These past few months have been anything but a silly season as far as news goes. Both locally and internationally, the pace of events rushed past like a bullet train and it’s nearly impossible for journalists and readers alike to keep up with every detail that’s written.

First came the avalanche of the political upheaval in the fall of last year in the wake of the investigation into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Then came the new year and our lives transformed in ways we never imagined. 

Given the volume of information being dumped on us, we are overwhelmed and bluntly say “we’ve had enough”. We have been afflicted with ‘news fatigue’. News fatigue hits us with global crises such as 9/11, the Iraq invasion, the 2008 financial crash, the migrant explosion, and now, COVID-19. 

When the traditional media – TV, radio and newspapers – were still the main purveyors of how the world is coping, news fatigue struck with every crisis and dimmed when that crisis tapered off. The tipping point was reached with the introduction of cable news networks that bombarded viewers with non-stop news 24/7. Last February, just before COVID made landfall in America, the Pew Research Centre found that two-thirds of Americans felt worn out by news. 

When did news fatigue become a daily bout? Social media is partly to blame here. Initially when social media sites hit the mainstream we started to add friends, far and distant. At the same time, newsrooms created the ‘Fan pages’ scanners to keep up with news updates.

The most basic social media algorithm mixes what your neighbour had this morning for breakfast with what happened somewhere half the world away.

In those early days, this was spot on because you had a one-stop shop for activity carried out by those close to you coupled with the news. But then, social media morphed into the virtual town square where everyone could spout anything that came to mind. One may argue that if you’ve had enough, take a break. 

The other side to news fatigue is the very nature of COVID-19. Seeing the number of deaths accumulating day by day gives you shivers. Pictures of military trucks carrying the deceased, the sound of circulating air in ICU rooms are not for the faint-hearted.

Another aspect that might overwhelm is the unpredictability of the virus’s characteristics. Before being called COVID-19, this silent invader was known as ‘novel-coronavirus’. Why novel? Because it’s something scientists had never come across before.

When exposed to news make sure it’s reliable and fact-checked

Hence, new methods of prevention and scientific research are being published regularly. 

But if more and more people avoid the news because of its surfeit, the probability of missing key and reliable information could lead to dire consequences. One emerging trend is that people prefer to be loyal to news sites and cough up the subscription fee.

The New York Times saw a bump in subscribers which could be explained by the fact that people want reliable news and they’re ready to pay for it.

Such an increase was also cited in the ‘Digital news report’ carried out by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism where it noted a spike in subscriptions in diverse countries.

There are some elements in this rise that one should take into consideration. Firstly, it’s too early to see exactly where the trend is leading to. And secondly, the downside is that more people are willing to pay big international news sites rather than local newsrooms. With the exception of Norway. 

Harvard University’s journalism institute, Nieman Lab, believes such a surge most probably won’t last. They pointed to a boom in mid-March but then the interest in anything corona-related started to fizzle out by mid-April.

It’s essential that people are properly informed like never before. A ‘new normality’  has to be adopted when it comes to news. Check who wrote it. Dig deeper if the news story cited a study. When typewriters were the workhorses in newsrooms, consumers bought the paper or listened to the radio to see what the gatekeepers had in store for them and got on with our lives. But that was yesterday. 

When exposed to news make sure it’s reliable and fact-checked. That’s the first commandment.

Josef Cutajar, Communications professional based in Brussels

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