Breaking News: How to Rethink Your Information Consumption

March 26, 2020

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I can’t remember a time when I felt so compelled to constantly check the news as these past two weeks. Perhaps the 2016 US election was close, but the combination of danger, uncertainty, and the speed at which the COVID-19 pandemic develops has triggered a unique urge within me to keep updated almost by the minute.

Luckily, it has spurred some introspection and caused me to reflect on my relationship to the news, and I wanted to share that exploration with you all. Most importantly, I hope to offer some simple ideas that have helped me in the past (and which I’m currently trying to put back into practice!) that I believe could help you rethink your relationship with news.

Disclaimer: to be clear, I am not advocating for anyone to stop checking the news. It is our civic duty to do so during this crisis, for the health and safety of all. However, I believe we can stay informed AND develop a healthier relationship to the news cycle.

News, News, News

Right now, it would be difficult to find anybody who isn’t concerned with the pandemic that is causing chaos around the world. Each day, death tolls rise, new social quarantining measures are announced, and questions about a vaccine hang in the air.

In these times, we turn to the news to keep us safe, informed, and up-to-date. It is important, even essential, that we stay current with the situation, especially government guidelines. However, it can be easy to consume too much news and suffer the consequences. Have you ever felt mentally or even physically exhausted after consuming too much news in a day ? If so, you’re not alone.

What you’re experiencing is something I’d call a news overdose. This happens when you’ve spent just a little too long scrolling through headlines, clicking on links, or glued to the tube. In times of particularly intense news cycles, it’s even more likely to affect us. But why does this happen?

The Information Appeal

Let’s start with some facts. The average American consumes about 70 minutes of news a day. When you add in the 144 minutes the average person spends on social media, plus the 215 minutes spent watching TV, you start to see just how much time we dedicate to consuming information.

This points to the obvious fact that the news is both informational and entertaining. As humans, our survival has always depended on access to information. Yet never before have we had access to so much information, and its impact can be overwhelming, even addicting.

One big reason we get hooked to the headlines is that news websites and apps operate much like a slot machine, giving us a new hit of dopamine each time we ‘pull to refresh.’ Every time we grab our phone to check our favorite news source, we’re filled with anticipation as we don’t know what new, exciting, or shocking information awaits.

This is a concept known from behavioral psychology called intermittent variable rewards, which says that humans respond to rewards better if they are randomized. This principle is often employed by mobile apps, especially social media, to keep us coming back. Simply put, when there is an element of surprise tied to the reward of a behavior, such as checking the news and not knowing what we’ll find, we get even more hooked.

In addition, research shows us that our brains are wired with a negativity bias that leads us to seek out more negative news stories. Long ago, it was helpful to be hardwired this way, so that we could detect and avoid threats in the natural environment. But today, it often leads us towards more negative, fear-driven headlines. As the old idiom says, “bad news travels fast.”

When you combine these trends — the total amount of information consumption, our inclination to get hooked to behaviours with surprising rewards, and a evolutionary bias towards the negative — you start to see why a poorly planned relationship to the news can be unhealthy.

The Information Diet

It can seem that evolution has dealt us a bad hand, but there is hope. I’d offer the idea that we could all benefit from getting on an information diet. Much like what we eat, the information we consume has a way of shaping our thoughts and coloring our perspective.

“You are what you eat.” ~ every parent to their kids ever.

Getting on an information diet requires us to get intentional about how we want to stay informed. At its core, it is about conscious consumption. Rather than checking the news whenever we feel like it, we set boundaries about the quantity and quality of news we want to consume.

This idea of an information diet was first coined by Clay Johnson back in 2012. Clay founded Blue State Digital, the digital agency that shaped Obama’s winning campaign strategy, so he was keenly aware of the influence that online media has on our lives.

Clay’s book, The Information Diet, explored this topic in detail, with particular attention to the quality of content we tend to consume. Just like we are evolutionary wired to crave fat, salt, and sugar, Clay argues that we’ve evolved to crave online media that fits our worldview and excites, shocks, or angers us. He recommends that we consciously filter for higher quality content:

“Like any good diet, the information diet works best if you think about it not as denying yourself information, but as consuming more of the right stuff and developing healthy habits.“

That’s the beauty of an information diet — it doesn’t ask us to avoid the news altogether, but to be mindful of how and what we choose to consume.

Put It Into Practice

If you’ve decided you want to reshape your relationship to the news, here are a few simple strategies to make it happen.

Decide on your diet and specify how much time you want to devote to the news (your ‘information diet’) in a given day or week. Are you comfortable using an hour or a day, or just 15 minutes? Then decide which outlets you want to prioritize. There’s no right or wrong, what matters is that you match your behavior to your intention.

Pick a time and place where you’ll catch up on the news. Luckily, most of us are working from home right now, so routines are easier to create. Use it to your advantage! Choosing a regular time and place will make it easier for your new habit to stick. For example, “I’ll read the news for 30 minutes on the couch after I eat lunch.”

Ditch digital and go analog. Try reading the paper or a favorite news magazine. Not only will this remove the endless scrolling available on digital, you can also support a local or national news publication with your wallet, which is needed now more than ever.

Eat your vegetables. Keep in mind that limiting the quantity of consumption is only half the challenge: quality also matters. Try reading analysis instead of breaking news. I’ve found it useful to curate my reading list ahead of time using Pocket, so that I don’t fall into the trap of clicking through endless headlines.

Set a timer to remind you of your limit. This might sound like overkill, but it really can help nudge you in the right direction. I prefer using the timer on my watch, but you can also use a tool like Freedom to block certain websites after a specific time, or do it directly in your Android or iPhone settings.

Go easy on yourself

I’ll end with a simple reminder to be easy and practice self-compassion during these difficult times. Yes, it is a great time to test new habits. But it is also a supremely difficult moment in history. You don’t need to overhaul your routine overnight. Just try for one day, and see how it goes.

Most importantly, take care of yourself and others.

Thanks for reading!