For the last few months I’ve gone through a bit of a regression. As a born & bred internet nerd, I’ve always thought that online content was king. I’d pour over articles, blogs, forums & personal websites absorbing information. For the most part I still do enjoy all of those outlets, but one website genre has been sapping too much of my attention, News sites!
During the run up to the 2016 EU referendum in the U.K and the presidential elections in the U.S my news consumption increased at an exponential rate. My drug of choice was The Guardian online. After all, I’m a liberal academic raised on the internet. I’m well versed in most sexualities, fetishes, niches & sub cultures. Growing up online not a lot slips under the radar. The guardian was a perfect fit for my political views, my environmental views and my social outlook. Growing up I was exposed to newspapers from across the political spectrum. From right-wing news like The Daily Mail & Telegraph, right through to The Guardian & The Observer. The general trend being, the younger adults in the family bought into the liberal press & the older members into the conservative press.
As someone who used to dial onto the internet with a 14.4kbps dial up modem, I first experienced bulletin boards & forums. News wasn’t something that interested me until I hit my 30’s. Now I feel an obligation to be informed and at least somewhat politically literate. Like most people, my news started coming more from social media sites. Shared twitter articles & Facebook stories shaped my world view. The filter bubble had me.
I realized early on that news consumed via social media was specifically targeted at me. If you follow people on social media who you relate to, chances are they will also hold the same views on politics and the environment. I would read stories about renewable energy & social issues. I would consume stories on tech & music culture. I was fed an endless supply of catered news stories, peacefully unaware of an alternate narrative running in parallel to my filter bubble.
In late 2015 I started switching off all retweets and stopped using Facebook. I unfollowed all news outlets & would unfollow or mute users who got political or what I would consider ranty! I trimmed my social media so it was somewhat social again. I decided, if I wanted to read the news, I would do it consciously & head to news websites. This worked well for a period & then we entered the run up to the 2016 EU referendum. All of a sudden I could see the other side of the filter bubble. The mirror opposite of my bubble. People who instead of being angry about fossil fuels or the bedroom tax, where angry at immigration and that bizarre term ‘the metropolitan elite’.
I knew early on that Leave would get a lot more votes than predicted in early polls & I could also see the click bait & outrage techniques they employed online. They used the same techniques as advertisers & influencers use to gain attention & cement a narrative. The remain campaign had no clue that the new battle would be fought (and won) online.
The whole debate descended into outrageous claims & counter claims. It was like the worst parts of our tabloid press here in the U.K. but pumped up on steroids. Leave won the day, but our culture of discourse in the U.K. has been changed forever.
This essay isn’t about that vote, it’s about the atmosphere created by that vote. News reporting changed. 24 hour news became a quagmire of live blogs, claim & counter-claim, ‘fake news’ and the most bizarre quotations. Since when did a tweet constitute a quote or news? It would seem that the need to break a story now trumps the need to investigate a story, fact check & produce a coherent article.
What followed was the U.S. elections & a news industry which is whipped into such a frenzy it’s basically a live chatroom. Reporters frantically typing live blogs full of typos, users frantically responding in the comments section, only for stories to develop or be completely debunked hours later. Users are then arguing with each other & with journalists in the comments. This is not news or reporting in the traditional sense & it’s an assault on the synapses.
Journalists are paid to investigate, digest information & present stories in a coherent manner. Fact checking should be done before publication. Retractions should be rare.
This new kind of news reporting has made us all junior reporters. We interpret in real-time, often out of context & without all the facts & we form half-baked narratives. We also apply our own bias and then pass on our own biased versions of developing stories, essentially producing streams of fake news. Our opinions then hit social media where they develop in our filter bubbles & polarization increases between tribes. We’ve all had the flame wars with people of opposite political persuasions.
I reached news burnout in mid 2017. I was feeling depressed & overwhelmed. I’d had countless arguments with family members & total strangers online. I was like an addict, constantly refreshing The Guardian front page waiting on an update. Something had to change.
I went extreme at first. I added all of the news sites I could think of into a hosts file on my network. I essentially blocked all news at home. I went cold turkey for about a month, and whilst I felt less informed, I felt a sense of calm I hadn’t felt in at least 18 months. This was obvious denial & delusion, I knew I couldn’t hide from the news forever, but I could control how I consumed said news.
After around 5 weeks I removed the blocks & all was well for a few days before I felt myself checking the sites again. I knew I had to change my habits so I decided to subscribe to two newspapers. I now read paper versions of The Guardian & The Times. I decided to balance my own arguments like any good academic by selecting more than one source. The guardian has an obvious liberal slant, while The Times is a conservative leading but very well written newspaper (in the UK it’s the only choice amongst the other right leaning news outlets, the rest are a bit crazy).
I found by reading a newspaper, I was reading well written & well-edited stories. It also meant that I was selective over the stories I read & I was exposed to stories I would have otherwise missed. Reading real newspapers means that your data isn’t mined & your political leanings or preferences can’t be weaponized against you. There is something creepy about websites & third parties being able to keep track of all the stories you read & then using that data to target political messaging back at you. A major privacy benefit. Another added benefit is that when you reach the end, it goes in the recycling & you carry on with your day.
By removing all of my news apps from my smartphone & tablet, as well as resisting the temptation to read live news websites I’ve actively slowed down my news consumption. I now feel informed, but not overwhelmed. Also, by balancing the views of two outlets I get a more rounded view & can more easily pick out the political bias in stories.
24 hour news will always be frantic & a little haphazard. If a person only consumes this type of news, their anxiety levels will reflect the stream of information they are taking in. Most developing news is bad news or outrageous. We don’t get many good news stories on 24 hour outlets. Politicians can worry about the day-to-day running of the country & we can call them out as & when we can actually influence the debate. There is little value in getting irate on social media because a politician has tweeted something outrageous and we aren’t happy, all in real-time.
So my advice to anyone feeling news burnout is to take it back to basics. News websites are in the business of holding your attention. The longer you stay, the more advertising space they can sell for your consumption. Slow down your consumption and read a newspaper. You can even opt to read a weekend newspaper which will have the most important news of the week & a few nice supplements for balance. Even a news magazine like The Week here in the U.K or the Weekend edition of the ‘I’ will give you a good overview of the stories you really need to know, but in a concise way.
I wholeheartedly support journalists & real journalism. Unlike news blogs & websites, they still have a code of conduct to uphold & are unable to publish a story without scrutiny. Use blogs & personal websites for everything else, enjoy them, but for political news where there are real incentives to control the narrative or introduce bias, always at least have one trusted outlet. In the age of alleged foreign interference it’s a must.
If you can’t afford to buy a newspaper, head to a cafe or coffee shop and read theirs. Most coffee shops have multiple copies of newspapers for customers & most would be happy for you to take a copy at the end of the day. You can even read the newspapers in most public libraries.
Slow news, news that has already developed into a story saves you the personal processing time. You will feel less frazzled & more able to absorb stories, not to mention you will regain a lot of productive time & energy to be better utilized on your own projects.
The 24 hour news cycle really got to me & live news & social news is going a long way to polarize our societies & divide opinion. With so much fake news & opinion masquerading as news, it can be an exhausting process just sifting through it.
Buy a paper, grab a coffee & unplug from the outrage of online news & social media news sharing. Your brain will thank you for it.
**If you really want to keep reading news online, you can take a few steps to improve your experience. I would say to set a time to check the news each day & stick to it. I would aim for say 9am, so you get the best edited stories from the previous day, but without any of the developing stories. Stick to that time & once finished, don’t check again until the next day. Try to avoid all live updating content such as live blogs. Live news is overload and by it’s very nature doesn’t have a natural end, so stick to reading fully formed articles. Don’t use news apps on your phone, always use the browser versions. It’s too easy just to launch an app. A few changes in your habits will make a huge difference. Finally, use an ad blocker with your web browser such as ublock origin and sign up to the mute blocklist. Even if you don’t block anything else with the adblocker, mute will block most comment fields across the web. Comments have become pretty unhelpful and will only fuel your outrage. If mute doesn’t catch a comment field, specify a custom filter using the ublock origin picker tool included with the browser extension.**