Credit: Sieuwert Otterloo on Unsplash

The past five years showed a clear trend: we have reached the limit of how much information people can handle.

News fatigue started with social platforms, where many people began to cut down on or even completely avoid the use of some channels. The combination of low value, low relevance, and high volume, with the addition of ‘destructive habit’, as vlogger Casey Neistat puts it, meant that spending time regularly scrolling through social feeds was becoming increasingly off-putting.

This trend, however, has now moved into the media industry - news fatigue and news avoidance are on the up, for the same reasons.

In the UK, we saw it happening particularly around the 2016 EU referendum and subsequent reporting on Brexit negotiations. The 2019 Digital News Report by the Reuters Institute has found that a staggering 35 per cent of the British public have started to avoid the news during this period.

A year on, we see the same trend around the covid-19 reporting. While most news sites have experienced a significant boost in traffic due to the immediacy of the crisis, this was followed by a sharp increase in news fatigue and avoidance.

Ofcom, which has tracked news consumption in the UK since the beginning of the pandemic, found that around a third (34 per cent) of respondents are now trying to avoid news about coronavirus, compared to 22 per cent in week one of the health crisis.

Drilling deeper into the survey data, 25-34 year olds are most likely to be avoiding covid-19 news (44 per cent), while women are more likely (37 per cent) than men (30 per cent) to avoid news on the topic.

This trend has a serious impact on democracy, attitudes to pandemic prevention and the long-term trust people have in the news.

From studies to experience

Studies and surveys aside, think of your own experience. What would happen if you stopped following the news?

I decided to test this last year. For an entire month, I forced myself not to consume any news. And, as I outline in a new report from the European Broadcasting Union, the experience of that was striking.

Here are three highlights:

Firstly, cutting myself off the news cycle brought a sense of FOMO (the fear of missing out). I started to wonder about all the things I have not heard about and I began to feel anxious about it.

But as the experience went on, this FOMO changed to JOMO (the joy of missing out). News tends to focus on outrage and antagonism and not waking up every morning to negative news had a positive effect on me.

And for a cause - many studies confirm that people often avoid the news because of its negative effect on their mental health.

Secondly, we often hear that if you are not actively seeking out news, it ‘will come to you’ anyway. This, however, turned out not to be true. While I did hear about the big news stories even if I tried to avoid reading the news, the news that ‘came to me’ was very skewed towards whatever drove the most outrage.

Finally, after my experiment was over, I spent a day looking over all the front pages of all the newspapers published during the past month. I wanted to see which stories I had missed and that were critical for me to know about.

The result was troubling. Not a single front-page story felt relevant a month later. This is the very example of the ‘throw-away news’ culture - it might have seemed relevant on the day it was published but it had little lasting importance.

Many news avoiders relate to that - they often just do not feel the news is relevant for them in the long term.

“Experimenting with News Fatigue and News Avoidance” by Thomas Baekdal, for the European Broadcasting Union, is available here. Guest login applies.

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Correction: An older version of this article incorrectly stated that Ofcom found that 32 percent of respondents were trying to avoid news about coronavirus. This is in fact 34 per cent.

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