Man cannot live on news alone
News consumption is like alcohol - best consumed in moderation.
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Let’s do this:
I usually share custody of my kids, but last week their mother was on vacation, so except for a few visits to their grandparents’ place I had them at my home for most of the week.
She’s back now, so my cleanup effort begins.
But despite my house looking like it got hit by five tornadoes at once, and constant struggles to find ways to keep a kid occupied when he says he’s boooooooooored, and trying to juggle my day job atop all of that, I found that I had much less time to follow the news.
And, honestly, it was kind of awesome.
Obviously, I think we have a duty to keep ourselves well informed about what is happening in the world. But I can certainly understand why so many people are tuning it out:
The Reuters Institute revealed last month that 42% of Americans actively avoid the news at least some of the time because it grinds them down or they just don’t believe it. Fifteen percent said they disconnected from news coverage altogether. In other countries, such as the UK and Brazil, the numbers selectively avoiding it were even higher.
“In the United States, those who self-identify on the right are far more likely to avoid news because they think it is untrustworthy or biased, but those on the left are more likely to feel overwhelmed, carry feelings of powerlessness, or worry that the news might create arguments,” the institute said.
The Reuters Institute said that alongside the rising number of people avoiding news is a drop in trust in reporting in the US to the lowest point yet recorded at just 26% of the population.
All of this rang true to Amanda Ripley, a former Time journalist and author of High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped – and How We Get Out. She confessed in a Washington Post column that she was embarrassed as a reporter to admit that she has “been actively avoiding the news for years”. Ripley said it left her “so drained that I couldn’t write”.
So she rationed her consumption, cutting out television news altogether and waiting until later in the day to read the papers. But it kept coming at her on her phone and social media.
“If you look at that Reuters data and extrapolate it out, we can estimate that roughly 100 million American adults are not getting their news needs met,” Ripley said.
The result, said the Reuters Institute, is that Americans are backing away. “Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, consumption of traditional media, TV and print, declined further with online and social consumption not making up the gap,” it said.
And yet major longstanding news organisations are sceptical because their audience numbers just keep growing. Professor Emily Bell, founding director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, said that while there are short term peaks and troughs in engagement with the news around major events, the long term trend is up.
I wonder if news media consumption in America is following a pattern not unlike that of gun ownership. Contrary to popular belief, the percentage of U.S. households with a firearm is actually much lower than it was fifty years ago. And yet, there are more guns in circulation than ever. Simple math suggests that there’s a segment of the population that collects guns like Waylon Smithers collects Malibu Stacy dolls.
It’s the same thing with the news. While more people are avoiding it out of fear and disgust, a quick perusal of social media and website comment sections reveals a disturbingly large cohort of people who appear to do absolutely nothing but doomscroll and lash out at other breaking-news obsessives, 24-7. That might be where the growth is coming from.
Writing in The Hill, Joe Ferullo suggests that the relentless barrage of news (and “news”) from social media is the problem:
The course of human events — and reporting about it — has usually been something less than an optimist’s paradise. What’s really changed is how people learn about those events.
News has always been neatly packaged for consumers, in one way or another. A physical newspaper is a package, a defined number of pages with a defined number of stories. The most important news is on page one, and gets less urgent as readers move through that day’s edition. Network evening newscasts — where stories are actually called “packages” — sum up all a viewer needs to know in 22 minutes.
That packaging is a kind of artifice, journalism’s way of trying to create for their consumers a sense of order on a random world. Network newscasts still end on an uplifting personal feature; newspapers have entire sections devoted to sports and the arts. This produces a neat and tidy portrait of life’s variety. “And that’s the way it is,” Walter Cronkite said in his sign-off each night on CBS. His viewers agreed.
But this news delivery method is in sharp decline. The big half-hour news programs lose more viewers each quarter. Subscriptions to physical newspapers keep falling.
In their place is a growing jumble of headlines, updates, notifications, and tweets on smart phones and tablets, unmoored from any other update or notification coming along moments later. It’s an “unpackaged” news environment — and that makes it hard to for consumers to develop a comprehensive picture of politics, the nation, or the world.
In many cases, “free” means social media: shares from friends on Facebook, short videos on Tik Tok, time spent on Twitter. These apps throw alleged information around like rice at a wedding — it hits both people looking for it and not. It comes from legitimate news sources and illegitimate or unknown sources. It might look like real news or home video. A consumer can try to figure it out, or simply give up.
Readers and viewers would benefit from a return to readily accessible packaging from free reliable news sources. NBC Nightly News makes itself available each evening on You Tube, where it reaches close to 600,000 viewers — many in You Tube’s younger, male-skewing demographic. Other newscasts should try that. The networks all have free streaming news services, but they can be hard to find. Promoting these outlets more — and making them more visible — would help.
Ferullo is himself a veteran TV news producer, so you could say he has a vested interest in the old “gatekeeper” model in which editors and producers decided what to put in the paper and what to leave out. Compared to getting news in bits and bites (bytes?) from the internet, it’s like the difference between watching a movie in a theater and trying to piece together a movie from individual scenes, many of which didn’t make it into the finished product, posted randomly on YouTube.
The great thing about the internet is that it’s opened up access to more established and credible news sources than ever before, and led to the creation of many new ones. The downside is that it’s all surrounded by a lot of dreck, not unlike how the streaming revolution has resulted in 10x more quality TV and 100x more trash.
The old model had its own problems. If you were getting your news from one newspaper in the morning and one newscast in the evening, you were at the mercy of a few people deciding what you needed to hear.
In recent months I’ve been trying to strike a balance between staying on top of the news and not becoming obsessed with it. I’ve turned off breaking news notifications on my phone and set aside some time each morning to read some newspapers using the PressReader app. (If you have a library card you might be able to access that very useful service for free.)
I have other times set aside each day to get through the flood of newsletters in my email inbox, and I’ve made peace with the fact that I’ll never be able to read them all, nor listen to every episode of the podcasts to which I subscribe. In the evening I try to make time for a long read saved in my Pocket account.
The rest of the day? That’s for my day job, hanging out with the family, getting some exercise and - get this - checking up on sports or music or movies or other stuff. It’s a bit sad that I’ve had to re-learn how to get interested in things other than news and politics after two decades of blogging, tweeting and substacking. You don’t realize how much it can consume your life until it’s already happened.