Constant notifications on your phone. TV news specials and debates in place of your favourite sports show. WhatsApp and Messenger stacking up with Covid-19 articles your former flatmate or estranged aunt just “had to share”. Sound familiar?
If our daily news intake was counted in calories, many of us would have piled on even more weight in recent weeks (yes, we empathise with those of you struggling with lockdown snacking). There was a swell of traffic to news sites around the world as the pandemic went global in March. Broadcasters also logged record ratings, including an uptick in younger viewers who’d typically shun traditional evening news bulletins. But as the crisis continues, some are now opting for a different diet.
“It’s so easy to get lost on the internet with one article leading to another... it totally consumed me at one point, and I had to stop,” says Parul Ghosh, a 32-year-old entrepreneur. She found herself glued to global news websites and TV channels far more than usual, while also attempting to keep up with different national strategies. In India her family are living under strict lockdown, while Sweden, where she is currently based, has left more of society open. “I was stressed, because I constantly compared things to what's happening back home,” she says. “I constantly worried about my elderly parents and when I would be able to travel to them.”
“Mentally it’s been quite overwhelming,” agrees Kris Clancy, 33, from Victoria, Australia. He was a news addict before the pandemic, watching a lot of current affairs programmes and following journalists on Twitter during a stint of unemployment, but he’s now changed his routines. “Since Covid-19, I've definitely had to slow it down to only one show a week and glance at a few press conferences, although the press conferences are less common to watch now, because it all just feels like the same news over and over again.”
Data suggests Ghosh and Clancy are far from alone. While audience numbers for network television news shows remain much higher than usual in many countries, ratings are, in some places, starting to dip. In the UK, news shows have recorded their lowest audience figures since the country went into lockdown, while more entertainment-focused programmes are creeping back into the top-viewed shows ranking in Australia. The Nieman Journalism Lab, part of Harvard University, recently reported that “news traffic to news sites, both in the US and around the world, is pretty much back to pre-coronavirus levels”.
A separate study released by the Pew Research Center at the end of April found that around seven in 10 Americans say they need to take breaks from news about the coronavirus, and four in 10 say they feel worse emotionally as a result of following the news.
“In times of crisis, people really understand the need for decent journalism...[but] it's getting overwhelming because there's basically been nothing but corona stories,” reflects Ulrik Haagerup, a Danish former news editor and founder of The Constructive Institute, which works to promote balanced and solutions-focused journalism. “Of course, it's a big story, but it's a psychological, well-known fact that being overwhelmed leads people to turn back to their cat and their Netflix series.”
How does bad news affect us?
Therapists believe that there are two key trends going on. The first is a more general sense of “corona fatigue”, with many of us simply weary of the wider situation we’ve found ourselves in.
Despite masses of news and information emerging on the pandemic, there remains a lack of clarity over how long social-distancing measures are likely to go on for and what our lives will look like in the future. According to John-Paul Davies, a London-based psychotherapist and spokesperson for the UK Council of Psychotherapy, this is having a negative impact even on those who are “in that place of generally they're OK”.
“I would say to people, it's important to have empathy for themselves, to understand why they're struggling, and that it's okay to be tired of it and to have had enough of it to be frustrated with it,” he says.
The second trend is that the relentless news cycle may be exacerbating anxiety or depression for those who already have a history of mental and emotional health issues.
“Anxiety looks at the possible and focuses on that and amplifies that, rather than the probable,” explains Davies. For example, those who are prone to anxiety might read an article to source factual information about the economy, then “go down a rabbit hole” and focus on the worst-case scenario for their own income prospects. “They're saying, ‘well, you know, my job is at risk, I'm going to lose my job and then I can't support myself and then I will lose my house’,” explains Davies.
Others with anxiety may be more susceptible to feeling the pain felt by those who’ve lost lives or loved ones in the crisis. “Our imagination and memory leaves us afterwards rehearsing things in our heads... We imagine what scenes are like for people, how terrible that might be, and those types of things are distressing for people.”
Switching off the news might, however, not be so easy for this group, because “the thing about anxiety for people generally is that it pushes us to check [the information], to try and relieve anxiety”.
For those with depression, the opposite may be true. Davies says some people “switch off and become apathetic” after being exposed to too much coronavirus information, and instead turn to alternative and potentially dangerous sources of stimulation, such as too much alcohol or food.
When you can’t switch off
There’s also a sizable minority who are finding themselves consumed by the news cycle more than usual for professional reasons. Journalists, communications professionals, government officials, doctors, scientists and, most recently, disinfectant manufacturers are among those having to stay on top of daily comments, trends and data in a way they’ve never previously experienced. For many, this is happening while they are working from home and managing blurred boundaries between their work and private lives.
“I'm a journalist with a toddler, a new puppy and a tween...and I've been having a hard time sleeping because of media overload, yet I can't logically escape this as I work in journalism,” says Lorraine Allen Derosa, a freelance journalist in Spain who has been covering the pandemic for US media. This involves working late at night partly because of the time difference. “It's also the only time I can work because we have no childcare at the moment,” she admits.
Therapist John-Paul Davies says a number of his current clients (who he now sees digitally) are those who “suddenly have to be on top of the latest developments” or are spending a lot of time speaking to those who’ve been hit hardest by the coronavirus.
“Hearing those stories, you're bound to be affected by them, you know, particularly if you care about other people, and [for] a lot of journalists that’s the reason for doing it. They're interested in other people's stories.”
Finding a balance
So how should we balance news fatigue or anxiety with the need to remain informed on the latest laws and recommendations or essential healthcare and jobs advice during the crisis?
Davies argues that for most of us, checking the headlines once a day is a sensible goal, be that online or tuning in to a daily news bulletin or government announcement. This could be reduced to once a week for those with high levels of anxiety. Crucially, he says it is also important to select “a trusted news site” or broadcaster with a focus on “facts rather than conjecture”.
“Not all journalism is good. But that doesn't mean that all journalism is bad,” adds Ulrik Haagerup, at The Constructive Institute. “You should turn to news organisations who give you public service information, either financed by public money or private money. Be critical to who you ask to filter the world for you, because it matters.”
Liz Martin, a therapist based in London, has been working with private clients who are trying to manage anxiety during the Covid-19 pandemic and prisoners who are unable to receive visits from friends and family during the crisis. Her advice to those who can’t face consuming the news at all or find it too stressful is to buddy up with someone who is less affected by digesting coronavirus information, as long as they are also following reliable journalism sources.
“People are different, so there may be a friend that could keep you up to date with what's relevant and not relevant,” she says. “It's not a criticism or a fault if anyone does suffer from anxiety, it’s just everyone's different.”
For those whose work is connected to the coronavirus crisis, therapists accept it may be much harder to reduce news consumption. But John-Paul Davies says it’s still important to make an effort to “put boundaries” around how much information you watch or read, and carve out time for rest and relaxation. Liz Martin also recommends regular digital check-ins with colleagues doing similar roles. “It’s really important to be a support to one another,” she argues.
Paral Ghosh says she’s now successfully managing her coronavirus fatigue by sticking to news notification alerts, but avoiding online scrolling or television news bulletins, and asking her partner to keep her updated on key developments. She has also muted some social media chats and explained to friends why she is taking a break from reading and sharing links.
“I've noticed a change in the way I'm functioning,” she explains. “I'm more focused and more productive.” Cutting down on her news consumption has also freed up extra time for more relaxing hobbies. “I’m reading a lot of fiction, and just trying to normalise life a little bit in my own head.”
As well as making the most of the present, it’s also important to find things to look forward to in the future, concludes John-Paul Davies. “Realise that it will come to an end and that even though it doesn't seem like that sometimes, this is a time-limited situation and it will change.”
By Maddy Savage
More about: #COVID-19