How to follow the news without burning out

Thanks to almost constant access to the Internet, we are bombarded with an onslaught of alarming information through our smartphones, laptops and tablets every day. Ideally this would motivate us to rise up and act together to build a better world; in reality, we are often left in a state of analysis paralysis, anxiety, and powerlessness in the face of our global problems.

Much has been written about embarking on media diets or abstaining from it completely. But most of us have a natural need to know what’s going on in the world. We feel instinctively that other people’s issues are our own issues, although they may seem distant from us, and that we are all connected. So how can we stay in the know about world happenings without being overwhelmed, and eventually translate the information into appropriate action?

Mindful media consumption

Following the news and being informed are actually separate things. In fact, following the news every day can cause us to lose focus and be less informed. Stories are usually offered without context, so naturally a lot of people end up feeling confused and helpless, and are likely to fall prey to simplistic or misguided ‘solutions’ that either don’t help or cause harm.

Some researchers say that many of us consume news purely for entertainment value. But if the point of ‘being informed’ is to do our part in helping to improve society—and it should be—we need to rethink our media-viewing behaviour. Rather than focusing on what is happening, it seems wiser to learn about why things are happening, and carefully evaluate what must be done to change them. Being able to put new developments into context empowers us to take action rather than paralysing us, and better equips us to navigate our complex global political and social landscapes.

Therefore, it’s worth spending some of the time we would normally spend checking news sites or browsing social media feeds on learning history to contextualise today’s problems, studying social change, and digging into thoughtful analysis of current events. Reading books, listening to thought leaders speak, watching videos on YouTube, and listening to podcasts are all practical ways to deepen our knowledge.

On top of a lack of focus and clarity, obsessive link-clicking and content-devouring takes a toll on our mental health. It has been shown to exacerbate anxiety and depression, and adds to the stress we already experience in our everyday lives. This is all the more reason to limit the time we spend on news, and to make it a conscious activity. A game-changing hack I learned from the social psychology columnist Oliver Burkeman is to wait a few days before catching up with the news. This helps prevent media burnout, and the test of time makes it easier to put headlines into perspective and discern what matters and what doesn’t (because some of it really is just noise). As a general rule, slowing down is always better.

Over the years, through trial and error, I’ve developed a system that works for me: I take a little bit of time most days to learn about new developments from a few trusted sources at my own pace. I never mindlessly browse, and I don’t receive news via email or push notifications on my phone. I’m an active researcher, not a passive consumer of news, and that makes all the difference.

I also make sure I’m in the right headspace. On some days or at particular times of the day, I may be feeling too vulnerable or drained to take in distressing information, so I don’t. It can be difficult to deal with the guilt and FOMO that come with disconnecting, especially in a digital sound-bite culture so defined by immediacy and impatience. But remember that minute knowledge of events unfolding in real time generally does not help us achieve lasting change. Informing ourselves is a slow, intentional process that requires us to dig deeper.

The power of narrative

Not only is it important to rethink how we consume news, we must also look for alternative narratives. One of the most dangerous myths is that news reporters are ‘objective’, when this couldn’t be further from the truth. All news is biased, to a degree. Stories about environmental issues, for example, are based on certain assumptions of the world, and are inevitably political in the language they use, in what they highlight and what they omit. One example is the frequent evocation of ‘overpopulation’ as a cause of ecological degradation; a deeply racialised concept that attempts to obscure the role of capitalist plunder and overconsumption by the West in the destruction of the planet. Reporting that doesn’t recognise the political nature of issues like this tends to support the interests of the rich and powerful.

Keep in mind that mainstream media is a capitalist industry and survives by making profit through advertising. This means that the dominant news outlets will often use misleading clickbait titles that make stories sound a lot more scandalous than they are to attract the largest possible number of eyeballs. It also explains why so much media caters to the political prejudices and financial desires of their advertisers and controlling investors. Most TV channels, newspapers and radio are owned by a few powerful companies. The facts they present may be (at least partly) accurate, but the overall framing is designed to support business as usual and the wealthy people who benefit from it. Edward S. Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent is an excellent resource for learning more about how power and economic interests influence the messages conveyed in mass media.

Instead of taking any news that comes our way at face value, it’s therefore essential to carefully choose the media we consume. Reliable media is independent; meaning, free of influence by government or corporate interests. Here, Media Lens, a media-watch project analysing mainstream media bias, is a useful tool. Another personal tip is to follow writers, journalists and experts you trust, rather than just publications or organisations. Twitter is great for this. While it can be a toxic place and a bit of an echo chamber that amplifies cognitive bias, creating lists with genuine experts and diverse voices on there has helped me gain a fuller understanding of the interconnected issues of our time.

To sum up, we don’t need to tune in to the incessant stream of outrageous headlines. It’s a lot more constructive to seek in-depth, justice-based, and critical analyses of current events, which gives us the opportunity to process what’s happening, to understand the big picture, and to learn about effective solutions. Developing media literacy and defiance to monied interests is crucial.

Alternative news sources

To help combat our culture of hyper-stimulation through a ceaseless flow of sensational news, social media content, and questionable facts, I put together a list of some of my favourite independent journalism. First, I’ll plug the online magazine where I work, Uneven Earth. We resist the fast-paced nature of the industry by committing to slow journalism. One way in which we try to promote a more mindful approach to media consumption is by collecting the best articles about environmental and social justice we’ve read each month and sending them out in a newsletter that you can subscribe to here. By highlighting just a small, carefully curated selection of resources once a month, we try to make it easier for people to stay up to date without burning out.

Here are some publications I read frequently, and whose reporting I trust:

Democracy Now! / New Internationalist / YES! / openDemocracy / Dissent / ROAR / Commune / The Baffler / The Ecologist / Viewpoint Magazine / Global Voices / The Intercept / The Conversation / Truthout

And an older, but more comprehensive list here.

This is a condensed version of what I’ve learned in my years researching politics. I hope this short guide is helpful. If you have any more tips, strategies or alternative news media suggestions, don’t hesitate to share them in the comments!