When Hasan Minhaj, the Indian-American comedian, at this year’s White House Correspondent’s Dinner poked fun at CNN about their perpetual “Breaking News” headline, he was not kidding. “Everything is NOT breaking news!” he said. He was actually echoing the sentiments of millions of viewers. Apparent in his joke was the realization that news media forgets, or neglects, to be selective. This particular example fits into the trend of today’s burgeoning media industry, its tentacles dabbling in print, television and digital content. If you live and feed off the Internet, like most upper-middle class world citizens, you know that staying informed has never been easier. It’s actually too easy. Inevitable. In fact, it is almost impossible to avoid an influx of news, both local and global, for an active Internet denizen with no sufficient filters. If you want to follow news online, you end up getting too much news. If you watch news on television, you end up not knowing what’s important and what’s not. The problem of there being too much news, is very real. And since we are going to be examining different facets of this problem and possible solutions for it, we shall name the problem The Rabbit Hole. (From a not very real Wonderland of Lewis Caroll.)
However, the interesting subtlety here is whether there’s too much news or too many sources of news. It’s not an easy question to answer. Sometimes we receive different versions of the same news story from various media outlets. Sometimes, “alternative” news sources are sought out for “unbiased” news, which again adds to the total amount of news you consume. The quest for reliability and the truth becomes an exercise of aggregating news sources. Even then, are we getting the news we need, in the amount we need? Mostly not, simply because we don’t think of selective news consumption. And because we don’t have the time for it. Or the skills. Not everybody does.
Let’s take the first scenario of there being too much news. What facilitates this? The unlimited access to digital space for news is an aspect that has to be considered. Print media has its limits, so does television. Internet however gets bigger everyday. There’s too much news online today, just because there’s too much digital space. Now this would, of course, seem obvious. What isn’t obvious are the behavioral changes that occur due to overconsumption of news. There are too major consequences of following news online. Firstly, news is not just something to be read, it is also to be responded to (remember those Letters to Editors in our dear old newspapers, before online comments came along?). Due to its dynamic nature, digital news is, on one hand, very hard to respond to. It gets updated, as information comes in every hour, every minute. What you thought was the truth and were righteously indignant about, might be discovered to be false or incomplete information, just hours later. This makes some people hesitant to express their opinion on current events in social media. On the other hand, it is too easy to share and respond to every kind of online news. Social media shares are crucial to the spread of fake and unverified news. In such a world, what happens to the sense of trust that we place as a citizen on the institution of press itself? The overload of news then affects the way we respond towards news itself. Secondly, following news online is also an anxiety-inducing activity. The rate of incoming updates prods us to keep looking for more news, consuming more and more, curating less and less. People who obsessively follow news are anxious for updates of local or global events, which might or might not be relevant to them. This behavior is almost addictive, therefore the rise of the terms ‘news junkie’ and ‘news detox.’
The second scenario of there being too many news sources is indicative of the rise of small news journals, online magazines, citizen journalists and shamelessly biased special interest news outlets. All these, in addition to the digital versions of major news-publishing stalwarts add to the noise on the Internet. As someone with multiple interests and accommodative of multiple view points, you might choose to follow more than one major news outlet. Maybe more than one sports-news channel. Perhaps, other independent non-profit news outlets too, who claim to tell you “what’s really going on.” There you go! Your liberal acceptance of a variety of opinions has just led you down the Rabbit Hole. There’s no coming back. Good luck!
But seriously, gone are the times when the same newspaper would give you everything you needed to know. Now, since it’s all online, you want to know what The New York Times is saying that The Boston Globe isn’t. You want to read The Telegraph’s piece on the G20 summit, along with what the independent news company that mirrors your political opinions, has to say about it. You also want to know the new fashion trends in three different countries, while keeping track of your favourite celebrity couple’s married life and family planning. Moreover, if you speak more than one language, you now have access to double the news content that a monolingual speaker does. Viola! Deeper down the Rabbit Hole!
But what if you weren’t acceptive of multiple opinions? What then? You might have a bunch of news outlets, all touting the same stories, from your familiar, relatable political viewpoint. You follow websites and pages that stand close to your interest and basically only read or listen to news that you know you will agree with. You might have friends on social media who also have similar beliefs and opinions as you do. They share things that stand close to your interest and sometimes the same story is shared by many people on your newsfeed. Here, you’re not getting anything new as such, are you? This is what is defined as the echo chamber problem, where facts and opinions are echoed back and forth between the newsources and receptors. Note that this happens in spite of the vastness of the Internet, because people choose to grab onto the familiar and the relatable. Here too, news becomes too much, as a lot of it is simply repeated endlessly. Here too, the Rabbit Hole is deep and dark.
Now suppose the existence of all these news sources has been irrelevant to you. Perhaps you’re a coder who hardly has time to look up from the black screen of little hexagonal characters that will magically create an app, to record your mood swings. Or maybe, you use the Internet only to look at the pictures of your eight-month-old grandchild. In such cases, the cluttered digital space of online news content might be unfamiliar to you. But for a lot of us, it isn’t. And for a lot of us, who only want to read one article, it seems hard. Recommended articles, curated according to your preferences by wily news analysts and programmers (such as the aforementioned coder), will beg for your attention and you will yield. You will click. Clicks are afterall what the Internet is built on.When it comes to news, quantity doesn’t correspond to quality. In the so-called post-truth world,
When it comes to news, quantity doesn’t correspond to quality. In the so-called post-truth world, fake news itself is a news headline. Articles are written on how hard it can be to stop false information from spreading in an unchecked, public space as the Internet. But the truth is, if the web is the medium for the poison of fake news, it is also the antidote. News of there being fake news also go viral. Journalists and media professionals make it a point to bring out such unverified headlines and thankfully, the world corrects itself. But not always, and never too soon. Sometimes, the damage is done before clarifications are made…
News outlets have not entirely been innocent in this process of adding fake news into the mixture. Considering that journalistic ethics require careful fact verification (part of the job description, really) and responsible handling of sensitive topics, it is a shame that readers frequently have to wonder these days, if they’re reading an objective report or misconstrued matter. It should not be the job of a news reader to do a Sherlock-ian fact-check. That’s the job of the reporter. Responsible journalism is meant to bring you facts, with a coloring of relevance to make news consumption easier. But today, many outlets are hungering for readers, viewers, TRP and maximum clicks, compromising a lot in order to get through to people. This is done by making news more emotional, more relatable. The human element is sometimes spiked up, elevated to a degree that makes news appeal to your heart, more than your brain. When it triggers emotion, more than reason, viewers respond with emotion too. We only have to look through some online comment threads to understand this. Fearmongering has been an accusation leveled against news outlets, now and then. It is not easy, even for well-trained journalists, to balance realism and hope. Moreover, the phenomenon of clickbait journalism has drastically reduced reliability, making titles that are little hooks, promising one thing, while the article delivers something entirely different. The reader naturally feels cheated. Some are getting used to it now, understanding the need for news outlets to get ‘clicks.’ And so, we go on.But not all. As mentioned before, the Internet is also the antidote. The Rabbit Hole has been identified and reviled against over the last few years. A silent resistance has built up against the tendency to consume news indiscriminately. News junkies are noted to have increased stress-levels. Even journalists are victims to negativity, just like readers. This has prompted the rise of “positive” news outlets, only focusing on human achievements and efforts for the betterment of society. This might seem like a good move until we realize that this is also, after all, news. Doesn’t that add to the noise as well? In a way, yes. Positive news
But not all. As mentioned before, the Internet is also the antidote. The Rabbit Hole has been identified and reviled against over the last few years. A silent resistance has built up against the tendency to consume news indiscriminately. News junkies are noted to have increased stress-levels. Even journalists are victims to negativity, just like readers. This has prompted the rise of “positive” news outlets, only focusing on human achievements and efforts for the betterment of society. This might seem like a good move until we realize that this is also, after all, news. Doesn’t that add to the noise as well? In a way, yes. Positive news rely on emotion too. However, it is a step in the right direction, since it acknowledges the negativity in today’s media. Moreover, sometimes it does lead to smiles and there really is nothing like too many smiles.
The pace of news is also being acknowledged. Slow news movement, which encourages consumption of news in a paced out manner, rather than a compulsive hour-to-hour schedule, is indicative of this. News “updates” are resisted and the reading of news once in a day, or even once in two days, is encouraged. This gives readers more time to reflect on the news that they read and thoughtfully respond in a reasonable manner. Gradually formed opinions are undoubtedly better than hastily formed, emotionally charged responses, spurred by constant updates. When news is read less frequently, stress-levels also drastically reduce. Whether the news be positive or negative, reading it becomes just another activity or routine of your day and not an obsession.In the end, relevance is a key factor. News helps you make sense of the world. But it also has a higher objective than forming opinions. News ought to spur action. Here,
In the end, relevance is a key factor. News helps you make sense of the world. But it also has a higher objective than forming opinions. News ought to spur action. Here, action does not mean responding with comments, corrections, consolatory notes or appreciations for groundbreaking news. No. Action implies acts of bringing change or small reforms in one’s daily life or the world, in response to news. Injustice and disasters prod people to action. Innovations do, too. But for this, relevance is crucial. We only act in accordance with the news that concern us, or our understanding of humanity. It is exactly this relevance that’s lost, when we get stuck down in the Rabbit Hole. When there’s too much news, we do not know what to act on. We should make it a point to bring people news that’s relevant and important. Thanks to some innovative news filter software, this is now possible.
Democracy has never been a good tactic when it comes to headlines.
Important stories deserve to be highlighted. If you have felt overwhelmed enough, perhaps it’s time to rely on some good filters and get responsibly curated news. What stops you?