The biggest (and most distracting) news stories of 2018 according to data

If 2018 felt like a long year, you’re not alone…

2018 on Twitter

For those who attempt to keep up with the 24/7 news cycle, the past 12 months have felt like a firehose of breaking stories, social media scandals, and more than a few moments that made you throw up your hands and yell “Are you kidding me???”

The problem isn’t just that trying to stay caught up can be incredibly distracting. But also that, as we’ve written before, the human brain loves bad news.

We all have what’s known as a negativity bias, which means we’re drawn to and pay more attention to negative news over positive stories. And the news companies know this. In fact, researchers recently published findings showing that the general sentiment of the news has gotten progressively gloomier since the 1970s.

At RescueTime, our goal is to help you understand and control how you spend your time. So while we love the idea of being up-to-date with what’s going on in the world. We hate that doing so might have a negative impact on your ability to focus.

As part of our series of end of year data analysis, we decided to look at how people consumed the news in 2018 and the true impact that the world’s biggest stories had on our attention and focus.

Before we dive in… RescueTime is a tool that tracks, categorizes, and sends you in-depth reports on the time you spend on your digital devices so you can build better habits, be more productive, and stay motivated. Find out more about how we can help you take back control of your digital time.

How much time did we spend on the news in 2018?

Let’s start with a high-level look at how people around the world consumed the news this year.

From our data, we saw that, on average, people spent 4% of their total device time in 2018 on news sites. That works out to about 12 minutes per weekday or 48 hours a year on the news.

Now, this probably doesn’t seem like a huge inconvenience. However, even in small doses, the news can have an outweighed impact on our day.

A study by researchers Shawn Achor and Michelle Gielan along with Thrive founder Arianna Huffington found that just 3 minutes of negative news in the morning can ruin your mood for the rest of the day.

“Individuals who watched just three minutes of negative news in the morning had a whopping 27% greater likelihood of reporting their day as unhappy six to eight hours later compared to the positive condition.”

From other research, we also know these negative feelings can lead us to feel more stressed, less motivated, and even cause us to procrastinate.

So while those few minutes a day reading the news might not feel like much, they can have a serious impact on your day. But just how much of an impact?

The biggest news stories from around the globe and how they impacted our focus

Using the anonymized and averaged data of thousands of RescueTime users, we identified the days in 2018 where people spent an above-average amount of time on news sites.

After breaking that data down by location, we were able to make a “best guess” on what specific news stories drove those spikes and how much extra time those news stories took from our day.

So what news stories captured our attention in 2018? Let’s dive in…

February 5th: American football fans read about the Philadelphia Eagles’ first Super Bowl win

After 57 years without a Super Bowl trophy, the underdog Philadelphia Eagles overcame the defending champions, the New England Patriots in a gripping 41-33 finish.

The next day, total time spent on news sites among North American RescueTime users was 13.5% higher than average. 

February 26th: Readers in Asia tune in as the Olympics end and China abolishes term limits on President Xi Jinping

A few weeks later, we saw a huge spike in news time from users in Asia as a couple of major stories broke.

First, the closing ceremony for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang brought a flood of stories not only on the outcome of the games but also the future of the Korean peninsula.

At the same time, China’s ruling communist party revealed a surprise proposal to abolish term limits, clearing the way for President Xi Jinping to stay in power indefinitely.

The result? A 16% increase in time on news sites from users in Asia—the biggest spike in that continent for the year.

May 15th: The Middle East reacts to the US moving its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem

2018 was filled with US political news, the impact of which often resonated around the world. On May 15th, we saw a huge spike in news time from users in the Middle East and Africa after the US opened its Israel embassy it had recently moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

The controversial move caused massive protests and we saw a 23% increase in time spent reading the news for users in the area.

July 16th: The US watches as President Trump meets with Vladimir Putin in Europe, while Europeans celebrate France winning the World Cup in Russia

Mid-July brought a few big increases in news time on different ends of the Atlantic. First, US President Trump attended a behind-doors meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki. While keeping with the Russian connection, France took home the top spot at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.

The results? We saw a 10% increase in time on news sites among users in North America and an 8.9% increase for users in Europe.

September 4th: Confirmation hearings begin for supreme court nominee Brett Kavanaugh

American political ideologies came to a head as President Trump’s controversial Supreme Court Justice nominee Brett Kavanaugh sat for his confirmation hearing. Throw the release of Bob Woodward’s White House expose, Fear (along with the transcript of the author’s conversation with Trump on The Washington Post) and it was a big news day for Americans.

In fact, among users in North America, there was a 14% increase in total time on the news for the day.

Sticking with the Kavanaugh thread, there was an additional 13% increase in total news time on September 27th when Dr. Christine Ford testified in front of the Senate Judiciary Committee about her sexual assault allegations against the then-nominee.

October 8th: Elections in Brazil capture the attention of South America

South American users collectively spent 19% more time on the news the day after far-right Brazilian presidential candidate Jair Bolsonaro captured 46% of the vote in the first round (he’d take victory after the final election on October 28th). Bolsonaro made headlines the month prior when he was stabbed during a campaign rally in Juiz de Fora.

November 6th: The US Midterm elections draw the biggest news consumption spike of the year

By far the biggest single day spike in time on the news was around the 2018 US mid-term elections. On November 6th, North American users collectively spent 41% more time on the news as they read and reacted to the incoming results.

And it didn’t stop there. The following day, total time on news sites was still 16.1% above average.

So who spends the most time on the news?

While everyone reacts to current events, our data found that users in North America spent the most extra time reacting to major news events.

Average % of Extra Time Spent on Major News Events (1)

Looking at the top 10 news events in each geographical location, users in North America had an average increase in total news time of 15.6%. While on the other end of the spectrum, those in Europe had just 8.9% more total time on their biggest news days.

There’s no denying that we live in a news-obsessed time. With media companies ramping up the competition for our attention, it’s often hard to get a break from breaking news. And our data showed just that.

While there’s nothing wrong with being an informed citizen, spending too much time on news—especially bad news—can have a negative impact on your focus and eat into your otherwise productive time.

Need help getting a handle on your news consumption? RescueTime helps you understand how you’re spending your time so you can build better habits and focus on meaningful work. Find out more about what we do here

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.