be interested in understanding how voting works and how the government is structured. As important as the US President is, there is a lot more to the federal, state and local governments, and they might not be aware of it.
It also helps children understand that Americans have a tradition of believing in freedom, equality and common good, even if there is a history of not allowing everyone their rights and rigorous debate about how we achieve those goals. As they get older, children can begin to understand that our rules don’t always align with these values, and what we can do about it.

Teach them to try to see both sides

It’s good practice, Sautner said, to have children explore how people on the other side of an issue might think, even if everyone in the family disagrees with their position.
“You need to teach them how to listen to others,” Sautner said. “Civic engagement is a learned experience. We don’t just turn 18 and know how to be a citizen.”
You can ask your children why they wear a mask and why some people might not want to. Then help them consider what is at stake: Do you think it’s important for other people to wear masks? Why? What is the difference between what you do at home or when you are alone and what you do outside your home or when you are in a community?
“This is a good way to introduce them to the ideas of individual and collective freedom — even if it is clear that because of a public health crisis it is incumbent on us all to side with collective freedom,” Mann Tweel said.

Use stories from history

Use narratives as much as possible to help kids understand politics, Sautner suggested. This helps build empathy, and makes the struggles real.
“They need to understand this is a system, but you can’t forget that in the system there are people,” she said. “Stories help them hold on to all the information a thousand times better.”
When one of her sons was in third grade, he got drawn into the story of Ruby Bridges. In 1960, Bridges became the first Black student in the South to integrate an elementary school.
He learned about her story through books, and a Disney movie, and it led to him asking a series of questions that quickly turned into a civics lesson. Why were people upset about a Black girl going to a White school? What were the police doing about it? What could her parents do about it? “He wanted to understand the adults around her, and who had authority in the situation,” she said.
Teach them about how change happened in the past, and they will better understand how change can happen in the future.

Remember each family, and child, is different

Considering the near-infinite differences in political views, family dynamics and child psychology, there is not a one-size-fits-all way to help your children make sense of political life.
Melissa Braunstein, a politically conservative mother of four ages 9 and younger in the Washington, DC, area, said her main aim is to protect her kids from election anxiety. She does this, in large part, by avoiding bad-mouthing political opponents.
“I don’t sit my kids down and say this person is a good person and this person is a bad person,” she said. “We live in an area where nearly everyone else votes the opposite way. I don’t want them to think that anyone who disagrees with them is a bad person.”
If her kids ask questions about a politician’s behavior, she tries to make it about conflicting value systems, rather than the individual.
Brady Dewar, a politically progressive dad of two children, ages 7 and 4, in Oakland, California, tries to keep his kid’s attention away from the nastiness and toward what small actions they can take. His children know which candidate he and his husband prefer, but they try to keep their anxiety around the opponent away from their kids.
“All of their involvement is driven by their questions: What is going on with Donald Trump? What is going on with all the homeless people?” he said.
His kids have attended marches, written get-out-the-vote letters and delivered sandwiches to the homeless. Through it all, Dewar said they keep it focused on how they can make things better, rather than the nitty-gritty of why things are wrong.
“We try to come up with a positive message that they can understand and is relatively universal,” he said.
In our home, we’ve been making a point to ask our children what questions they have about politics, what they are worried about and if they would like us to help them come up with ideas on how to take action.
In addition to helping relieve their anxieties, this exercise also sets a precedent that I hope will stick with them for life: Their voice matters, their concerns matter, and there is almost always something to be done about it.

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Trump administration vetted stars' politics for planned ad blitz promoting U.S. president's virus response – CBC.ca

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Public relations firms hired by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services vetted political views of hundreds of celebrities for a planned $250-million US ad blitz aimed at portraying U.S. President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus outbreak in a positive light, according to documents released Thursday by a House committee.

A political appointee at the department suggested creating a government-funded campaign to rival the Second World War icon Rosie the Riveter, according to the documents, and taglines such as “Helping the president will help the country.”

None of the celebrities agreed to participate — they may not have known they were being vetted — and the campaign has been put on hold.

Director Judd Apatow believes Trump “does not have the intellectual capacity to run as president,” according to notes made on a list of names of more than 200 celebrities compiled by one of the firms.

Singer Christina Aguilera “is an Obama-supporting Democrat and a gay-rights supporting liberal,” the document says, and actor Jack Black is “known to be a classic Hollywood liberal.”

A public service announcement by comedian George Lopez was “not moving forward due to previous concerns regarding his comments regarding the president,” according to the documents.

The names were among the spreadsheets, memos, notes and other documents from September and October released by the House oversight and reform committee.

The firms’ vetting came as political appointees planned to spend more than $250 million US on a confidence-building campaign surrounding the virus, which has killed more than 228,000 people in the United States and is a core issue in the presidential race between Trump and Democrat Joe Biden.

Pushback from federal employees

While government public health campaigns are routine, the ad blitz planned by HHS was mired from the start by involvement from department spokesperson Michael Caputo, a fierce loyalist and friend of Trump with little experience in the field. In September, a spokesperson for Caputo said he was taking a medical leave from HHS as he battled cancer.

WATCH | Trump claims he is now immune to COVID-19:

U.S. President Donald Trump has claimed he now has immunity to COVID-19 before he heads for a series of swing-state rallies as polls put him behind Joe Biden with just over three weeks before election day. 2:03

Trump, a Republican, has repeatedly minimized the dangers of the coronavirus, even as the nation is in its third wave of infections, with tens of thousands of cases reported each day.

According to one memo compiled by a subcontractor to Atlas Research, one of the firms hired by HHS, Caputo suggested a series of sound bites and taglines for the campaign, including “Helping the president will help the country.”

The notes say that Caputo wanted the campaign to be “remarkable” and to rival Rosie the Riveter, the character who symbolized women who worked in factories and shipyards during the Second World War against Germany.

“For us, the ‘enemy’ is the virus,” Caputo said, according to the memo.

The documents also show pushback from some of the federal employees leading the work, who removed Caputo from an email chain and thanked one of the contractors for dealing with a “challenging” environment.

The Democrat-led Oversight panel said Caputo was overstepping his bounds, interfering in work that is supposed to be done by contract officers at the department and politicizing what is supposed to be nonpartisan.

The ad blitz planned by the Department of Health and Human Services was mired from the start by involvement from department spokesperson Michael Caputo, a fierce loyalist and friend of Trump with little experience in the field. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

“Of course, it is completely inappropriate to frame a taxpayer-funded ad campaign around ‘helping’ President Trump in the weeks and days before the election,” said House oversight chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, a Democrat from New York, and Reps. James Clyburn of South Carolina and Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois, both subcommittee chairmen, in a letter to HHS Secretary Alex Azar.

“This theme also ignores the reality that more than 220,000 Americans have died from coronavirus — a fact that should not be whitewashed in a legitimate public health message.”

Azar put the entire project on hold earlier this month, telling the oversight subcommittee led by Clyburn that it was being investigated internally.

“I have ordered a strategic review of this public health education campaign that will be led by our top public health and communications experts to determine whether the campaign serves important public health purposes,” Azar told the subcommittee, which is investigating the federal government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Celebrities backtracked 

Because public health policy around the coronavirus pandemic has become so politically polarized, it’s unclear how well a confidence-building campaign from the government would play.

HHS officials acknowledge a major challenge to any campaign would involve finding trusted intermediaries to make the pitch to average Americans. On health-care matters, people usually trust doctors first, not necessarily celebrities. And Trump has alienated much of the medical establishment with his dismissive comments about basic public health measures, such as wearing masks.

The 34-page “PSA Celebrity Tracker” compiled by Atlas Research and released by the committee does not say whether the celebrities were aware they were even being considered or if they had agreed to participate. The report says that no celebrities are now affiliated with the project but a handful did initially agree to participate.

In an Instagram video post, actor Dennis Quaid said he was frustrated that a taped interview he did with Dr. Anthony Fauci for the campaign was portrayed in the media as an endorsement of Trump. (Steve Marcus/Reuters)

Singer Marc Antony, who has been critical of Trump, pulled out after seeking an amendment to his contract to “ensure that his content would not be used for advertisements to re-elect President Trump.”

Actor Dennis Quaid also initially agreed and then pulled out, according to a document from Atlas Research. In an Instagram video post last month titled “No good deed goes unpoliticized,” Quaid said he was frustrated that a taped interview he did with Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious-disease expert, for the campaign was portrayed in the media as an endorsement of Trump.

“Nothing could be further from the truth,” Quaid said, noting that the interview was still available on his podcast.

Antony and Quaid were among just a few celebrities who were approved for the campaign, according to the documents. Others included TV health commentator Dr. Oz and singer Billy Ray Cyrus.

“Spokespeople for public service campaigns should be chosen on their ability to reach the target audience, not their political affiliation,” the letter from the Democrats reads. “Yet, documents produced by the contractors indicate that the Trump administration vetted spokespeople based on their political positions and whether they support President Trump.”

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Bipartisan Politics | Politics and Public Affairs – Denison University

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But the ties that bind these four individuals are stronger than most. They, and several other Big Red alumni, are connected through Forbes Tate Partners, a bipartisan, full-service government and public affairs advocacy firm, founded by Forbes and his partner Dan Tate.

In today’s divisive political landscape it might be difficult to imagine that colleagues from opposite sides of the aisle can be, well, collegial. But according to Forbes, who has worked on Democratic campaigns since Al Gore’s presidential bid, that’s the whole point.

“People forget about the moderate factions in politics — and that’s where real work can be done,” says Forbes. So it made sense to build a firm that could work well with both parties and provide positive results for everyone.

And the work has become more complicated. “Lobbying has changed,” he says. “It’s not as much who you know – though that still matters. Today, you have to run a full-fledged campaign with traditional PR, social media, news updates. You have to make sure the people back home see the reason for what you are doing, to create that support before you move forward.”

So how did all these Denisonians find their way to Forbes Tate? You can credit another Denison tie, the Hilltoppers men’s a cappella group. Forbes was a member of the popular campus group, and several years ago a student Hilltopper reached out to him, struggling to figure out what to do for the summer. Forbes’ impulsive response, “Why don’t you come here?” became the beginning of an internship program that has brought scads of students from Denison’s hill to Capitol Hill.

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