As content has become easier than ever to create and distribute, the pressure to do so has increased, and so has the demand for attention from the public at large.
“Twenty years ago media experts were already warning that working at high speeds encourages journalists to ‘fall back on well-worn themes and observations — interpretive clichés,’” Matt Norman at National Geographic writes. “In today’s world of digital media, this effect has been compounded.”
Today’s news environment is wearing on journalists, says Sally Pook, a former journalist who now works as a psychotherapist. The need to monitor news constantly is leading to anxiety, exhaustion and burnout in news rooms. It’s also wearing on readers, who are increasingly avoiding the news in order to manage their own feelings of burnout or helplessness.
When it comes to news, more speed and more content is no longer better. A return to slow journalism may offer a solution.
What Is Slow Journalism?
“Questioning the premise that faster is better, slow journalism is about taking the time to report the news with close attention and more depth,” Norman says. Such outlets may publish fewer articles, release them more slowly, or limit the scope of items they cover in order to give more attention to a few issues rather than attempting to comment on every possible event.
One example is UK-based Tortoise Media, which attempts to give readers news they can realistically read and think about before more news arrives. Tortoise delivers no more than five articles each day via its app, email and members-only section of its website.
“[Tortoise] is the antidote to the endless news feed,” says Katie Vanneck-Smith, co-founder and publisher of Tortoise. “We promise [readers] something that fits into their lives, something they can finish, that’s quality, thoughtful and that they can be part of.”
To attract and keep readers, Tortoise focuses on the quality of its journalism, taking longstanding publications like The Economist as its example, says Vanneck-Smith. The goal is to engage readers with quality rather than quantity.
“It’s important to note that the principles at stake in this form of reporting are not as simple as the fast-slow dichotomy might suggest,” Norman says. Simply writing news pieces more slowly won’t help readers engage more meaningfully with the news. Instead, slower delivery must be paired with an emphasis on selectivity, narrative quality, transparency and service to the community that comprises its audience.
Slow journalism that prioritizes these qualities can more effectively address the problems that frictionless news access causes for readers.
How a Lack of Friction Fosters Fatigue
Concerns about fake news are widespread in the US and other countries. The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that concerns about real versus fake news online are highest in countries like Brazil, Spain and the US, where fake content became major concerns in recent political contests, says Nic Newman, research associate at Reuters.
While readers do take news evaluation into their own hands, they also look to news sources to confront the problem, as well. About 77 percent of respondents to the Reuters study believed that news outlets and publishing platforms have a responsibility to address fake news items, Newman says.
How the Media’s Professionalism Affects Political Trust and Behavior
The relationship between readers’ trust in news and their trust in political parties and processes is a complex one. In a study published in the Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, Gal Ariely found that “countries with more media autonomy and journalistic professionalism evince a weaker relation between media trust and political trust.” In such countries, the public is more likely to believe media depictions of political situations when forming opinions on politics.
In a study in the International Journal of Press/Politics, researchers Thomas Hanitzsch, Arjen Van Dalen and Nina Steindl use the term “trust nexus” to describe the relationship between the public’s trust in media sources and its view of political institutions. They note that this relationship has grown stronger over time, making the trust of news media an important measurement in determining how a community or a nation views its political leadership.
…And How a Lack of Friction Hurts News Outlets, Too
Frictionless news isn’t merely diluting the quality of information. It’s also facing economic instability as more consumers employ ad blockers — and refuse to disable them just to access a news site.
“When the impact of ad blockers grows from 20 percent to 60 percent, then the whole economic underpinning [of endless news feeds] goes out of the window,” says Rob Orchard, founder of Delayed Gratification, a news magazine that publishes once every three months. Paywalls and ad blockers that also block news are encouraging readers to invest money in accessing high-quality news, says Orchard.
Not everyone is switching to high-quality news sources in order to deal with feeling overwhelmed or burnt out, though. Instead of switching sources, some people are switching off.
While the percentage of those who avoid the news varies from country to country, overall about one in three people actively avoid watching, reading or listening to the news, says Dr. Antonis Kalogeropoulos, postdoctoral research fellow at Reuters. The US sits slightly higher than the average, at 38 percent, but not as high as Turkey or Greece, at 57 percent.
Overall, 48 percent of respondents said they avoided the news because “it can have a negative effect on my mood,” while 37 percent said, “I can’t rely on news to be true.”
“News avoidance, news fatigue, and other pathologies of our contemporary digital era are symptoms of larger problems concerning the health of our media systems and democracies,” researchers Ruth Palmer and Benjamin Toff write in an article for Nieman Lab. Not only do these reactions hurt the bottom lines of news companies, but they also hurt the public’s ability to stay informed and to respond to issues that directly affect their health and safety.
Taking Control of Our Informational Inputs
Like advertising and other forms of online content, news has joined the competition for attention. To avoid overwhelm and burnout, we — the audience whose attention is competed for — will need to take control of when, where and how content reaches us.
Look Both Ways Before Checking Your Social Media
Even when social media users don’t seek out news on the platforms, they’re more likely to run across news items and to read them than are people who don’t use social media at all. And the effects of this incidental exposure to news pieces can be even stronger on those who aren’t expecting to see news or don’t consider themselves interested in news.
In a 2017 study published in New Media and Society, researchers Richard Fletcher and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen found that not only did incidental exposure to news on social media sites lead to more news consumption, but that younger readers and those with low interest in news were more likely to be affected by the content of the news they found on social media, whether or not that news was fake.
By contrast, users who consciously relied on social media for news or who were active consumers of news were less likely to be taken in by fake news pieces. These findings suggest that even if we’re not interested in limiting our time on social media, simply staying aware of our surroundings and questioning the nature of what crosses our news feed can help reduce the negative effects of exposure to fast, fake news.
Choose Your Own Slow News Adventure
“If you feel like there is too much news and you can’t keep up, you are not alone,” say Jeffrey Gottfried and Michael Barthel of the Pew Research Center. They present a sobering statistic: 68 percent of Americans say they feel worn out by the amount of news in their lives.
Interestingly, those who consume less news are more likely to feel worn out by the frictionless nature of news media, say Gottfried and Barthel. Among those who follow the news “most of the time,” 62 pecent report feeling worn out, compared to 78 percent who follow the news “only when something important is happening.”
Because slow journalism cultivates a deeper understanding of important events, it may be particularly valuable to the 78 percent who feel worn out and who engage with the news only during noteworthy events. Slow journalism can offer insight into these events without overwhelming readers who are already avoiding the overwhelming nature of fast news delivery.
One of the most valuable slowdown tools we have, then, may be simply to pause and think. Conscious awareness of what we’re reading and what it’s trying to communicate can help reorient us to the news, allowing for a more mindful and satisfying approach to staying informed.
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