Ebeltoft, DENMARK – When I was eight years old, on no important day in particular, my dad and I sat in his van with the radio running. It was then that one of my most memorable childhood moments began.
Hooked on news
The voices of passionate politicians and coldly unattached broadcasters filled the space as my dad patiently explained what they were arguing about.
I learned what a recession was, and, vaguely, how an election worked. I may not have grasped why or how all this was going on, but I understood that it affected everyone’s money, my dad’s job and therefore our family.
The people on the radio, and my dad by extension, seemed so impressive to me. The way that they could see so many consequences, so far in the future, just from one choice, made them as good as fortune tellers to me.
This basic conversation was the bait that hooked me onto politics. I wanted to know who was making the important decisions and why. I kept reading, listening, debating and learning. I was determined to – somehow – put together the vast political puzzle in front of me.
That was until I realized that I was no longer learning or debating. I wasn’t even listening in the first place.
I felt simultaneously overwhelmed and lethargic within a world of politics that seemed to focus on all the things that didn’t really matter. I was finished with journalism that refused to answer my questions straightforwardly.
I realized that I’d never find, let alone understand, all of the pieces to the puzzle of politics, and that surprisingly, I no longer wanted to.
Born in the year 2000, living a life without the 24-hour news cycle is almost unimaginable to me. Unlike other generations, my peers and I have never been more than a click away from an endless avalanche of articles and opinions on any topic.
Yet with all this new information, many are feeling that politics is getting more divided and confusing than ever before.
So what happens when living with such press freedom and accessibility is not only a privilege, but a health risk?
We are all tired
If you have alarm bells of sympathy ringing, you might be part of the growing number of us suffering with ‘news fatigue’ – an exhausted and lacklustre approach to the news. Perhaps you have even progressed into ‘news avoidance,’ where we actively dodge the headlines as they hurtle our way.
A pandemic-induced spike in media consumption has collided with a longer-standing trend of less trust in our media. Global research by Oxford and Reuters in January found that fewer than four in 10 people trust the news the majority of the time. Perhaps more worryingly, only 26% trust the news that they use themselves.
As we move through the pandemic and communication between politicians and people becomes increasingly vital, it still seems we are seeing even more news fatigue.
While it is too early in the pandemic to study the full effects of covid, the latest research has shown the 2020 lockdown to have had a significant effect on the numbers of people feeling fed up with or avoiding the news.
Why are we feeling this way?
While our individual motivations for avoidance may vary, this rise seems to be symptomatic of some wider changes that we are seeing in media and politics.
In an interview with Time, Graham Davey, a professor emeritus of psychology at Sussex University in the UK said the toll the news is taking on our health may be due to changes in our media over the past 15-20 years.
These include “increasingly visual and shocking” content captured by bystanders, such audio and visual clips, that people might access on their smartphones, Davey told Time.
Davey’s research showed that negative news coverage tends to spur sadness and anxiety, according to Time, not only affecting our mood within that moment but exacerbating our own worries after the broadcast, regardless of its relevance to the topic covered.
To make matters worse, it seems we are hardwired to move towards disturbing stories if media content is negative. This ‘negativity bias’ has been argued to be a fight-or-flight response stemming from an instinct to know how to protect ourselves, even if it might be hurting us.
Some of us are at higher risk of falling prone to this exhaustion than others. People living in stigmatized communities – perhaps due to poverty or crime – often lack positive local news, which, in turn, leads to it becoming more likely that they feel worn down.
For those living in areas with less political stability and press freedom, news avoidance springs from an understandable simple lack of trust in their governments and the media.
It seems that women are also more likely to experience news avoidance. A British study found that the gender-based divisions of labor, such as caregiving – that tend to be more physically and emotionally draining – could be what is making it harder for women to keep updated with news.
Whether or not you fall into one of these groups, a changing, more bombastic media, combined with our negativity bias, means that we are all at risk of the news sending us to sleep.
Why this matters
A fall in political engagement brings up a whole host of issues, both immediate and longer-term. Our individual health is being affected, and in the long term, there is a danger of political complacency.
The more of us that the news sends to sleep, the fewer eyes there are on those responsible for running our countries and keeping us safe. Those avoiding the news are also – perhaps predictably – less likely to vote, allowing for a vicious cycle of staggering exhaustion and increasing free-reign for politicians.
How do we fix this? Should we take a nap from politics, or do we need to down the coffee and pull an all-nighter?
Unfortunately, I am still figuring this out in my own life, but a long-term fix seems to lie in the hands of the news itself.
‘Solution Journalism’ is an approach focusing on quality work beyond the straightforward repetition of facts. It offers a focus on how problems are being fixed, rather than providing a never-ending list of disasters.
Studies have shown that solution journalism can not only make viewers feel more positively about news stories, but the news organizations practicing them, leading to better overall engagement.
Where do I go from here?
When it comes to my own lack of patience for the news, I am frustrated. The curiosity and passion I felt in that van 12 years ago is almost all gone.
Yet I have hope that I can do better, that we can all do better. Maybe one day I can strike the balance between feeling well-informed and protecting my own mental health.
For now, I think I will hedge my bets on better quality, solutions-focused journalism. Editors need to turn their eyes away from short clickbait headlines for entertainment and towards well explained, well-researched journalism.
The media needs our attention to survive but is encouraging more of us to click unfollow. Journalism must start serving its readers better so that we can all stay awake.
Amy Goodman is a Reporter with Youth Journalism International. She wrote this commentary. Abigail Goodman is an Illustrator with Youth Journalism International. She made the illustration.