The Sunday Magazine

Michael's essay: The rapid pace of news is leaving us exhausted and depressed

“The mind has trouble absorbing so much news thrown at us at such incredible speed. Breaking news should be renamed break-neck news.”

The unrelenting news cycle is making us irritable and ill-informed.

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un on June 12, 2018, in Singapore. (Evan Vucci/ Associated Press )

New Yorker cartoonist David Sipress captured perfectly the ongoing North American obsession with instant news. The cartoon shows a couple walking along a street as the woman says to her companion: "My desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane."

I have long lived with the unnerving feeling that we in the business of journalism are, by inadvertence, making people crazy.

This comes after decades of taking part in the practice.

There have never been any hard and fast data to support the assertion until now. The esteemed journalism think tank, the Pew Research Center, has just released the results of its latest survey. It suggests that a majority of Americans are, if not losing their sanity, absolutely exhausted by the pace of so-called breaking news. According to the survey, 68 per cent of Americans feel worn out by the amount of news there is these days. Only three in ten say they like the amount of news they get.

I would bet that a Canadian survey would show much the same result.

The survey found that news fatigue is more common among those with a low opinion of news media. Fully eight in ten of these critics feel tired of media coverage.

To be clear, the respondents were not asked about the quality of the news coverage they were consuming, only the tonnage.

There is nothing new about news organizations wanting to be first and fastest with breaking news. In the heyday of the great wire services, if the AP could beat UPI by 10 seconds with a big story, that was a major coup. Part of the problem is the sheer velocity of the delivery of information. The mind has trouble absorbing so much news thrown at us at such incredible speed.

This photo of G7 leaders and advisers at the G7 summit was posted to the Instagram account of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, on June 9, 2018 with the description "a spontaneous meeting between two working sessions." (Jesco Denzel/German Federal Government via AP)

One local Toronto television station offers rolling news reports, traffic cameras, sports scores, stock market numbers, and weather all on the screen at the same time, while an anchor delivers the latest news.

Breaking news should be renamed break-neck news.

One U.S. journalism professor argues that "the constant wash of uncertainties is emotionally draining and physically harmful … skyrocketing blood pressure and heart palpitations."

The question becomes: If we assume that quality information makes better citizens of us, how much do we need? And how much is too much?

Fighting back against the rising tides of instant news, is a firm in London called The Slow Journalism Company.

Fashioned after the slow food movement, it publishes a magazine called Delayed Gratification every three months. Its' slogan is "last to breaking news." It has been described as an antidote to throwaway media. It takes the major stories of the day, marinates them for a few months, then publishes them with context, diligent research, photos and info-graphics. Again, only four times a year. Each issue is no more than 120 pages, which means, say their ads, "We don't fall into the 24/7 news traps; the speculation, conjecture and hot air." Unfortunately, I haven't seen it on this side of the Atlantic.

Journalists by nature and by instinct want to fill blank space and dead air with something. Emptiness makes us twitchy.

The danger is if we overfeed our audiences with ephemera, important, necessary journalism becomes one more piece of background noise. 

Click 'listen' at the top of the page to hear Michael's essay.