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the costs of staying informed [feature]

reflections on news fatigue

My desk is overwhelmed by tidy stacks of newspapers. Every crossword puzzle is solved, while every article is unread. An optimist beyond reason, it’s natural for me to abstain from the news. I’ll thumb through it every now and again, only to graze upon more of the same: new government policy perturbing the public, CDC guideline update, climate change swiftly expediting world doom…

I prefer to do the puzzles because I can disentangle them. It’s comforting to know that a solution is always within reach. The most frustrating aspect of reading global issues is that I can’t solve anything. I can’t clean all of the oceans. I can’t bridge the wage gap. I can’t depolarize political parties. 

The bitter truth: We can’t un-wreak havoc.

Reading the news is merely becoming aware of a dilemma; it is knowing there are things to solve, but lacking the means to solve them. Racism, refugee crises, poverty, school shootings, carbon emissions, fast fashion, sexual assault, unemployment, theft, violence, corruption. All I see when I read or hear the news is a wealth of problems upon problems, accompanied by a scalding feeling of helplessness. And all I can do is watch them accumulate. Incessantly.

Perhaps I am projecting my frustrations with the world onto the news. I should  clarify that I don’t find the news to be the sole villain here; these tragedies shouldn’t be happening in the first place. My unease with the news lies in its persistence. 

The news is a constant presence: TV, print, radio, word-of-mouth, not to mention Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, and TikTok. The familiar ping of news alerts throughout the day divert our attention to the latest headline. The bystander footage of bloodshed and destruction governs our phones while routinely tapping through stories on social media. Naturally, we have become habituated to this ever-present stream of violence and catastrophe. 

Growing up, my parents cautioned me on the importance of temperance: Too much of anything would never benefit me. But news is inescapable, it seems. Sitting in Blue State sipping a (remarkably overpriced) chai latte, I can’t help but overhear conversations around me: “Tragic kidnapping not far from here,” someone states nonchalantly as the radio plays over the cafe loudspeaker. California wildfires resisting containment efforts almost immediately followed by Beyoncé’s “Love on Top.” And on the print newspapers by the door, it’s unsettling to read “More American Children are Dying by Gunfire” directly adjacent to “How to Veg Out During Veganuary.” 

Objectivity is a fundamental tenet of journalism and broadcasting. We are fed emotionally-detached facts because the news’ bottom-line role is to keep the public informed, to provide unbiased/impartial/rock-solid truth, which readers and viewers can interpret to their liking. Articles and newscasters discuss tragic happenings in an alarmingly casual manner to uphold this principle. Information is filtered through a sieve of sorts, with every ounce of grief, anger, and heartbreak trickling out. 

Sometimes I agonize over whether my abstinence from the news is a privileged habit or a legitimate means of protecting my peace. This internal debate often concludes with grim feelings of guilt and shame. At any instance, I have the ability to shut off the TV or put down the paper, but this is not a common luxury. The people living in war zones, suffering from epidemics, enduring firsthand effects of climate change—they can’t abstain from the news because they are the news. They don’t have a remote in hand to switch it off whenever they please. It feels far too naive to just ignore them simply because I can. But repeatedly seeing and hearing the bleak and disheartening world occurrences takes a severe mental toll.

This fatigue, I discovered, is not a unique experience. Ellen Barry of The New York Times recently published an article about climate change anxiety, a seemingly “luxury problem” with a proven and profound impact on mental health. Others like me feel the demanding obligation to keep up with the catastrophic environmental news we so often hear.

Therapists are seeing more and more patients whose climate qualms from “doom-scrolling” are affecting them psychologically: depression, panic attacks, anxiety, or paranoia, all due to the relentless nature of the news and subsequent fear for the future. Barry fittingly compares scrolling through environmental news as subjecting oneself to the “rabbit hole”—getting consumed by the waves of information regarding the downfall of our planet. A new branch of psychological treatment, ecotherapy, has emerged and is rapidly gaining traction to help people grapple with this reality.

The article was met with polarizing comments. Some readers were infuriated that overly sensitive people are assigning blame to the news and seeking therapy because of it. Others, including myself, felt recognized and less guilty about avoiding the news for the purpose of self-protection. 

***

The news has not always been this much of a societal force. With the emergence of technology and social media’s prevalence, it has infiltrated our lives to an extreme extent. I think about if Covid-19 had erupted 20 or 30 years prior to 2020, before the news overwhelmed every platform, whether the universal reaction would have been different. A substantial number of people fell victim to depression as a result of isolation from loved ones, which likely would have happened regardless of the year. But in 2020, there was the added misery of checking Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, etc., only to see more news posts about the pandemic’s destruction. There was a constant reminder that Covid was everywhere. A global pandemic was obviously going to drown out anything else that was happening, but it was draining hearing about it and seeing it all the time. It was a narrative that had exhausted itself. 

An essay in Psychology Today explains the stark difference between news relevance generationally. The author, Dr. Michael Pittaro, describes how in the ‘90s, news didn’t circulate the way it does now, on a multitude of different platforms. Thus, it never took up much mental capacity. It didn’t distract from daily life. People worried, but it rarely ever consumed them. In contrast, today’s therapists are seeing more and more patients with severe mental health concerns as a result of stress from world occurrences. 

Dr. Pittaro explains that there likely will be consequences of this constant and exaggerated news exposure, particularly for today’s youth: the iPhone generation. He fears that this perpetual exposure will make our society less empathetic towards each other. It makes sense, given that the presence of the news on social media provides such an available avenue for opinion. Social media posts about current events that lack hostile comments are scarce. 

Go to any news post on social media and take a look at the comment section. It is almost guaranteed to be congested with users berating others about pandemic opinions, or belligerently forcing their political tenets onto the internet. This toxic culture desensitizes us to a basic human skill—regard for other people’s feelings. We don’t apologize on the internet. We say what we feel, and rarely face the repercussions of doing so. Seeing these terrible things happen in the news at such an uninterrupted pace makes people feel a need to project their grievances onto others, and the internet provides them with a means to do it.   

With time I’ve realized that ignorance is bliss—to a degree. I don’t want to shelter myself completely from the world’s goings-on, but I also don’t want to sacrifice my mental health to understand everything that is happening. For me, constantly keeping up with the news has the impending consequence of resenting the world. I don’t know how else to cope with the news, so I am doing the best I can to combat the problems it inundates me with: Shop sustainably, donate when you can, treat others with dignity, and limit your news. Maybe this way we can all stay hopeful.

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