Opinion I stopped reading the news. Is the problem me — or the product?

(Maren Amini for The Washington Post)
(Maren Amini for The Washington Post)
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Amanda Ripley is the author of “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped — and How We Get Out” and host of the Slate podcast “How To!”

I have a secret. I kept it hidden for longer than I care to admit. It felt unprofessional, vaguely shameful. It wasn’t who I wanted to be.

But here it is: I’ve been actively avoiding the news for years.

It wasn’t always this way. I’ve been a journalist for two decades, and I used to spend hours consuming the news and calling it “work.” Every morning, I read The Washington Post, the New York Times and sometimes the Wall Street Journal. In my office at Time magazine, I had a TV playing CNN on mute. I listened to NPR in the shower. On weekends, I devoured the New Yorker. It felt like my duty to be informed, as a citizen and as a journalist — and also, I kind of loved it! Usually, it made me feel more curious, not less.

But half a dozen years ago, something changed. The news started to get under my skin. After my morning reading, I felt so drained that I couldn’t write — or do anything creative. I’d listen to “Morning Edition” and feel lethargic, unmotivated, and the day had barely begun.

What was my problem? I used to cover terrorist attacks, hurricanes, plane crashes, all manner of human suffering. But now? I was too permeable. It was like I’d developed a gluten allergy. And here I was — a wheat farmer!

So, like a lot of people, I started to dose the news. I cut out TV news altogether, because that’s just common sense, and I waited until late afternoon to read other news. By then, I figured, I could gut it out until dinner (and wine).

But the news crept into every crevice of life. I couldn’t avoid exposure — in my email inbox, on social media, in text messages from friends. I tried to toughen up. I gave myself stern lectures: “This is real life, and real life is depressing! There is a pandemic happening, for God’s sake. Plus: Racism! Also: Climate change! And inflation! Things are depressing. You should be depressed!”

The problem is, I wasn’t taking action. The dismay was paralyzing. It’s not like I was reading about yet another school shooting and then firing off an email to my member of Congress. No, I’d read too many stories about the dysfunction in Congress to think that would matter. All individual action felt pointless once I was done reading the news. Mostly, I was just marinating in despair.

I went to a therapist. She told me (ready?) to stop consuming the news. That felt wrong. Wasn’t it important to be informed? Quitting the news felt like quitting the world.

Then one day a journalist friend confided that she was avoiding the news, too. Then I heard it from another journalist. And another. (Most were women, I noticed, though not all.) This news about disliking news was always whispered, a dirty little secret. It reminded me of the scene in “The Social Dilemma,” when all those tech executives admitted that they didn’t let their kids use the products they had created.

And that gets to the heart of the problem here: If so many of us feel poisoned by our products, might there be something wrong with them?

Last month, new data from the Reuters Institute showed that the United States has one of the highest news-avoidance rates in the world. About 4 out of 10 Americans sometimes or often avoid contact with the news — a higher rate than at least 30 other countries. And consistently, across all countries, women are significantly more likely to avoid news than men. It wasn’t just me and my hypocrite journalist friends after all.

Why are people avoiding the news? It’s repetitive and dispiriting, often of dubious credibility, and it leaves people feeling powerless, according to the survey. The evidence supports their decision to pull back. It turns out that the more news we consume about mass-casualty events, such as shootings, the more we suffer. The more political news we ingest, the more mistakes we make about who we are. If the goal of journalism is to inform people, where is the evidence it is working?

So maybe there is something wrong with the news. But what? A lot of people say the problem is bias. Journalists say the problem is the business model: Negativity is clicky. But I’ve started to think that both theories are missing the most important piece of the puzzle: the human factor.

Today’s news, even high-quality print news, is not designed for humans. As Krista Tippett, the journalist and host of the radio show and podcast “On Being,” puts it, “I don’t actually think we are equipped, physiologically or mentally, to be delivered catastrophic and confusing news and pictures, 24/7. We are analog creatures in a digital world.”

I’ve spent the past year trying to figure out what news designed for 21st-century humans might look like — interviewing physicians who specialize in communicating bad news to patients, behavioral scientists who understand what humans need to live full, informed lives and psychologists who have been treating patients for “headline stress disorder.” (Yes, this is a thing.)

When I distilled everything they told me, I found that there are three simple ingredients that are missing from the news as we know it.

First, we need hope to get up in the morning. Researchers have found that hope is associated with lower levels of depression, chronic pain, sleeplessness and cancer, among many other things. Hopelessness, by contrast, is linked to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and … death.

“Hope is like water,” says David Bornstein, co-founder of the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network. “You need to have something to believe in. If you’re in the restaurant business, you’re gonna give people water. Because you understand human biology. It’s weird that journalism has such a hard time understanding this. People need to have a sense of possibility.”

Last December, the New York Times published an ambitious multimedia project called “Postcards from a World on Fire,” chronicling how climate change has altered life in 193 countries. It led with a graphic of the Earth in flames, spinning in space, and the words, “Cities swallowed by dust. Human history drowned by the sea.” I kid you not. This was a well-intentioned effort, but it was simply not designed for humans. I don’t know what species it would work for, but it’s not one I’m familiar with.

By contrast, consider another recent New York Times article, this one about a different problem — homelessness. That piece detailed how the city of Houston moved 25,000 people experiencing homelessness into their own homes. It was not credulous; it featured extensive reporting and plenty of caveats. But reading it, you feel a space open up in your chest — like unlocking a trap door out of a dungeon.

Second, humans need a sense of agency. “Agency” is not something most reporters think about, probably because, in their jobs, they have it. But feeling like you and your fellow humans can do something — even something small — is how we convert anger into action, frustration into invention. That self-efficacy is essential to any functioning democracy.

Nowhere is the crying need for agency and hope more apparent than in climate coverage. Of all the climate stories aired on nightly news and Sunday morning shows in 2021, only a third discussed possible solutions, according to a study by Media Matters for America. What would agency look like? It might look like The Post’s April article detailing six ways to halt climate change. Or it might look like the viral videos on TikTok, where non-journalists such as @thegarbagequeen have started to fill the void, celebrating incremental environmental victories and debunking “climate doomers.”

Finally, we need dignity. This is also not something most reporters think about, in my experience. Which is odd, because it is integral to understanding why people do what they do.

What does dignity look like? Shamil Idriss, the head of Search for Common Ground, which works to prevent violence in 31 countries, explains it simply: “To me, it’s the feeling I have that I matter, that my life has some worth.” In journalism, treating people like they matter means, most importantly, listening to them — maybe the way WBEZ’s “Curious City” listens to its audience to decide what to investigate, for example. It can mean inviting viewers to talk to each other, with civility, like Atlanta NBC station 11Alive did, enlisting local parents skeptical of critical race theory to interview school officials and historians on camera. And it means writing about people as more than the sum of their circumstances, as journalist Katherine Boo did so famously in the pages of this newspaper.

There is a way to communicate news — including very bad news — that leaves us better off as a result. A way to spark anger and action. Empathy alongside dignity. Hope alongside fear. There is another way, and it doesn’t lead to bankruptcy or puffery. But right now, these examples I’ve listed remain far too rare.

It’s hard to generalize about the news media. The category includes hard-working beat reporters, dedicated fact-checkers and producers, as well as shameless propagandists, dupes and conflict entrepreneurs. It’s almost too big a category to talk about with any clarity. But it’s fair to say that if news sites were people, most would be diagnosed as clinically depressed right now.

Changing that may require journalists to accept that some of their own core beliefs are outdated. “The journalist’s theory of change is that the best way to avert catastrophe is to keep people focused on the potential for catastrophe 24/7,” Bornstein says. That used to work — kind of. Reporters could rigorously chronicle threats and corruption, and then sit back and let the accountability rain down. But that dynamic only works if the public is more unified and journalists are widely trusted. These days, it doesn’t matter how many of former president Donald Trump’s lies reliable fact-checkers count; it won’t change anyone’s mind. A lot of journalists, perhaps frustrated by their impotence, have responded by getting louder and more shrill. Which only causes more people to (yes, you guessed it) avoid the news.

A better theory of change, Bornstein suggests, might be something like: “The world will get better when people understand problems, threats and challenges, and what their best options are to make progress.” He and his colleagues have now trained over 25,000 journalists to do high-quality solutions stories all over the world.

Finally, and this is closely related: The people producing the news themselves are struggling, and while they aren’t likely to admit it, it is warping the coverage. News junkies tend to drink deeply from the darkness, mistakenly thinking it will make them sharper. All that angst has nowhere to go — and it leaks into our stories.

I know what you’re thinking: What about the money? The business model for news requires clicks. And the easiest way to get attention is through a fire hose of outrage, fear and doom.

But how do we know people won’t click — or subscribe — if the news were designed for humans? How do we know, if hardly anyone has tried?

There aren’t many major news outlets systematically creating news for humans yet, but one that I admire (and now subscribe to) is the Christian Science Monitor. Each issue features reporting from around the globe, vivid photos, brutal realities — right alongside hope, agency and dignity. Stories include a brief explainer called “Why we wrote this,” treating readers like respected partners.

It’s a kind of low-ego, high-curiosity journalism that I’ve started trying to emulate in my own work. I don’t always succeed. It can feel uncomfortable to, for example, let listeners dictate the subject of the podcast I host. But last month, I spent four hours at an antiabortion rally with a camera crew and did something I’d never done before: I just tried to understand, deeply, what people told me. I didn’t try to extract the most chilling quote or the vivid, ironic anecdote. I just asked deeper questions, without judgment. It felt less transactional, more human. I also felt more informed.

So, as we brace ourselves for the coming midterms, variants and cataclysms, here’s my plea to all my fellow journalists: Please send a search party for the 42 percent of Americans who are avoiding the news. We can’t all be wrong. Or oversensitive or weak. And we might just be you.

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