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By Thomas Baekdal - May 2019

Episode 011: The trends around news fatigue and avoidance

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I have a confession to make.

Over the past month, I have not been reading the news at all. Yep, I know how crazy that sounds. As a media analyst, how can I not read the news? Isn't that... you know... my job?

Well, yes it is. But I have a very good reason for it. You see, I wanted to look into the growing trend around news fatigue and news avoidance, and I had already been reading up on the many studies and surveys about it, but I needed something more.

So, back in March, I decided to simply test it by not reading news for a week, which turned into a month. And this was both scary and quite interesting. Because while some assumptions people have aren't true, it also helped me see things I hadn't noticed before.

In this article, we are going to talk about what I learned from this, and why this is something that publishers should really think more about.

News fatigue is everywhere

Over the past several years, we have seen many reports that either directly or indirectly link to the problem of fatigue with the media as a whole.

This fatigue comes in many forms. We see a growing number of people who have turned off all notifications, especially to things like social media and newspapers, because there is no value in having your life interrupted 100 times per day by completely random headlines.

We also see the growing trend around social media avoidance, where people have drastically reduced their focus on social channels. For instance, several of my friends have become social media avoiders, where they just don't use Twitter or Facebook anymore.

And they all report that this was one of the best decisions they have made. Not just in terms of freeing up time, (and in doing so realizing how idiotic it is to interact the way we do on social channels), but even more so, they talk about it in relation to their mental health.

They tell me that, once they stopped using Twitter, they felt happier; they got to see the world in a more accurate way; they were less angry every day ... most importantly, they felt less stressed and had less anxiety. Some people even told me it had a big impact on their depression.

At the same time, we see many studies that talk about the increase in anxiety and stress, especially for the younger generation.

But here is the thing, the problem is not just with being distracted by notifications on mobile phones or social media channels. It's also about newspapers and magazines.

In the past, the way you consumed a print magazine was that you dedicated 20 minutes of your time for it, which was then a form of relaxation, but now look at how magazines are published online.

It's like they are designed to give you ultra-short snacks that you feel anxious about. You don't relax with magazine content anymore, because the way the articles are made and how people see them is based on a very distracted form of activity.

The worst part are the newspapers.

When I was a young man (a long time ago), and I had just left home to move into my own place, one of the first things I did was to subscribe to a morning newspaper.

I did this because this was a great way to get a daily summary of the news. And, while it was expensive, it was also an essential part of my day to get a good understanding of the world around me.

However, this is not how news works anymore. Today, the way we publish news online seems to be designed to cause people stress. Every single news story is written in a way to make you feel the news, rather than understand it.

This is not just about the big stories, it's about everything. If a school bus has an accident somewhere, the articles don't just explain what happened. Instead it is written so that it's like you are there, and so you are now experiencing all the horror yourself. This is followed up by eye-witness reports, interviews with the parents, emotional stories from one of the kids telling you how they were all screaming ... and it just goes on and on.

This is how news today is being reported, and instead of helping you get the news, it's an outrage machine. It's a form of content designed to drive an emotional response, because... as we all know... emotional content drives more traffic.

It's like every single newspaper in the world has suddenly turned into a tabloid.

So, one of the things that I have been told by friends, and also that I have heard about in studies, is that reading news has now become a mental health issue. People have not only been fatigued by how the news is reported, and by the volume of it, but also the nature of news today has a direct harmful impact on people's wellbeing on a daily basis.

Even worse, when it comes to the upcoming elections, especially with the US election, we see a lot of people saying that they just can't deal with another media circus like the last time ... which means that the next election will likely result in more news-avoidance than we see today.

And this is not just a problem for news, it's also extremely bad in relation to politics in general. I talked about this in my last podcast, where I discussed how to cover an election.

I mentioned that one of the reasons why so few young people decided to vote was because the way Brexit was covered in the media was simply not relevant to the way young people see the world.

So, this is a big problem.

And while many in the media industry like to point fingers at social media and mobile phones as the cause of this, as a media analyst, I think we have a much bigger problem with newspapers and magazines.

The reason is that a newspaper is supposed to be the place people can turn to when all the other forms of media have failed. For instance, if something happens in the world, we will see so much noise about it on Twitter, most of which we won't know whether we can trust or not. So, the newspaper is supposed to be the place we can turn to when we want to really get informed.

But we are not doing this. Instead, we are doing livestreams and eye-witness reports, and just publishing everything as fast as possible in as many articles as possible, which then creates the very same problem.

And, you are going to hate me for saying this, but I think the problem with newspapers today is that we have turned ourselves into just another social outrage channel.

The result is news fatigue and news avoidance, and it's a growing problem that I am really worried about. We are losing something really critical for the future of news ... which is why I decided to do this experiment.

The start of an experiment

So... over the past few years, I had periods of time where I was just really annoyed with the news. I can't remember what it was that I was annoyed about, but I often had days where I would get up in the morning and see something in the news ... and it would piss me off because of how badly it was reported. And it had a very negative impact on me.

I felt stressed because of it, which is silly, but more than that, it actually impacted my work, where I wouldn't be able to focus on whatever I was actually supposed to write about that day.

Even worse, sometimes I would tweet about it. If you have followed me on Twitter, you might have noticed my occasional Twitter-threads where I do these epic rants about something stupid in the news.

And not only would this take time for me to write, the worst part was the discussions afterwards, where, throughout the entire day, people would reply to my rant and discuss whatever it was we were talking about.

Don't get me wrong. I love having discussions on Twitter, but when it's based on a rant, it just completely destroys all productivity that day. And that's not useful.

So back in June 2017, I took the first step to manage this. I decided to block Trump and most other topics and people related to US politics, because this was usually the source of many of these discussions.

Since then I have set up more than 100 filters on Twitter, and it's the best decision I have ever made. 88 of these filters are permanent, while another 23 of them are temporary that I turn on and off depending on the situation.

For instance, I have a filter for blocking any mention of Facebook, which I turn on whenever the media industry has another one of their anti-Facebook moments.

You know what I mean, every now and then, media-Twitter becomes insanely obsessed about yet another scandal on Facebook and suddenly 80% of your tweets that day are about just that one thing.

This is not helpful, and so I have this filter that I can turn on for 24 hours, or maybe 7 days, that just filters out all future mentions of Facebook from my feed. This way, all the other content that has been drowned out is resurfaced and I can actually start using Twitter for something useful again.

Mind you, when I tell people this, some get really outraged that I'm filtering out journalists talking about Facebook. But remember, I'm not doing this because I don't want to hear about it. I'm doing it because I have already heard about it.

So I don't use these filters to block out information. I use them to control the flow of it. And I have found it to be absolutely critical to my use of Twitter. In fact, I don't think I would even be on Twitter today if I hadn't started using filters.

Twitter without filters is just so bad.

This was how it all started for me. I learned that I could be better informed and more focused by reducing all this noise and the outrage that we often see online.

And so in March this year, I decided to take this a step further and to look into this growing trend I'm seeing around news fatigue.

My plan was simple. For one week, I would not consume any

short-form media, meaning no newspapers, no magazines, but also things like Twitter and Facebook. Instead I would rely only on long-form media channels, like going back to my RSS feeds, relying more on newsletters, or simply not consuming the day-to-day news at all.

I wanted to experience what my friends who had already done this were telling me, but I also wanted to test the many assumptions people have about this. For instance, how people say that 'if news is important enough, it will come to me'. Is that really true?

Obviously, I'm a media analyst, so I wanted to be able to check what I was missing after the experiment was over. So before I started, I set up a system that would automatically take a screenshot of the front page (full page, not just the screen itself) of all the newspapers I usually read every day. Newspapers including several Danish ones, my local newspapers, and things like the New York Times and the Guardian, which I also frequently read.

I spent a day setting all this up, so that I would have a full record of all the news that I had missed. And my plan was then to go back after the week was over and compare. How much news did I actually miss?

And so, on a Friday morning in March, I started the experiment. My idea of starting this on a Friday was to use the weekend to ease myself off my news reading habits ... which turned out wasn't enough.

So what happened?

The week turned into a month

The first thing that happened was that I couldn't stop reading the news. It turns out that I was fully addicted to just browsing the news, often without even thinking.

For instance, I would have a conversation with someone on the phone, and without even thinking about it, my fingers would open up a new tab in my browser, start to type in nytimes.com, and then I would just start reading the news. And it was about a minute or so into doing this that I realized what was going on.

It was really shocking how often I did this. On the first day alone, according to my browser history, I did this 23 times. And every time I had to stop myself and say: "Hey, wait-a-minute. Why am I reading the news? Stop doing this!"

I'm reminded of a video that Casey Neistat posted on his YouTube channel where he talked about his social media addiction. As he says:

 

This was what it was like for me as well, except I was doing this with news and newspapers.

You might say that as a media analyst, I had a good excuse for doing this, since following the news is part of my job, but it's scary to realize just how addicted I was to checking the news, and how I was doing it as a form of distraction.

But what was really worrying was how long it took me to change this habit. I had thought I would be able to do this over the weekend, but it took most of the following week before I finally started to not read the news all the time.

So, during the first week, I didn't actually learn anything about news fatigue, I only learnt that I was addicted to news. And so when the week was over and the experiment was planned to end, I decided to extend to a full month. I just didn't feel that I had learned anything from it yet.

So, before I move on to the next 3 weeks, I want to talk about Twitter for just a second.

As I said before, my plan included not using Twitter and Facebook. Facebook was pretty easy because my Facebook feed is just memes, and so not checking that was just wonderful, and I stopped doing that after just a day.

But Twitter was another story. Already on the first Monday, I was discussing something important that had happened in the media industry, and I had no idea what was going on. And so when I checked Twitter because someone asked me to, I noticed how much information about the media industry I just hadn't seen.

And while there are a lot of bad things about Twitter, it is also how we in the media communicate. So, I turned Twitter back on, but I made changes to how I used it. I became much more aware of when I was checking Twitter, and I was very focused on not clicking on news related tweets.

Anyway, back to the news ... or rather, not back to it.

So, after this initial week, I finally got to a point where I wasn't just checking the news without thinking, and I got to experience what true news avoidance is really like. And it was very interesting.

In the second week I started feeling FOMO, or the 'Fear Of Missing Out', and I was thinking that I needed to check the news because, what if there was something that I needed to know?

But what was really interesting was that, by not reading the news that week, my FOMO completely went away. I went from being anxious about not reading the news, to ... well... just not thinking about it. Nor did I feel it had any impact on my work.

Slowly, over the next couple of weeks, my mental state started to change. I started feeling a big difference in my everyday mood. I felt less stressed, less angry, and this specifically made a big difference in the mornings.

Before, I would wake up and read the news as the first thing I did every day, and I would get annoyed about a million different things. But now that I was no longer reading the news, I would just get up and focus on whatever I had planned to do. In other words, I didn't get distracted before the start of each day.

The result was that my FOMO was completely replaced by JOMO, or the Joy Of Missing Out. I started enjoying not reading the news, and started to not want to go back.

And so, after this month of experimenting, I now fully understand why some of my friends have become news avoiders. It is wonderful. And as a media analyst, this scares me.

I have learned so much about this, but more than that, my perception of the issues we face in the media has changed as well.

But the big question is: What did I learn about the news itself? Did I notice something that we need to change? Do I have something to recommend?

Well, yes. So, let's talk about that.

News doesn't just come to you

The first thing that I wanted to know was whether it was true that all the important news would just come to you regardless. This is something we hear a lot of people say, that if there is something critical for you to know, you will learn about it, either from social channels or just via word-of-mouth from friends and family.

And during this month, there were a number of big news stories. There was the Mueller report, there was some big news in relation to Brexit, there were a number of big terror attacks, and of course the Notre-Dame fire. And there were also other big events, like the first photo of a black hole.

Most of these did come to my attention, in fact, I somehow learned about the Notre-Dame fire before the fire fighters had even arrived on the scene.

But what was really interesting was how this information got to me.

The black hole event, for instance, didn't get to me via anyone in the media. Instead, I learned about this from a mathematician that I follow, and then I learned even more from some of the astrophysicists that I also follow. But none of my media friends really focused on it, because they were all so focused on whatever political thing was happening that day.

It was kind of the same with the two big terror attacks that happened. I did hear about them, but I didn't hear about the attacks themselves, instead I heard about it because of how everyone in the media went into one of their anti-Facebook outrage moments.

In other words, I didn't hear about the terror attacks in the form of news. I only heard about it in the form of media outrage towards Facebook.

And this was very typical of the news that got to me over that month. It was the same with the Mueller report. I didn't hear anything about what was in it, but I heard about how journalists were outraged by something about it.

In other words, instead of getting news, I just got outrage. And when people say that 'if the news is important enough, you will hear about it', this is not true. You are not hearing about the news, you hear about the outrage. I only heard about the topics that drove the most outrage.

What you are not hearing about is actual useful news, and you are not getting the news in a newslike way.

What I mean is that there is a very big difference between being outraged and getting the news. Outrage is an emotional response. You are just reacting to something, whereas real news is educational. It's something that you learn from.

And during this month, I wasn't getting the real news at all.

But this is where we come to the difficult part, because after this experiment was over, I took a day out to look over all these screenshots I had now collected, and I spent an entire day just trying to understand what it was that I had missed.

News is different from word-of-mouth, but not better

So, I have some good news for you, and I have some bad news.

Let me start with the good news.

One of the things I noticed when reading up on the past month's news was that all the newspapers have a much more varied and interesting coverage than what you experience on a day-to-day basis.

Take the New York Times as an example. Before I did this experiment, I was generally checking the New York Times every day, and often more than once per day. And the impression I had from this was that the New York Times was very Trump-focused.

But after taking a month out and not reading news at all, and then spending a day looking through all the stories covered (on the front page), I noticed a much more varied, much more interesting, and much more journalistic coverage than what I had felt before.

This is great.

It illustrates something about consumption models. Mind you, I'm speaking about this purely based on my own experience, but there seems to be a problem with the way people consume media on a daily basis, where you get so caught up in the day-to-day drama that you do not see all the other stories that a newspaper covers.

And by taking this month off and then reading the news retrospectively, I came to experience news in a different way. And this was not just true for the New York Times. I noticed the same thing with the Guardian, and the Danish newspapers I had taken screenshots of. All of them had a much more varied news coverage than I had noticed before.

I think this is something we can learn from. If we can get people out of that day-to-day outrage, we have something bigger to work with. There is a potential here that we might be able to do something with.

I find this to be very positive but also very interesting. And that's a good thing.

The bad thing, however, was actually two things. And they were both really bad.

The first bad thing was that, as I was spending this day catching up, I was overwhelmed by how negative the news is, and I could feel all the stress and anxiety coming back to me. Not reading the news for a month, and then suddenly spending an entire day reading up on it all was... quite literally ... unpleasant.

I have no better way to say this, but reading the news was a terrible experience. And more than that, it didn't feel like it was reflective of reality. Instead, it felt as if it was some kind of parallel universe where the journalists were trying to create a type of forced negativity.

And I think this is something that newspapers should do something about. I don't think this is a good way to cover news. I don't think that it reflects the world we actually live in, and also, I don't think this is good for society or the health of our democracy.

To create something good, you need inspiration, and the motivation to move forward, but you are not getting that if the news only focuses on the negatives.

The second bad element is just as bad, and it is about relevance ... or the lack thereof.

So, when I was reading up on all the news, I had opened up a notepad where I planned to write down all the important news stories that I had missed and which were relevant for me to know.

By the end of the day, this notepad was empty.

I did not find a single article that I had missed, that I thought was important and relevant for me to know.

Not one!

Don't get me wrong, I found many news articles that I had missed, in fact, I was astonished by how few things I had actually heard about. As I said earlier, when you don't read the news, you only hear about the big stories that drive outrage, but every other story disappears.

So, almost every story in the news for that month was about something I just hadn't seen or heard about at all. This was a bit surprising to me.

But, even so, when I tried to evaluate whether it was relevant for me to know about all these missed stories, none of them felt like they had enough relevance.

Let me give you an example.

During this month, there was one story in most of the Danish newspapers about a cruise ship that had suffered engine problems in a bad storm, and the passengers had to be evacuated. And this was apparently a big news story.

I had not heard about this at all, and when I read about it a month later, it just didn't feel relevant.

I mean, sure, it was bad for the people who had to be rescued, and there were some who got injured. But there was nothing in this story that had any lasting importance.

This was just another accident like any other. Sure, it was a big cruise ship, but there are thousands that are killed in traffic each month. The news itself didn't have any permanent impact.

It was the same with political news. This was something all the newspapers covered extensively, and I'm sure that on the day it was published it felt really important to talk about.

But when you read those stories a month later, there had already been 5 or 6 other scandals, and they all just seemed so incredibly pointless. Instead of actually addressing the issues, it seemed like everyone was just running around doing nothing.

So, my list of relevant stories that I needed to know about and that I had missed was empty. And we have a phrase that characterizes this. We call this 'throw-away-news'.

But more than that, I think a big reason why I didn't write any articles down was because it was just exhausting to look at all those random news stories. There might have been some very important news in the middle of all this, but the volume was overwhelming.

I hate saying this because, as a media analyst, I would love to tell you that all newspapers are wonderful, and after doing this experiment, I just love the news even more and can't live without it ... but, the reality is the opposite.

As I said earlier, after doing this experiment, I now understand why several of my friends have become news avoiders. And I think we have a really big problem in the industry.

I also see a big opportunity here, because the trends around news avoidance and news fatigue are very real, and they're growing. So there is a new market being formed for publishers who think about news as something else than just the day-to-day outrage.

One part of this is to do slow-news, like what we see from companies like The Correspondent, Tortoise or Zetland. In fact, I plan to write about Zetland soon, because they are doing some really interesting things around audio.

Also, one of the things that Zetland is doing when you sign-up is to ask you how you want the news. Do you want it on a daily or weekly basis?

And after doing this experiment, I have chosen to get it on a weekly basis. I don't need to know the news on a daily basis. It's too shallow. But, if you could give me the stories that are still relevant after a week, then those are something that would very likely be worth reading.

But this is not just about these specific companies, this is about news as a whole. I genuinely think that the news industry has lost its way. We have become so obsessed with the day-to-day scandals that we are missing the real news.

So, I would encourage every newspaper to think about how to create value over time, for each article. Ask yourself if what you are writing about has any real relevance tomorrow, a week from now, or even next month.

If it hasn't, then why are you writing it? Isn't there something better you could give me?

This is one of the important questions that will define the future of news.

For me, this experiment is now over, and I am back to reading the news. Although, I'm not reading it as I did before. This experience has made me far more aware of how I read the news. Instead of just using it as a distraction, my news reading today has become far more focused, and far more controlled, and I have become more selective not just about where I get my news from, but also what type of news I look at.

And I do think that many journalists produce good quality news, and we need that more than ever. While I did see many problems with the news, this whole thing also made me value good news when I see it.

 
 
 

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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé

 

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