News overload: why we’re facing it and how to handle it

Something that’s come up often in RescueTime team discussions is the current barrage of information hitting us all. Since most of our team (everyone except me) is based in the U.S., we’re especially feeling the pull of news and political information coming at us constantly throughout the day.

It can become exhausting and overwhelming to deal with so much information—not to mention trying to sort out what’s fact and what’s alternative fact, which news sources are trustworthy, and what you think about everything you read.

It sometimes seems there’s simply too much news, but perhaps it’s just that the news is too fast for us to keep up with.

Sign up for our newsletter to get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

The problem with fast news

According to Alan Jacobs, author of The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction, our current news cycle is “far, far too short.” Our desire to stay informed urges us to try to keep up with the media, but the effort doesn’t seem to be paying off.

Leslie-Jean Thornton, a journalism professor at Arizona State University says she struggles with this, too:

As journalism professors, there’s a need and a desire to stay on top of things—so much so that it becomes somewhat addictive for some of us. It’s hard to step away, even for a few hours, but yet the constant wash of uncertainties is emotionally draining and physically harmful.

Dan Gillmor agrees that fast news is a big part of the problem. As director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at Arizona State University’s Journalism School, Gillmor is a proponent of the slow news movement—the idea of a longer news cycle that focused more on fact-checking and careful reporting than being first to report on a story.

The more current the news is, the more skeptical I am of what I’m seeing.

Gillmor himself often gets his news from mailing lists where experts send out links to information they believe is useful and important. The sources are trustworthy, says Gillmor, but this approach also “automatically puts a time gap into the process, which is valuable.”

news

Gillmor says he’s fallen into the trap of believing fast news in the past that turned out to be unreliable:

Like many other people who’ve been burned by believing too quickly, I’ve learned to put almost all of what journalists call “breaking news” into the categories of gossip or, in the words of a scientist friend, “interesting if true.”

If even Gillmor is susceptible to the draw of fast news, what is it that draws us in so reliably? Ethan Zuckerman, director of the Center for Civic Media at MIT, has a few suggestions:

  • We’re bored. We tend to seek out fast news more when we’re bored, as it’s constantly changing, updating, and giving us something new to read.
  • It’s available. By offering faster news, the media has trained us to expect fast news as the default way to stay informed.
  • It helps us build social capital. Zuckerman suggests we use fast news to always have something new to share with friends and colleagues, thus positioning ourselves as being “in the know” and raising our stature.
  • We’re addicted to the news narrative. Zuckerman suggests we approach breaking news like the next chapter in a great novel: we’re desperate to find out what happens next and follow the narrative to its conclusion, which keeps us clicking on newer updates as soon as they’re available.

So what’s the solution? For Gillmor, it’s seeking out slow news. He’s cut down on news-based RSS feeds, stopped checking Twitter, and deleted his browser bookmarks to news sites:

Instead, I am turning more of my attention to monthly magazines, quarterly journals, and books. I’m trying to get a somewhat longer view of things—trying to start thinking about issues … when some of the basic facts about them have been sorted out.

But slowing down the news cycle isn’t a complete solution. We still have to deal with misinformation and the reliability of news sources. The threat of “fake news” and news cycles too fast for fact-checking put the onus on the reader to discern what’s reliable and what’s not. Here’s Gillmor again:

We can’t factcheck and vet all or even very much of what we read/hear/watch/etc., because we don’t have the time or the resources. We should ask deeper questions when it’s something close to home, and especially when we are making important decisions based on the information.

Discerning reliable news from misinformation is a skill, according to freelance journalist Jihii Jolly, that all readers need:

… choosing what to read, when, and how is a news literacy skill. In the same way that financial literacy requires knowing how money works and the most effective methods for managing it, news literacy requires familiarity with how journalism is made and with the most effective ways to consume it.

What’s even worse than the threat of misinformation is the problem of correcting it once its been disseminated. Unfortunately, our cognitive biases stop corrections having an effect much of the time.

As Gillmor says, “we all ‘know’ things that were subsequently found to be untrue, in part because journalists typically don’t report outcomes with the same passion and play that they report the initial news.” But research has found even when journalists do try hard to correct misinformation, their efforts rarely pay off.

Brendan Nyhan is a political scientist who’s been studying efforts to correct inaccurate information once it’s been shared. His studies have shown that, in general, “once factually inaccurate ideas take hold in people’s minds, there are no reliable strategies to dislodge them—especially from the minds of those for whom the misinformation is most ideologically convenient.”

One experiment conducted by Nyhan and his colleague Jason Reifler gave college students fake newspaper articles in which then-President George W. Bush implied or said things that weren’t true related to decisions he’d made as president.

Some students were given articles including detailed material correcting the falsehoods. For students who weren’t predisposed to believe the false statements, the corrections helped reduce misperceptions.

But for those who had a motive to believe the false information, the corrections didn’t change their minds, and in some cases they were even more likely to believe the falsehoods when corrections were also present.

So if it’s so hard to correct misinformation, even when presented with the truth, perhaps Gillmor is right, and we need to be more skeptical from the beginning.

But what if there’s just too much information to sort through?

Dealing with news overload

For many of us, the amount of news and information available is overwhelming. And the more we try to keep up, the harder it seems to be to stay well-informed.

NOD (News on Demand) was an iOS app designed by journalist Marie-Catherine Beuth that offered up just three top news stories each day, with articles of very lengths from reputable sources for each one. The app was designed around the idea that your interest in each story and the time you have to read it will vary from day to day (or even within the same day), and the app aimed to keep readers informed while taking these variations into account. Unfortunately, NOD was shut down in January, but Beuth has hopes for recreating NOD in the future.

There’s also the option of choosing a completely different news medium—one that suits your preferences while still keeping you up-to-date.

Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, found the amount of information online becoming overwhelming as he developed a habit of always reading more than he’d intended to. “The Internet never says, ‘You’ve had enough, now go away,'” says Eyal, “Online news is never done.”

But Eyal points out that just because we get our news from newer technology sources now doesn’t mean we’re getting superior information or that news is necessarily disseminated any better, even if it is shared faster than ever before.

“Just because a technology is new doesn’t make it better,” says Eyal, “at least not to all people in all cases. Reading news online left me feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, and anxious. I was afraid I could never be informed enough.”

Eyal’s solution is to read printed newspapers rather than online news. This way, he stays informed but also receives closure by only reading as much as the daily paper provides. He trusts the newspaper’s editors to curate only the top stories each day, and doesn’t have to fight the urge to click to the next story in an ever-updating flurry of new news.

I still consume a ton of news—I just make sure I’m getting it from trusted sources, in a way that serves me.

men with newspapers

How we deal with news overload at RescueTime

Since we’ve been discussing the problem of information overload at RescueTime recently, I asked some of the team to share their approaches to staying informed without being overwhelmed.

While many of us have given up on Facebook, software engineer Brian points out why it’s a struggle to keep up with the barrage of information shared in his News Feed:

Facebook in particular has become most peoples’ news source, at least as far as I can tell. The issue for me is that if I scroll through 100 posts from friends/acquaintances, that are quick one click shares from news organizations, usually the headlines and content of those posts are negative, rebellious, angry, etc.

… and the more important the issue, the more shares you’ll see from different people. At the end of the day, it can feel overwhelming, and make me absolutely not want to engage in real discussion or debate, because I’m sick of talking (reading) about it.

Software developer David says he’s just started to adjust his approach to news:

My morning routine for the past year exactly … has been, awake, make sure the world has not destroyed itself (by checking headlines at CNN, NYTimes and WaPo) and then looking at Twitter and Facebook to see what various communities I belong to think of the disaster of the day.
It is wearing REAL thin now and I’m trying to figure out ways to dial it back but not disconnect. I’ve started fighting it, first by choosing to exercise on the rower BEFORE I look at the iPhone. I turned on the breathing reminders on the Apple Watch as well. They help me stay calm. For me, getting a rowing machine and Apple Watch has come at the right time. Not only to get back in shape and watch my health… but as a way to have something more personally productive to focus on instead of the stream of concerning news.”

Data engineer Madison’s approach is to restrict where and how she consumes news:

Most of my news and general content consumption is done on my phone. I stay away from visiting news or social media sites on my computers to keep focused on work or learning while using the devices. Lately I have been leaving my phone outside my office to avoid picking it up to browse when I am trying to be productive.

Madison’s also found, like Eyal, news within constraints can be more approachable:

I get news from mainly via Snapchat now – I subscribe to WSJ and Mashable. I like consuming through the platform because the stories are condensed, there is less reading and no additional articles to click onto next. I also get the WSJ as a newspaper to read more details on the content I’m interested in – old school, but the paper is less of a content tunnel for me.

COO Mark, like David, focuses on a healthy balance during the day:

My strategy for a while has been: 1) leave phone on mute most of time, always put face down when out of pocket 2) ditched Facebook many years ago, with the rare (maybe 2-3 times a year) exceptional login for some family news 3) change light intensity environments and eye subject distance at least every hour (get outside, let eyes focus on something distant for extended period of time like 10-30min walk) 4) exercise in the middle of the day.

While our senior software engineer Hank also tries to cut down his consumption overall, he’s found focusing his online reading on non-news stories helps:

I pretty much aggressively ignore stuff: only enable notifications from very few apps, never had Facebook, don’t check email or Twitter outside of certain times (or when I get stuck and need a context shift), and I try to keep a fair bit of my reading online focused on tech, etc. Taking a break for physical activity is also a big helper.


It’s a relief to know we’re not alone in our struggles against the crashing waves of information hitting us at the moment. From journalism professors to well-known authors, everyone seems to be grappling with the fine line between being informed and being overwhelmed.

If you’re curious about how others are handling news overload, The Atlantic has put together interviews with politicians, journalists, authors, and more about their own media consumption habits.

Sign Up for the Newsletter

Want to learn more about spending your time well and doing more meaningful work? Get our latest blog posts in your inbox every week.

Belle B. Cooper

Belle is an iOS developer, writer, and co-founder of Melbourne-based software company Hello Code. She writes about productivity, lifehacks, and finding ways to do more meaningful work.

6 comments

  1. This is a great article! I shun the news media because of these issues, but you’ve given me ideas for how to check in on things I’m interested in from trusted sources. Thanks!

  2. I appreciate the timeliness of this post, right when the news (in both content and sheer amount) has been particularly overwhelming. I wanted to check out that NOD (News On Demand) app that you linked to, but the site doesn’t appear to be up and I can’t find the app on the App Store.

  3. I wanted to check out the article on The Atlantic but the link results in a 404 error and I can’t seem to find it. Any chance you can repost the link?

Comments are closed.