Managing Your News Intake In The Age Of Endless Phone Notifications

Jul 21, 2016
Originally published on July 22, 2016 2:44 pm

Lately, it has felt like the terrible news just won't stop. As soon as you've wrapped your head around one story, you're pummeled by another — and then another.

Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, researched stress after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. People felt "ruminations, nightmares, feelings of anxiety, repetition of images that one might have seen," she says. "With increasing exposure to television after the [attacks], we saw ongoing physical and psychological symptoms over the next two to three years."

More recently, the rise of social media and frequent news notifications on our smartphones have raised the anxiety level even more.

Speaking with NPR's Audie Cornish, Claire Wardle, the research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, offers advice for dealing with the barrage of news updates flowing to our screens.


Interview Highlights

On whether this summer is exceptional, or whether it's just that our access to the news has changed

I think it is exceptional. We are seeing more graphic events, we're seeing more troubling and tragic news. But at the same time, that is happening in an era where now we're hooked to our small screens and we're networked and talking to one another about these events. So you're seeing many people talk about I knew somebody who was there, or I previously visited that place or last week this happened to me, while simultaneously seeing this very graphic unedited footage. I think all of those factors are coming together to make this year particularly difficult to handle.

On how the experience of tragedy has changed with social media

I think what's so interesting is watching television, you sit down and you're prepared to watch the news. And I think what's different now, is that ultimately we're just scrolling through our phones and we're seeing updates from friends about their pets or the fact that they're expecting a baby and all of a sudden you have an autoplayed video of something incredibly graphic. I think this element of surprise is what can lead to more symptoms. So I think we have enough research from the impacts of television to know even at this stage, we are going to see more impacts from social media.

On what responsibilities news organizations have in pushing out content in the age of unfiltered access

As somebody who's studied user-generated content or eyewitness media for almost a decade now, we've seen a real shift as news organizations become increasingly reliant on those first images that come from a scene. Previously you'd have cameramen and women at a scene and they'd think I'm not going to video this, I'm not going to capture this because no news organization is going to put out this footage — it's too graphic. But actually now we have people with their smartphones capturing the very first moments after an explosion or a terror attack and they're ... just capturing this footage. And what that means is news organizations have these incredible images and it's very tempting for them to say, well, we should use that because ultimately, the audience can see it themselves.

They can see it on Facebook; they can see it on Twitter. And I think, for example, the Philando Castile Facebook Live video, where you essentially see a man die. That's something that a few years ago, the moment of death, that would be something journalists would really think twice about showing. But now there's a sense of, well, everybody's seen that video, we should include that in our broadcast or our output online.

On imagery, such as the shooting in Miami of an unarmed man, being shown on a repeating loop

I think in the next few months there's going to be a lot of conversations at the social networks and within the news industry and with audiences themselves about how do we get this right. They have to think through graphic warnings, are they going to have an "age gate" that makes people click through an extra level to say ... I'm 18. Many live streams for television have a five-second delay. That doesn't exist at the moment for Facebook Live. Should it? There's a number of those kind of questions that many people are starting to ask about, how can we be responsible in terms of allowing people to see this imagery if they want to.

On tips for protecting ourselves as we try to understand the news

I think being aware of how much you've become addicted to the latest information, thinking about ... how many push notifications do you have activated. On your social networks I would advise turning off autoplay so you don't see a graphic video that you didn't expect to see. And I think it's a case of people saying I'm going to go to a website and I'm going to look for the news or I'm going to turn on my radio or television as opposed to the news finding us on our mobile devices.

We're having a nice conversation with a friend or our child and then our phone buzzes, and you look at it, and you're like, "Oh my goodness. I can't believe this." And I think that uncontrolled nature is what's really troubling. So I think in terms of self-care it's about people thinking about their own news habits and thinking about how they can protect themselves and stop these kind of unexpected alerts coming into their lives.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

This summer, it's felt like the terrible news just won't stop. As soon as you've wrapped your head around one story, you're pummeled by another and then another. Claire Wardle is the research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. I asked her if she thought the summer of 2016 was exceptional or if it was just that our access to the news has changed.

CLAIRE WARDLE: I think it is exceptional. We are seeing more graphic events. We're seeing more troubling and tragic news. But at the same time, that is in an era where now we're hooked to our small screens and we're networked and talking to one another about these events. So you're seeing many people talk about I knew somebody who was there or I previously visited that place or last week, this happened to me, while simultaneously seeing this very graphic, unedited footage.

I think all of those factors are coming together to make this year particularly difficult to handle.

CORNISH: And there's been some research about the traumatic impact that upsetting media can have on people. And yesterday, I spoke with Professor Roxane Cohen Silver at UC, Irvine. She researched people's psychological stress after 9/11. Here's what she found.

ROXANE COHEN SILVER: Ruminations, nightmares, feelings of anxiety, repetition of images that one might have seen. With increasing exposure to television after the 9/11 attacks, we saw ongoing physical and psychological symptoms over the next 2 to 3 years.

CORNISH: Claire Wardle, that was eons ago - right? - in terms of technology. How do you think the experience of tragedy has changed with social media?

WARDLE: So I think what's so interesting is watching television. You sit down and you're prepared to watch the news. And I think what's different now is that ultimately, we're just scrolling through our phones and we're seeing updates from friends about their pets or the fact that they're expecting a baby. And all of a sudden, you have an auto-played video of something incredibly graphic.

And I think this element of surprise is what can lead to more symptoms. So I think we have enough research from the impacts of television to know even at this stage, we are going to see more impacts from social media.

CORNISH: How much of this is us, us trying to manage our own news diet, and what responsibilities do news organizations have - right? - in kind of pushing out this content? Or are we in the age of, like, unfiltered access?

WARDLE: So as somebody who's studied user-generated content or eye-witness media for almost a decade now, we've seen a real shift as news organizations become increasingly reliant on those first images that come from a scene. Previously, you'd have cameramen and women at a scene. And they think, I'm not going to video this.

I'm not going to capture this because no news organization is going to put out this footage. It's too graphic. But actually, now we have people with their smartphones capturing the very first moments after an explosion or a terror attack. And they're just filming. They're shocked themselves. They're just capturing this footage.

And what that means is that news organizations have these incredible images. And it's very tempting for them to say, well, we should use that because ultimately, the audience can see it themselves. They can see it on Facebook. They can see it on Twitter. And I think, for example, the Filando Castile Facebook Live video where you essentially see a man die, that's something that a few years ago, the moment of death would be something that journalists would really think twice about showing.

But now there's a sense of, well, everybody's seen that video. We should include that in our broadcast or our output online.

CORNISH: But not just that, it's the idea that it's on a loop, right? I mean, today, we're talking about a shooting in Miami of an unarmed man. And part of me knows that this video is going to be shown almost on repeat for the next week.

WARDLE: Absolutely, and I think, you know, in the next few months, there's going to be a lot of conversations at the social networks and within the news industry and with audiences themselves about how do we get this right? They have to think through graphic warnings. Are they going to have an age gate that makes people click through an extra level to say, no, I'm 18.

Many live streams for television has a five-second delay. That doesn't exist, at the moment, for Facebook Live. Should it? You know, there's a number of those kind of questions that many people are starting to ask about how can we - responsible in terms of allowing people to see this imagery if they want to?

CORNISH: So what are your tips? Is there a healthy way to take in all of this or to protect ourselves as we try and understand the news, the world around us?

WARDLE: I think being aware of how much you've become addicted to the latest information. Thinking about, well, how many push notifications do you have activated? On your social networks, I would advise turning off auto play so you don't see a graphic video that you didn't expect to see. And I think it's a case of people saying, I'm going to go to a website now and I'm going to look for the news.

Or I'm going to turn on my radio or television, as opposed to the news finding us on our mobile devices. We're having a nice conversation with a friend or our child and then our phone buzzes and you look at it. And you're like, oh, my goodness, I can't believe this. And I think that uncontrolled nature is what's really troubling.

So I think in terms of self-care, it's about people thinking about their own use habits and thinking about how they can protect themselves and stop these kind of unexpected alerts coming into their lives.

CORNISH: Claire Wardle, she's the research director at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia. Thank you for speaking with us.

WARDLE: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.