Lately I find myself feeling increasingly anxious, angry and demoralized after reading the news. Still, I refresh my phone's news app (my main news delivery device these days) multiple times a day, like a rat looking for one more drop of sugar water. I believe, as do most people, that citizens of a democracy have a responsibility to remain informed, but I fear this constant deluge of information has overwhelmed our ability to process it well. Regardless of your political leanings, we can all agree that the news cycle can feel relentless at times. So I dug into the research and talked to experts about some ways we can all become better consumers of news.
#1 Find the right dose. Psychiatrist M. Katherine Shear, director of the Center for Complicated Grief at Columbia University, says she has been hearing from many people that they're feeling bogged down by the news. Politically charged stories and tales of human suffering can cause sadness, anger, and even feelings of grief and loss, she says. One study done in 2015 by Pam Ramsden, who studies psychological resiliency at the University of Bradford in England, found that 22 percent of subjects experienced some symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (such as jitteriness or the belief that the world is extremely dangerous) after viewing violent news images on social media—and symptoms worsened with increased exposure. “We need to go there and contact that pain, and then we also need to set it aside,” Shear says. When it comes to emotionally charged news, “you have to learn your own dose.”
#2 Read past the headlines! Five or six words will never tell an entire story, yet people regularly share stories based solely on headlines, according to a study by Maksym Gabielkov and Arthi Ramachandran, both then at Columbia. For one month in 2016, they gathered all tweets, including links using Bitly—a Web app that shortens URLs—to a handful of major news stories and then collated them with Bitly's click logs. After crunching the data, the researchers extrapolated the fact that a majority (59 percent) of the shared links had never been clicked through and read. No wonder so many social media feeds are flooded with repetitive jabber. My friend Andrew DeVigal, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon, suggests a way to show friends you have done your due diligence: “When I share a link, I also share a piece of the content from the article so that people understand why I'm reacting to it and want to talk about it.”
#3 Be your own fact-checker. Twenty-three percent of people admit to having shared a fake news story on Facebook, either accidentally or on purpose, according to a 2016 Pew Research Center survey. It's tempting for me, a journalist on her high horse, to chalk that up to people being willfully ignorant. Yet the news ecosystem has become so overcrowded and complicated that I can understand why navigating it is challenging. When in doubt, we need to cross-check story lines ourselves. DeVigal often consults AllSides, FactCheck.org and Snopes for a fuller picture of what's true or false, fact or opinion.
#4 Diversify your media diet. Because we are often connected with like-minded friends on social media, many of us have locked ourselves into echo chambers where most of the news we read or watch simply confirms what we already believe. Other aspects of our news diet are out of whack, too: a nationally representative survey done in 2014 by the Pew Research Center found that conservatives are far more likely than other ideological groups to rely on a single outlet—Fox News—for political and government news coverage. (The quick details: 47 percent of “consistent conservatives” say they get most of their info from Fox News; people with mixed political ideologies tend to rely on CNN and local television news; and “consistent liberals” are pretty evenly spread among CNN, NPR, MSNBC and the New York Times.)
The news landscape, like the world, is in flux. Organizations that have for decades been considered bastions of trusted reporting are regularly being called “biased” or “fake” by the president of the U.S., and some outlets truly are blurring the difference between reportage and opinionated audience bait. In this unprecedented time, I have started taking responsibility for my own information with this one small step: I have diversified my news app by seeding it with a rainbow of outlets, including the Washington Post, the Washington Times, the Guardian, NPR and Fox News.
These varied takes on current events help to ground me in what's really going on out there—and isn't that what news is supposed to be about?