On the crisis treadmill, people avoid the news

John Hanscombe
June 18 2024 - 12:00pm

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They don't go bump but they do keep me up in the night. The dreads and worries which arrive about 10 minutes after the bedside lamp is switched off and set the mind doom scrolling.

Often, it's a news story I've read or watched which has lodged somewhere in the amygdala, hippocampus or prefrontal cortex, those parts of the brain which control memory, emotion and anxiety. These have been getting a hammering over the past five years, with fires, floods, the pandemic, climate, housing, mental health, cost of living, family violence, youth crime, to name just a few of the crises we've faced and/or are facing.

We're on a crisis treadmill. Globally and domestically. And that's why, more than ever, people are avoiding the news.

WATCH: The editors of Australia's leading regional newspapers have a message for their social media followers: don't rely on an algorithm to show you real news, support trusted local news.

In its Digital New Report, Oxford University's Reuters Institute has found that 40 per cent of people around the world actively avoid the news, a huge increase on the 29 per cent who did the same in 2017. The percentage of people "very" or "extremely" interested in the news fell from 63 per cent in 2017 to 46 per cent.

Nic Newman, the report's lead author, told the BBC many of the people turning away from the news did so because they felt powerless to do anything about it. And they feel overwhelmed.

When Russia invaded Ukraine, we were glued to every story. Outraged by the aggression. Moved, sometimes to tears, by the railway station farewells as families fled, children and pets in tow, while the men stayed behind to fight. Now in its third year, we've grown so accustomed to the war, we barely notice it. Today's missile strike looks just like yesterday's and there's nothing we can do about it.

We have a new war in Gaza but our sometimes febrile interest in it will wane over time as well. News by attrition will see to that. "The following story contains distressing content" will become a cue to get up and put the kettle on. If we're honest, it probably already has. What is initially shocking and attention-grabbing can quickly become overload if the same story is repeated over and over. News fatigue sets in and morphs into news avoidance.

News saturation can lead to some people feeling overwhelmed and switching off. Picture Shutterstock
News saturation can lead to some people feeling overwhelmed and switching off. Picture Shutterstock

News avoidance should concern all of us, not just the outlets trying to build and keep audiences. An informed electorate is essential for a well-functioning democracy. US studies found news fatigue and avoidance correlated with the rise of conspiracy theories, especially at the height of the pandemic. So alarmed by the proliferation of fake news, the World Health Organisation dubbed it an "infodemic".

The Reuters Institute study suggests that infodemic is ongoing, with news being thrust in our faces via the internet and social media platforms. It says the amount of news - not just its content - is overwhelming young people and women especially.

Even crusty old journos like me can feel overwhelmed, especially when those troubling thoughts arrive at night. Then I know it's time for a break from the news, not a newsbreak.

HAVE YOUR SAY: Are you succumbing to news fatigue? Do you avoid the news? What sort of content do you avoid? What sort do you enjoy most? Email us: echidna@theechidna.com.au

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- Once written off as unelectable, Opposition Leader Peter Dutton is winning over Australian voters who are turning to the Coalition for national security and economic management. The Resolve Political Monitor, conducted for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, found 36 per cent of voters backed Mr Dutton as their preferred prime minister compared to 35 per cent who supported incumbent Anthony Albanese.

- Employers could be reluctant to hire or promote women if menopause leave is legislated, a Liberal senator says. Hollie Hughes made the claim at a Senate committee into issues relating to menopause and perimenopause during a heated exchange with industry representatives in Sydney.

- There are warnings far-right extremism is accelerating across Australia as experts lobby for a national, independent hate-crime database to paint a clearer picture of the threat the nation is facing. The matter was discussed during a Senate Legal and Constitutional Affairs References Committee hearing.

THEY SAID IT: "Bad news travels at the speed of light; good news travels like molasses." - Tracy Morgan

YOU SAID IT: The theoretical economic formula that says unemployment is needed to keep a lid on inflation has passed its use-by date.

"It is a really bad view of who we are as a society that we let economists and the RBA tell us that we must have people unemployed so the wealthy can continue to make extraordinary profits," writes Lee. "People who become unemployed and require social security are then often called bludgers, especially by the right-wing politicians. Perhaps we should see them as the people who are carrying the biggest burden and they should be paid accordingly."

Samantha writes: "I am sure I am not the only one who just does not understand the logic. How can higher unemployment be better when the government has higher costs? Surely lower employment saves the government money. As for inflation, we are all paying the price for business increasing costs and all these 'hero' services demanding pay rises while I sit waiting."

"Thomas Sowell is absolutely correct," writes Arthur. "There will never be enough of everything to satisfy everyone. That is why we cannot continue with the present economic policies which make the rich richer and the poor poorer. Unfair and uneven wealth distribution is the elephant in the room. Why is it that governments cannot see that raising interest rates is a very poor way of trying to control inflation? High interest rates favour the wealthy at the expense of the poor. It is time to tell economists that they are providing unscientific and wrong advice to governments."

Allan writes: "It's sad if we can only get inflation down when workers lose their jobs. The media is crammed with economists postulating their views, and like police officers they seem to be getting younger. Given they never seem to be better than 50 per cent correct with their predictions, why do they bother? Sack them all and flip a coin. It would be equally reliable and help contain the inflation rate."

"Economists have the predictive ability of astrologers and necromancers," writes Phil. "Given the same set of data half will predict a rate rise, half a rate drop, half an unemployment rise, half a drop. Any other professions would laughed out of the office given the stupidity of their mathematical chaos and catastrophe prognostications. We could save a great deal of public money abolishing economics as a school, university and public service subject. It serves the same purpose as studying goat entrails."

Monica writes: "Show me an economist who has had to experience a Centrelink queue and then, maybe, I will accept their word. They just do not live in a real world."

"Economists correctly predicted 11 of the last three recessions," writes Dave. "Like psychiatry, economics is pseudo science with appalling peer reviews."

Sue writes: "I think we all know that there is something painfully wrong with the economy. There also seems to be something wrong with 'economics'. It appears to be a science where none of the theories work, either as a tool of analysis or of prediction, let alone control. The only thing it appears to do successfully is to allow politicians to sling insults at each other about their unsuccessful economic programs. We need some new thinking here."

John Hanscombe

John Hanscombe

National reporter, Australian Community Media

Four decades in the media, working in print and television. Formerly editor of the South Coast Register and Milton Ulladulla Times. Based on the South Coast of NSW.