Copies of various newspapers including Financial Times (left) and International New York Times (right). | Photographer: May Tse | South China Morning Post via Getty Images | Bloomberg
Copies of various newspapers including Financial Times (left) and International New York Times (right). | Photographer: May Tse | via Getty Images | Bloomberg
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We seem to be confronted here with another eternal aspect of our complicated relationship with the news. We might occasionally say it’s exhausting to keep up with, but, at the same time, we act as if we can’t get enough.

What, precisely, is our capacity for news? More generally, how much information is too much information? At what point does abundance become overload?

For seventeen days in the summer of 1945 there was no news in New York City. Well, there were no newspapers. Well, it was hard to get a newspaper. (Sensationalism is a difficult habit to kick.)

The newspaper deliverymen were on strike. The walkout had been called for midnight on June 30, a Saturday night. Apparently many of the disgruntled workers couldn’t wait. According to the New York Times, something like a thousand men who were due to work that afternoon failed to report for duty. Some had called in sick. Many more just didn’t show up. The Times sarcastically reported three hundred deliverymen “struck by the epidemic.”

All told, fourteen major papers were left without their usual means of distribution. According to an estimate in the New York Times, some 13 million customers in the city and surrounding area were deprived of their daily newspaper.

Bernard Berelson, the project director of Columbia University’s Bureau of Applied Social Research, saw an opportunity. Berelson wasn’t just a behavioral scientist, he was the behavioral scientist; later in his varied and distinguished career, he would be instrumental in establishing the concept of the behavioral sciences, including coining the name behavioral sciences.

He quickly put together a plan. As the first week of the strike came to an end, Berelson dispatched research assistants around Manhattan to conduct in-depth interviews with sixty people affected by the strike.

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The interviews included some scripted questions, but their primary purpose was simply to let people talk about what the newspaper meant to them, and how they felt about going without it. The sudden absence of people’s daily paper, Berelson figured, would bring its significance into sharp focus. “Such studies can most readily be done during a crisis period like that represented by the newspaper strike,” he wrote.“People are not only more conscious of what the newspaper means to them during such a ‘shock’ period than they are under normal conditions, but they also find it easier to be articulate about such matters.”

Most of the people interviewed complained about being deprived of their regular reading material. By design, Berelson wanted to interview people who usually read the paper, so these were all people who were being forced to abstain from a regular pastime. But one of the questions Berelson asked was “Are there any reasons why you were relieved at not having a newspaper?” The answers revealed how torn some readers were about keeping up with the news.

“Papers and their news can upset my attitude for the whole day—one gruesome tale after the other,” a “middle-aged housewife” confessed. “It was rather a relief not to have my nerves upset by stories of murders, rape, divorce, and the war.” She contemplated the other uses she could put her time toward without the daily newspaper demanding to be read. “I think I’d go out more,” she mused, “which would be good for me.”
Another interviewee had similar thoughts about better possible uses of his time.“I usually spend my spare time reading the papers and put off reading books and studying languages or something that would be better for me,” he said, calling the paper “just escape trash.” Whether he was successfully pursuing those loftier habits in lieu of his daily newspaper is not reported.

The interviews revealed the compelling, almost addictive, and not always pleasurable quality keeping up with the news possesses for some people. “The typical scrupulousness of the compulsive character,” Berelson wrote, “is apparent in this case of a middle-aged waiter who went out of his way to read political comment with which he strongly disagreed.”

“I hate the policy of the Mirror,”the waiter complained, naming a particular columnist whom he particularly disagreed with, despite reading regularly. “It’s a pleasure not to read him.”

In other cases, Berelson reported, people were compelled to keep up with news of the war. By that point in the summer of 1945, Hitler was dead and Germany had surrendered, but the official armistice was still a few weeks away, as was the nuclear bombing of Japan. Some people forced themselves to follow the news out of obligation, Berelson said—as the least they could do for the war effort, or as a kind of atonement for the guilt of not doing more. It felt like her duty, a young housewife said, to follow the latest developments “for the boys—the spirit of it.”

Some people seemed to feel that keeping up with the war news was bad for their well-being.“Under the stress and strain of wartime conditions my health was beginning to fail,” one said. Thanks to the newspaper delivery strike, she “enjoyed being able to relax a little.”

“I’ve been reading war news so much, I’ve had enough of it,” said another.
For these people, conflicted for one reason or another about following the news, the newspaper strike provided “a morally acceptable justification for not reading the newspaper as they felt compelled to do,” Berelson concluded. Though they wouldn’t voluntarily have given up their newspaper, “once the matter was taken out of their hands, they were relieved.”


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Now, as then, we seem torn about our news habit. Sometimes it can feel as if there’s too much information to keep up with.Yet most of us wouldn’t want to live without it.
In October of 2009, three communication studies researchers loitered in a retail corridor connected to the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, offering to pay passersby for their thoughts on the news. The report of their research reads like a contemporary parallel to Barnard Berelson’s interviews with news-deprived New Yorkers. Where Berelson had been inspired by the temporary absence of news, however, Eszter Hargittai and her colleagues were responding to an alleged overabundance of news.
Over the years, Hargittai noticed, claims about “news overload” had become commonplace. She wanted to know if typical news consumers really felt there was too much news. With her colleagues, Hargittai recruited seventy-seven people to be part of their Vegas focus groups. The sessions revolved around a single, simple question: “How do you feel about the amount of information out there?”

Like Berelson’s interviewees, a few seemed to find the abundance of news hard to deal with. “There are way too many sources,” one woman said. “I feel sometimes just stressed-out like Robin Williams in the movie Moscow on the Hudson. He has to go pick up a can of coffee at the supermarket and he hyperventilates because there are so many choices,” she explained. “That’s how I feel with all these sources of information.”
Another focus group member felt “overwhelmed and amazed that there’s that much out there, and kind of feeling, you know, underinformed.” His coping strategy, he said, was “to avoid news as often as possible.”

Just as Berelson had discovered, however, only a small minority of people seemed to think there was too much news. Just eleven out of the seventy-seven people mentioned some feeling of overload, even though the researchers pressed the issue repeatedly.“In one instance where we asked the group at large if they felt overwhelmed,” the researchers reported, “many people nodded. But minutes later, most of the participants were enthusiastically discussing media choice.”

Many people, the researchers report, felt “empowered and enthusiastic, not overloaded” by the amount of information available to them. A few expressed “nothing less than delight.” Most people just didn’t feel too strongly one way or the other, saying they felt neutral on the subject or that they had “mixed feelings that balanced out in the end.”
These findings seem at odds with the public opinion surveys, where, for example, seven out of ten Americans are apparently worn out by the amount of news in their lives. Taken as a whole, however, the opinion polls are more equivocal than they first appear. True enough, Pew found a lot of people agreeing in 2018 that they felt “worn out” by the news. But Pew has also asked people specifically if they feel “overloaded by information” and found that the feeling is not widespread. In 2016, only 20 percent of people said they felt overloaded. On the contrary, more than three-quarters of people said they like having so much information at their fingertips. Two- thirds said that having more information at their disposal helps to simplify their lives. More people, 27 percent, said they felt overloaded back in 2006—a year before the first iPhone went on sale.


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The findings are also revealed to be somewhat complicated by studies that allow for more nuanced responses than the simple yes/no options offered by many public opinion polls. The study by University of Texas journalism researchers that I mentioned before, for example, asked people, “Would you say you often feel overloaded with the amount of news available these days, or not?” I told you that only around three out of ten people said “not at all.” That’s true, but the five options to select from ranged from “not at all” to “a lot.” Less than 10 percent of people selected “a lot.” Most people put themselves somewhere in between, neither completely overloaded nor not completely overloaded. The most common response, chosen by three out of ten people, was the midpoint of the scale—the public opinion polling equivalent of a shrug.

Yet another study asked a handful of questions rather than just one, in an effort to get a more rounded measure of news overload. The questions were along the lines of “It is sometimes hard for me to concentrate because of all the information I have to assimilate” and “I feel overwhelmed learning a new subject or topic because there is so much information.” On a five-point scale, the average of everybody’s answers to all the questions was below the midpoint, once again suggesting that, on the whole, people don’t feel entirely not overloaded, but feeling overloaded is far from universal.
We seem to be confronted here with another eternal aspect of our complicated relationship with the news. We might occasionally say it’s exhausting to keep up with, but, at the same time, we act as if we can’t get enough.

Now, approaching two hundred years later, more news is available to us more easily than ever before. But we seem to be just as charmed, and just as overwhelmed, as ever. Which raises a psychological question: What, precisely, is our capacity for news? More generally, how much information is too much information? At what point does abundance become overload?

This excerpt from Bad News: Why We Fall For Fake News by Rob Brotherton has been published with permission from Bloomsbury India.

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