Generation ‘Fear’: How bad news has created an anxious generation

Written by: Ben McEvoy, Alina Kulesh with Rich Cooper

In 1972 when terrorists stormed the Olympic village in Munich⁠ — taking hostage and eventually killing 11 Israeli athletes in front of an estimated 900 million viewers ⁠— a complicated relationship emerged between terrorists and the media.  It was the first time the media broadcast the horrors of terrorism to the world in realtime, leaving a lasting traumatic impact on a generation.

Today, over 45 years after the Munich Olympic Games, the average North American viewer is witness to a barrage of images and videos of terror spread across a multitude of visual platforms. How is this exposure to violence affecting us?

Generation Z is ‘profoundly anxious’

Starting with 9/11 in 2001, generation Z (born approximately from 1995-2012) has been exposed to media coverage of mass shootings and terrorist attacks more than any other generation in the past. The Varkey Foundation conducted a survey in which they asked over 20,000 American youth what they feared most for the future. The study revealed that 82% of them were most worried about the rise of terrorism and extremism more so than climate catastrophe and global pandemics.

The authors stated that "exposure to media coverage of terrorism increases people's perceived risk of being the victim of a terrorist attack. Given the disproportionate quantity of news coverage for these attacks, it is no wonder that people are afraid of the Muslim terrorist."

The Guardian’s, Noreen Hertz, also interviewed 2,000 Gen Zs in the U.K. and found that 70% of them are worried about terrorist attacks. This contradicts the fact that the risk of experiencing, let alone dying, from terror attacks is at an almost all-time low. Hertz found that despite this contradiction, generation Z  is still “profoundly anxious”.

Beyond Gen Z, one study showed that North Americans fear terrorist attacks more than gun violence. For some, this fear has led to an increased reluctance to travel, attend events, fly, or even go into skyscrapers.

Between 9/11 in 2001 and 2018,  104 people have died in the U.S. during ‘foreign-inspired’ terrorist attacks. That means Americans are more than 9,000 times as likely to die in a car crash (approximately 480,000 deaths over the same period) than by a terrorist attack.

We are drawn to read and share bad news

Researchers at McGill University invited participants to review different news articles ranging from positive to neutral to negative using passive tracking to observe user behaviour in what they chose to read. Remarkably, the volunteers most often chose negative stories  – scandals, crime and violence – rather than neutral or even positive ones. Yet these same volunteers stated a preference towards good news in general, and when pressed they said that the media was too focused on negative stories.

Psychologist Graham Davey, a professor at the University of Sussex, performed an experiment in 1997 that explored the impact of positive, neutral and negative news on different viewer groups. What he learned was that “those who watched the negative news all reported being significantly more anxious and sadder after watching than those who watched either the positive or neutral news bulletin.”

His team found that people who watched and read the negative news began to catastrophize about the future. According to his post in Psychology Today, “catastrophizing’ is when you worry so persistently that you begin to make it seem much worse than it was at the outset and much worse than it is in reality.”

These experiments point to evidence of a "negativity bias" – a term for our collective need to hear, remember and share bad news.  Many of us may believe that by reading, sharing and commenting on stories after a violent event, we are showing support for the victims of tragedy — but we may be doing more harm than good.

Our own human nature and curiosity is contributing to our growing anxiety and numbness to the world around us.

Generation Numb, the new normal?

When a person repeatedly sees similar violent images and reads bad news, they are normalized in the brain, and we eventually become desensitized to them, according to  Charles Figley, director of the Traumatology Institute. It’s a primal safety mechanism — what was once shocking, and potentially a risk to our safety becomes a non-threat.

How is this impacting the generation raised under the shadow of globally traumatic events such as 9/11? Will future generations become desensitized to the images and acts that are leaving them feeling so depressed, fearful and anxious? Or are younger generations’ vocal response to issues, such as gun violence in the U.S., a sign that they are less willing to tolerate violence in general?

Understanding our role in the news cycle

As a mindful, engaged and informed citizen, there is a fine line between following and sharing news of value to your network and being aware that our actions may also be amplifying the fear being spread by terrorists.

We also need to engage with the world around us in a way that is measured by facts, and not fear, to diffuse terrorists’ messages of fear that undermine our emotional wellbeing and reshape our worldviews.

This article was created for After Munich a documentary that explores the emotional aftermath the Munich Massacre over 45 years later. Visit aftermunich.com for additional exclusive content  for a deeper look into the rippling effects of Munich on us all.

Watch After Munich  on the documentary Channel.

Produced with additional funding from: