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Our View: Fighting news fatigue in a 24x7 era

The firehose can make you seasick

Published on June 14, 2018 9:17AM

It can be exhausting trying to keep up with the news, especially about our president and his cabinet, as they chart a dramatically different course for the country.

It can make you seasick trying to concentrate on everything speeding by the transom, whether it be updates from overnight meetings with a nuclear-armed dictator, stories of financial malfeasance and corruption at the EPA, President Trump’s continuous pokes-in-the-eye via his Twitter feed, or the nasty thing some dumb actor has yelled from his rooftop garden.

It’s enough for many people to throw their hands in the air. A new malady has been coined — “news fatigue” — this feeling that you cannot keep up with the steady stream of important information emanating from journalists the world over. The news is depressing and nausea-inducing, and that’s no way to start the day. To combat the symptoms, many citizens are finding themselves pushed to make a choice.

First, they can convince themselves that the firehose of news isn’t important — you can check out and not care about it and all will be fine.

Or they can take the route of believing there are vitally important updates and critical things happening every day that they must stay apprised of, but their own mental and physical wellbeing requires them to take a step back and clear their head.

Or, they can just take the tack that everything else is fake, except for what the head of our government says, allowing only one person and their supportive media outlets to dictate the terms of reality. That’s the laziest and simplest route, but to many it offers the veneer of peaceful understanding.

Sure, we’re in the news business — it benefits us for people to pay attention.

But we’re first and foremost citizens. And we know the danger that comes when powerful people and institutions attack the news, purposely try to confuse and overwhelm their constituents, and try to numb them with scandal after scandal until none are remarkable enough that they incite the public to demand accountability. It’s a way to get away with anything, this slow spread of news fatigue disease.

As David Frum, the political commentator and former speechwriter for George W. Bush, said recently in an interview: “If your child is feverishly ill, it can be very fatiguing to take care of her. But it’s what you do, because that’s your duty ... if your country is ill you have the same responsibility.”

Part of the reason why “news” seems overwhelming, and some are trying to shirk the responsibility of understanding it, is that many people no longer agree on what “news” is. A recent poll conducted by the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs and the American Press Institute noted that most readers and journalists agree on what they want from journalism — news stories that are factual and offer context and analysis. Yet most of what people absorb, via social media or partisan talking heads on television, or via 280-character tweets, does not offer clear facts and clear context. Absorb too much of that and the brain decides to close down and give up.

There is a real joy of a few days of vacation, to check out of the news stream. That may be necessary to our mental health, and it’s also a point of privilege — a North Korean, a bourbon executive trying to navigate the president’s tariffs, an illegal immigrant, or a person with pre-existing medical conditions does not have the ability to check out for a few days. They must fight and lobby, and work hard to understand the context of their action and those of others.

We know time away from the fusillade is important, and useful. But we urge you to jump back in, to remain vigilant and knowledgeable about the problems affecting our nation and the progress made by it.


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