News fatigue, news avoidance and root causes: is 2020 to blame?

News fatigue and avoidance is not new, but could 2020 be a significant turning point in news consumption? The life-changing events of 2020 have consumed people internationally. With Australian bushfires, the coronavirus pandemic, Black Lives Matter protests, US presidential elections and the recent storming of the Capitol, global events have underscored social unrest and disenfranchise in modern systems and political life. Shrinking global economies, social injustice and a decreasing faith in democracy are prominent narratives infiltrating our everyday lives. Shedding light on the negative aspects of modern social life, it is no wonder that people want to remove the news apps, disengage with news channels and turn a blind eye to the negative events taking centre stage across the world. But other than the vacuum of negativity news can create for individuals, what are the other root causes of news fatigue in modern life?

Let’s rewind a little to traditional forms of news consumption which was undoubtedly only a small storm of information to navigate. People often committed to just one newspaper, with one read a day being enough to quench the curiosity of readers and provide a satisfiable amount of information to stay abreast of international events. Commentary on events was kept to a minimum, which provided little flexibility in peoples’ minds for shifting opinions that might challenge their own. More opinion was enabled by the TV and radio, but TV only reached a limit of five channels. But then in walks the internet and the sudden rise of social media and it’s here that news fatigue begins, with many people cutting down and often completely abandoning the use of traditional news channels and the one paper a day that kept the curiosity away.


New forms of social media have provided a gateway for relentless information consumption, with people writing and publishing stories in a matter of minutes and spread across every social platform under the sun – even TikTok has become a space for news. The speed and volume at which news can be handed to us, has created an unmanageable universe of information to navigate. The ability to retrieve, write and disperse information means stories can spread like wildfire in a matter of minutes. Taking this speed into account, a news story that was important just a day ago, has no relevance today as it gets shunned out by the next story that takes centre stage all over our Facebook feed.


But with the rapid speed of information dispersion, came the need to break down the news into smaller and digestible soundbites. A news story can be shrunk into a 280 character tweet, a 150 word article and a picture with a 15 word headline, and online mediums often shrink an article down into five key bullet points. With the speed of modern life and digital forms of communication, people want information and they want it fast. This is much unlike our parents who would have had the patience of a Saint, reading through an entire article which offered more rich accounts of events. The speed of modern life, as a result of technology and digital forms of communication means us impatient millennials don’t have the time to read through an entire paper on a Monday morning. Instead, we reach into our mobile phone, open our Twitter feed and there we have the headlines and opinions right in front of us, allowing us to consume news updates on various issues in a matter of minutes. We spend just one minute on one news story, before quickly moving onto the next. We have shifted from favouring depth to favouring breadth because the volume of information available to us is relentless.


Now couple that with the ability to like, share and comment on articles enabled through social media platforms. This democratisation of the news, enabled by Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, have provided a space for people to offer up their opinion and stimulate debate around Brexit and Megxit. You can listen to conflicting opinions on the infamous fishing rights Brexit debate on the radio, whilst you have some people demanding the impeachment of the US president, whilst you have others describing Trump as a “hero” and a “man of the people”.


The ease of commenting and sharing articles has undoubtedly provide fertile ground for free and healthy debate, but the flip side of that very coin? It paves the way for conflicting opinions, information overload and we fall into the rabbit hole of negativity and anger found on online platforms and comment sections. And there we are left, scratching heads wondering what on earth should we believe? So, by welcoming in public opinion, the media (and social media) playground has become a fight over “truth”. News sources and the people that write and read them, contradict and battle one another, with many people more recently dubbing information that doesn’t agree with their worldview as “fake news” (but that’s a whole other issue).


This fight over “truth” is relentless. Overwhelmed by it all, we fall into fight or flight mode. In the same way that we grab the sugar when we’re stressed, we become fatigued by the news and turn over the channel to Love Island in our desperate attempt to escape the negativity it exudes. In 2016, the EU referendum and subsequent reporting on Brexit negotiations meant we had to endure a divided UK, watching people fight over whether to leave or remain. According to research, 35 per cent of the British population began to avoid the news during this period. Fast forward to 2020 and in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, we witness a similar pattern of decreasing engagement. While most news sites have experienced a significant boost in traffic due to the immediacy of the crisis, this was followed by a demonstrable increase in fatigue and avoidance shortly after. With that in mind, it’s becoming clear that Covid-19 has simply accelerated a rejection of news that has long been brewing under the surface. A pandemic which has resulted in the depressing reporting of deaths, over-pressured NHS hospitals and repeated orders to stay at home - it’s no wonder we want to shut off from the overwhelm of it all as we sit at home wondering when we’ll be able to see loved ones again.


But the rise of social media and the ability to rapidly comment and offer opinion online, does make me wonder if it would have been easier for us to live through this past year of pandemics, bushfires and elections if we didn't have to digest multiple opinions at such rapid speed. If we were living in a time where we just read one newspaper a day and been free of conflicting and overloaded opinions, would we be as overwhelmed and fatigued by it all? Social media and the openness of the internet where people can publish what they want, provides an additional layer of complex information to make sense of since anyone can publish anything about...well anything. So yes, we probably would have handled a year of disasters better if we were a generation ahead.


Fragmented opinions and multiple outlets and have not only led to news fatigue, but it has often led to complete news avoidance or (and even more worrying) the belief that news outlets publish “fake news” - a symptom of a much larger issue.