News fatigue: what it is and how to avoid it

The phenomenon isn’t new, but it’s getting worse and may lead to an effect called “mean world syndrome,” says a Carolina expert.

Woman sighing while looking at laptop.

Have you ever found yourself stuck in a loop of bad news? Your Twitter feed is filled with an endless scroll of terrible headlines, but you just can’t look away? Slowly, you find yourself wanting to check the news less and less because you feel so overwhelmed? That feeling has a name — news fatigue — and it has become more prevalent over the last decade.

For insights into news fatigue, The Well spoke with Heesoo Jang, a graduate student at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media. Jang is also affiliated with the Center for Information, Technology and Public Life, which researches the intersection of politics and digital technology, studying technologies in the context of the people who design, use and govern them.

Heesoo Jang

Heesoo Jang

Tell us about yourself and your work.

My research centers around digital platforms and new technology. I’m interested in how people use digital platforms and related technologies, what they think about them and how they make sense of them. Also, part of my research relates to ethics — how should companies and organizations design their digital platforms so they’re used in a good way for people in society and in a way that works toward democracy?

What causes news fatigue?

News fatigue isn’t a new thing, but it definitely has been a trend for several years. There are several causes.

One is the internet. Before the internet era, the amount of news was quite limited because people got news from traditional media — for example, newspapers and television — and a characteristic of traditional media is that there is a limited amount of time and effort you spend receiving the news. For example, if you’re subscribed to a daily newspaper, you’ll receive one package a day. If you’re a television person, you have a specific time of day that you dedicate to getting the news. People get less fatigued because there’s a limit. With the internet, the amount of news has exploded — because the cost of producing news has gone way down and it’s easier to distribute the news, and because people feel like they get more news because they are on the internet constantly.

Then comes social media. Social media is a bit trickier than just the internet because it is designed by nature to make you stay. Social media platforms play on the fear of missing out. You feel like you’re missing out on something if you’re outside of the social media world because there are trending keywords, hashtags and challenges, and those have a very short lifespan. If you’re not on social media for even 10 days, you miss out.

Additionally, if you’re on TikTok or Instagram, you probably notice that the scroll feature is never-ending. That’s a design feature to give users the impression that there is never an end to the content. That’s not good. Design features like that allow people to get more news on social media, which leads to fatigue. Another thing is that social media content is different from traditional news because it blurs the line between traditional news, on subjects like economics or policy, and what was traditionally not news but became news. Of course, we still get traditional news, but now there is also news related to social media influencers, news that is more on the entertainment side. As more content is brought into the category of news, it feels like the amount of news itself has exploded.

Another thing is that there is less trust in news media than before. This is a trend that has been worrying journalists and scholars a lot. Because people do not trust news media — the organizations they’re getting news from, even — the negative emotions towards news make people tired of news more easily because they don’t see value in it.

Lastly, the pandemic, the war that’s going on, the economy, politics — there has been so much negativity in the news. People get easily tired if there is more bad news about society and the world than good.

How harmful is news fatigue?

News fatigue itself is not a bad thing. It’s just a signal that your body and mind give you for a mental break. You have consumed so much information and your brain just wants a refresh before it absorbs new information. That’s how it works. So I think it’s actually a positive thing because it gives you a sign to do something else and gives you a signal that maybe you’re absorbing too much information.

The issue is when news fatigue leads to news avoidance, which means that because you’re so fed up with the news, you avoid it all. Then the problem is that you won’t be able to access the information you really need that is essential for your everyday life, your health or political participation. That’s when it becomes a real problem. Managing effectively during the news fatigue stage prevents it from evolving into news avoidance, which has much more negative impacts on people’s lives.

What are some ways to avoid burnout while continuing to stay informed?

This is tricky because especially the younger generation and even the older generation actively participate in their social and personal life through the internet and through social media. It’s really hard to take time off from these because it not only directly relates to your work but also your life outside of work.

Still, I think one good way is to take time off from social media and the internet — get yourself back to the offline space and reconnect with the world. There is an effect called the “mean world syndrome”: If you see the world through the media, you believe that the world is more negative than it actually is because the media has a tendency to bring you bad news, as that’s what gains more attention. If you get time off from the media and connect to the world around you, you get a sense that, actually, the world is not that bad, and that’s how you regain connection to the world that is more relevant to you. Time-blocking would definitely help. Give yourself daily even 30 minutes or an hour to go outside for a walk or do something that you really like that is not related to getting new information from the internet.

If you do want to read the news, being more strategic helps. Many people “doomscroll” through the internet and social media, and that’s how they get the news. If we’re on social media, we’re not strategically looking for specific news titles; it’s more like the content finds us. However, we can get more strategic and focus on the topics we are interested in. We can also use time-blocking here. Let’s say that from 2 to 3 in the afternoon I’m going to get news, but I want to focus on the pandemic and how the government is dealing with this issue. Then I would search for the news that is related to that topic and limit myself to an hour to only focus on that issue and not go down the rabbit hole of constantly clicking new links and reading all the recommended news.