The New Age Of News Fatigue

Any human being who put his ear to the heart chamber of the world and heard the roar of existence, the “innumerable shouts of pleasure and woe,” said the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, would surely break into pieces.

Nietzsche lived long before the Internet which provides an endless stream of shouts of pleasure and woe that 21st it is bad: global warming, the parade of death in Syria, the endless killing among Islamic sects, civil strife in Iraq, the degenerating situation in Afghanistan, Vladimir Putin’s mindless rule of a great nuclear power, rampant poverty and disease in the Third World, China’s suppression of human rights, disappearing animal species and errant airliners – the grim tidings just never stop.

And it should come as no surprise that a growing number of Americans are tuning it all out. Call it news fatigue. It isn’t that we don’t care, but the world is awash in problems we cannot control. We have a mighty military armed with high tech weaponry that costs many billions, but it struggles to cope with suicide bombers. A $5 improvised explosive device will blow up a $500,000 armored vehicle and send brave young soldiers into perpetual struggle with missing limbs and post-traumatic stress disorder. If we had no mighty military, perhaps we would be less inclined to get involved in these kinds of situations.

Even great issues not involving terrorists or armies leave us vexed. The scientists say our production of greenhouse gases is altering the Earth’s climate irrevocably, but most of that comes from burning coal which produces almost half of our electricity. In other nations, such as China and India, the proportion is even higher. To stop burning coal we would have to basically shut down our economy and throw countless millions of people into abject poverty. That is not a viable option, but then neither is climate change. Just thinking about it will give you a headache.

I believe this is a major reason the younger set is turning away from newspapers and TV news in favor of the Internet. You can pretty much get the information you want on the Internet but you have to know what you’re looking for. In contrast, if you pick up a newspaper or turn on the network news, you will be inundated with reports of terrible things you knew nothing about. I suspect people are moving to the Internet to escape from the deluge of bad news.

The challenge of news fatigue is one of perspective. We have to keep in mind that the world has always been a mess. Certainly the 14th church, breakdown of civil order was worse than this one. Indeed the previous century with two great world wars, the holocausts in Europe and Cambodia, flu and AIDS epidemics, etc., was probably even worse in terms of total lives lost.

Most of us in the west live lives of relative security and increasing longevity. There are potential disasters everywhere; that is part of life and always has been. We can take comfort in knowing that intelligent people are striving to deal with the endless problems and challenges we face. There are positive news reports among the media bedlam if you look for them. Our most pressing challenge is not to lose heart or faith in the future. Our children will do better than we have. Our species will survive.