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Sept. 30, 2019, 12:13 p.m.

Reading political news in the age of Trump leaves people stressed, angry, and overwhelmed

“Now you feel like every day there’s a new decision and a new statement and a new issue that you need to know about.” “I think I’m taking like a slight media sabbatical, just because it’s been, like, so heavy with what Trump is doing.”

People should consume news, right?

I mean, that’s the underlying assumption of everything we do: that the work journalists do is valuable and important, and that the value and importance grows the more people read, watch, or listen to their work.

If that’s true, what do we do with the fact that consuming news makes so many people feel so bad?

Does that mean we’re doing our job, accurately reflecting a deeply screwy world for our audience? You know the old saying: “If you’re not outraged, you’re not paying attention.” Mathematically speaking, that’s equivalent to: “If you’re paying attention, you’re going to be outraged.”

Or does it mean that by creating journalism that makes people angry, overwhelmed, and depressed, we’re actually working against ourselves — because those angry, overwhelmed, and depressed people are more likely to check out of news altogether?

I wrote about this question a few months ago, looking at some of the new research around the growing phenomenon of “news avoidance.” And now we have a new paper that examines the issue from a particular vantage point: following news about politics in the time of President Donald Trump.

The paper is by María Celeste Wagner, a Ph.D. candidate at Penn’s Annenberg School for Communication, and longtime Nieman Lab contributor Pablo Boczkowski of Northwestern. Its title seems to fit the national mood: “Angry, frustrated, and overwhelmed: The emotional experience of consuming news about President Trump.” Here’s the abstract:

The emotional experience of consuming news about politics has been traditionally understudied. We aim to contribute to filling this void through a study of the emotional responses related to encountering stories about a high-profile political topic: the first 10 months of the administration of the U.S. President, Donald Trump. To understand this, we draw upon 71 semi-structured interviews conducted in the greater metropolitan areas of Chicago, Miami, and Philadelphia between January and October 2017.

Our analysis indicates that: talking about political news often was a synonym of talking about President Trump; people expressed a high level of emotionality when recalling these experiences, which were more intense on social media and among those for whom the news felt more personal; feelings of anger or distress were often tied to wanting to increase political engagement; and individuals frequently develop mechanisms to cope with high levels of emotionality.

About those 71 semi-structured interviews: They averaged about 45 minutes in length, the subjects ranged in age from 18 to 80, and they were unusually educated (half had a graduate degree). They were also diverse, with only 41 percent white (29 percent Latinx, 11 percent black, 11 percent Asian). And: “Our analysis shows that either there were more liberals than conservatives or that the former felt more comfortable sharing their ideological stance.” Most people, it appears, were not big Donald Trump fans (though some were, as we’ll see).

I looked through all the interviewee quotes in the paper and pulled out what I saw as the four most important themes.

Reading political news in the Trump era can be very stressful and prompt efforts at self-protection.

“I’m just reading what I want to read and what makes me feel good about it…This wound [the election result] is still painful to me.”

“I want to keep an eye on [Trump’s activity on Twitter], but I don’t know if I can stand it.”

“I think I’m taking like a slight media sabbatical, just because it’s been, like, so heavy with what Trump is doing.”

“[The news] is very infuriating to read.”

“Sometimes I just get so disgusted with it [the news] that I don’t even want to know much more about it. But I am interested in all those other things that are impacted by what [Trump] does.”

“It’s been a pretty general sentiment, at least amongst my friends, that the news that’s being shared feels, like, really heavy. And it’s sort of like an emotional limit.”

This gets at the growing issue of news avoidance I wrote about earlier. If reading or watching the news makes people angry or stressed, you don’t need to live in a Skinner box to realize they’ll likely adapt their behavior in order to avoid that negative stimulus. That can mean focusing only on the political news that pleases you; that can mean checking out of political news altogether.

And the people who check out are unlikely to be a random sample of the electorate. Women, studies have shown, tend to avoid news more often than men do. People with more leisure time, like retirees, are more likely to still find space for news than people whose every minute is divvied up among jobs, kids, and other stressors. When they do avoid news, liberals are more likely to cite its impact on their mood than conservatives, who are more likely to say they just don’t trust the media. (In the U.K., the same gap appears between Remain and Leave voters.)

The fact that so much news consumption happens on social media can mean navigating friendships in new ways.

“I always have a couple of people who want to…play devil’s advocate or spark a fire.”

“I unfollow [people] and then I put them on a list of friends, and then every now and then I go on there and I watch the political conversations that they’re having so I can remain abreast of that.”

“If I had all friends who agree with me it would be a lot easier.”

“[It’s] annoying [to watch] when my super liberal friends, which I have, and then my super conservative friends, which I also have…go back and forth on my Facebook.”

“I said to [a friend], ‘Look, you’re just not going to change [my uncle’s] point of view.’ And you know, I think she eventually unfollowed [me].”

(You knew the problematic one was going to be this guy’s uncle, right?)

Seeing news on Facebook generally means it’s being shared by a friend or family member for whom the story is pleasing (Yay!) or unpleasing (Boo!) — meaning it comes with an emotional complexion built-in. Social media’s flattening of what would normally be lots of different modes of social interaction — you know not to bring up politics with your uncle in person! — means that some degree of uneasiness is almost guaranteed. Who wants to lose friendships over a stupid Facebook post? Ugh.

An echo chamber can increase your anger, but so can busting out of one.

“All of the news sources that I read said that Clinton was gonna win. And they were super wrong about it, so I felt I was living in an echo chamber…[I worried that I was] reading what I wanted to hear instead knowing what was actually going on…[so I started] looking at Fox News once a week, because even if it makes me angry I want to know what half the country is reading.”

“I am definitely more of a conservative person [but] I want to kind of feel and understand where other people are coming from.”

“What they are showing [on CNN] I think it’s so wrong that it makes me feel very angry…that some people actually believe that.”

“You watch CNN and they are like “everything is a disaster, everything [Trump] is doing is wrong…it makes me angry.”

“My blood pressure gets really high…But then I realize that is what other people are listening to, and it is important that I hear that because if I don’t hear it, then I live in my little bubble.”

When people talk about the impact of consuming media that aligns with you ideologically, they often talk about anger. Watch Fox News all night and you’ll be convinced the Deep State traitors are conspiring with all that is unholy to topple Trump; watch MSNBC and you’ll get outraged about every crime Trump is committing against the populace. Either way, you’ll probably need a little extra melatonin to block your rage and fall asleep.

But there’s also an emotional cost when people, fueled with the best of intentions, seek out media that see as “the other side.” Neither a liberal watching Hannity nor a conservative watching Maddow is likely to end the experience thinking: Gee, those guests made some really good points, I’m going to rethink my core ideological priors.

More likely, they’ll just get angrier.

Too! Much! News!

“There is just such an inundation of content…I don’t know how to break through the noise of what people are getting all the time.”

“You get to a point at which it is just too much.”

“[Shortly after the 2016 election I] reposted a lot of stuff [on Facebook] but…it got very consuming…It was overwhelming.”

“[In the Trump presidency] Facebook sometimes feels a little bit overwhelming.”

“There’s this obsession about what’s going on in Washington.”

“Now you feel like every day there’s a new decision and a new statement and a new issue that you need to know about.”

A 30-minute newscast, a morning newspaper — these are finite containers for content. They start, and they eventually end, giving you permission to go on about your day. But news online has neither beginning nor end; there is always another link to click, another news alert to tap, another decision to make about whether to dive deeper or flee to What the Golf. And the structures of mobile alerts and social feeds means that these injections of news can come in the middle of, well, anything.

(“Ooh, look at these pretty photos from Fred’s vacation. Oh, there’s little Janie — look how much she’s grown since the last time she visited! Aw, Dave got into law school! Oh, look at that, it’s — RED ALERT: THE PRESIDENT HAS DONE SOMETHING AND IT IS ALMOST CERTAINLY VERY VERY BAD.”)

No wonder reading political news makes people stressed, angry, overwhelmed, frustrated. Incentives born of technology and the quest for revenue have built a system designed to do all that.

So, what are we going to build next?

I give the final words to Wagner and Boczkowski, summing up some of their findings:

Our focus on the emotional experience of news consumption adds a more holistic take on structural factors, showing how they coexist in people’s everyday experience, often leading to contradictions and triggering conflict. While a research stream on news and emotions has focused on understanding emotions as a feature of journalistic discourse, our study analyzes how audiences, and different groups, are themselves emotionally responding to encountering the news in a highly polarized political scenario.

More broadly, our findings suggest that the academic division of labor might not do justice to the ways in which these matters are incorporated into people’s everyday lives. To many of our interviewees, the political process, its rendition in the news media, and their further circulation on social media were often experienced as tightly integrated and sometimes even indivisible concepts. Bringing an experiential perspective into conceptual development might entail rethinking the boundaries that have historically separated domains of inquiry or at least encouraging more fluid dialogues across these boundaries.

Illustration by Mel Tan used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Sept. 30, 2019, 12:13 p.m.
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