Most Americans suffer from news fatigue. According to a Pew Research poll, seven out of ten Americans “feel worn out by the amount of news there is these days.” Although regrettable and problematic, this finding is not surprising. First of all, all humans have a limited cognitive capacity, which means people can only process so much novel information in a given amount of time, especially when that new information covers a multitude of subjects. While individuals have different levels of cognitive capacity, the human brain literally becomes fatigue when it is exposed to too much new information. Recognizing the popularity of social media, it is somewhat curious as to why a social media obsessed population finds news coverage, in particular, so tiresome.
The world has always been a busy place, but modern lifestyles involve far more interactions across far more subcultures, modern news coverage is far less local in focus, and far more of society’s changes are being captured by various news outlets. To boot, social media is now part of the “news cycle.” Whether a Trump tweet or an update from a friend, the average America’s exposure to “news” is exponentially higher thanks to social media. Instead of receiving professionally vetted, filtered, and analyzed news about one’s local community, one’s country, and the world, people are inundated by a constant stream of new personal information. Although heavy social media users greatly appreciate the minute-by-minute update on the activities of their friends and family, the blunt truth is that most of that information is thoroughly inconsequential.
Social media news is certainly relevant to the lives of social media users, because it is the personal news of the people they know and interact act with, but the information garnered from such updates only informs people in their relationships. Local, national, and global news, in contrast, inform the worldviews of people, which determines how they interact with the world and make decisions in the real world. With social media overloading the cognitive capacity of social media users, real news becomes particularly burdensome. As such, heavy social media users are exposed to too much intimate knowledge of even their most casual associates. This can create a whole host of relationship issues while forcing people to rely on their personal relationships to shape their interactions with the world, i.e. confirmation bias, instead of a well-informed worldview.
Furthermore, people may be overwhelmed by the amount of available news, but humans as individuals and collectives are particularly good at filtering out extraneous information. Faced with cognitive overload, people simply focus on what they can handle and find important. As a collective, this means only a small group of news stories are actually going to make it into the headlines at the local level. Among that group, only a handful will become popular enough to be included in the top headlines on a national level. When focused on national coverage, the rotation of news stories will, of course, be more rapid than on the local level. Nonetheless, actual news stories are being filtered as they have always been and people are only learning about those stories, if they actually bother to learn the details. The question is, therefore, why are people so fatigued by the availability of such a high volume of news stories, even if they do not read them.
One reason, aside from the increased volume extraneous information in people’s lives, may be that they simply feel overwhelmed. Being aware of what someone needs to be informed about can be overwhelming, especially when an individual is already terribly uninformed. In a democratizing world of democratizing nation-states, people are more and more expected to participant in world affairs. When encountering the mountain of knowledge needed to engage in meaningful civil engagement, the sheer volume can be discouraging. The struggle to acquire what is needed can simply be overwhelming. For those who have the ability to absorb, prioritize, and filter massive amounts of novel information, the task is manageable, even if somewhat overwhelming. For those who are simply overwhelmed, the need to make civil engagement a priority can help them start engaging the news, which can help them climb that ever growing mountain.
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