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Opinion | What news designed for 21st century humans might look like – The Washington Post

It wasn’t always this way. I’ve been a journalist for two decades, and I used to spend hours consuming the news and calling it “work.” Every morning, I read The Washington Post, the New York Times and sometimes the Wall Street Journal. In my office at Time magazine, I had a TV playing CNN on mute. I listened to NPR in the shower. On weekends, I devoured the New Yorker. It felt like my duty to be informed, as a citizen and as a journalist — and also, I kind of loved it! Usually, it made me feel more curious, not less.

But the news crept into every crevice of life. I couldn’t avoid exposure — in my email inbox, on social media, in text messages from friends. I tried to toughen up. I gave myself stern lectures: “This is real life, and real life is depressing! There is a pandemic happening, for God’s sake. Plus: Racism! Also: Climate change! And inflation! Things are depressing. You should be depressed!”

The problem is, I wasn’t taking action. The dismay was paralyzing. It’s not like I was reading about yet another school shooting and then firing off an email to my member of Congress. No, I’d read too many stories about the dysfunction in Congress to think that would matter. All individual action felt pointless once I was done reading the news. Mostly, I was just marinating in despair.

Then one day a journalist friend confided that she was avoiding the news, too. Then I heard it from another journalist. And another. (Most were women, I noticed, though not all.) This news about disliking news was always whispered, a dirty little secret. It reminded me of the scene in “The Social Dilemma,” when all those tech executives admitted that they didn’t let their kids use the products they had created.

Today’s news, even high-quality print news, is not designed for humans. As Krista Tippett, the journalist and host of the radio show and podcast “On Being,” puts it, “I don’t actually think we are equipped, physiologically or mentally, to be delivered catastrophic and confusing news and pictures, 24/7. We are analog creatures in a digital world.”

I’ve spent the past year trying to figure out what news designed for 21st-century humans might look like — interviewing physicians who specialize in communicating bad news to patients, behavioral scientists who understand what humans need to live full, informed lives and psychologists who have been treating patients for “headline stress disorder.” (Yes, this is a thing.)

“Hope is like water,” says David Bornstein, co-founder of the nonprofit Solutions Journalism Network. “You need to have something to believe in. If you’re in the restaurant business, you’re gonna give people water. Because you understand human biology. It’s weird that journalism has such a hard time understanding this. People need to have a sense of possibility.”

Last December, the New York Times published an ambitious multimedia project called “Postcards from a World on Fire,” chronicling how climate change has altered life in 193 countries. It led with a graphic of the Earth in flames, spinning in space, and the words, “Cities swallowed by dust. Human history drowned by the sea.” I kid you not. This was a well-intentioned effort, but it was simply not designed for humans. I don’t know what species it would work for, but it’s not one I’m familiar with.

Second, humans need a sense of agency. “Agency” is not something most reporters think about, probably because, in their jobs, they have it. But feeling like you and your fellow humans can do something — even something small — is how we convert anger into action, frustration into invention. That self-efficacy is essential to any functioning democracy.

There is a way to communicate news — including very bad news — that leaves us better off as a result. A way to spark anger and action. Empathy alongside dignity. Hope alongside fear. There is another way, and it doesn’t lead to bankruptcy or puffery. But right now, these examples I’ve listed remain far too rare.

It’s hard to generalize about the news media. The category includes hard-working beat reporters, dedicated fact-checkers and producers, as well as shameless propagandists, dupes and conflict entrepreneurs. It’s almost too big a category to talk about with any clarity. But it’s fair to say that if news sites were people, most would be diagnosed as clinically depressed right now.

Changing that may require journalists to accept that some of their own core beliefs are outdated. “The journalist’s theory of change is that the best way to avert catastrophe is to keep people focused on the potential for catastrophe 24/7,” Bornstein says. That used to work — kind of. Reporters could rigorously chronicle threats and corruption, and then sit back and let the accountability rain down. But that dynamic only works if the public is more unified and journalists are widely trusted. These days, it doesn’t matter how many of former president Donald Trump’s lies reliable fact-checkers count; it won’t change anyone’s mind. A lot of journalists, perhaps frustrated by their impotence, have responded by getting louder and more shrill. Which only causes more people to (yes, you guessed it) avoid the news.

Finally, and this is closely related: The people producing the news themselves are struggling, and while they aren’t likely to admit it, it is warping the coverage. News junkies tend to drink deeply from the darkness, mistakenly thinking it will make them sharper. All that angst has nowhere to go — and it leaks into our stories.

There aren’t many major news outlets systematically creating news for humans yet, but one that I admire (and now subscribe to) is the Christian Science Monitor. Each issue features reporting from around the globe, vivid photos, brutal realities — right alongside hope, agency and dignity. Stories include a brief explainer called “Why we wrote this,” treating readers like respected partners.

It’s a kind of low-ego, high-curiosity journalism that I’ve started trying to emulate in my own work. I don’t always succeed. It can feel uncomfortable to, for example, let listeners dictate the subject of the podcast I host. But last month, I spent four hours at an antiabortion rally with a camera crew and did something I’d never done before: I just tried to understand, deeply, what people told me. I didn’t try to extract the most chilling quote or the vivid, ironic anecdote. I just asked deeper questions, without judgment. It felt less transactional, more human. I also felt more informed.

So, as we brace ourselves for the coming midterms, variants and cataclysms, here’s my plea to all my fellow journalists: Please send a search party for the 42 percent of Americans who are avoiding the news. We can’t all be wrong. Or oversensitive or weak. And we might just be you.

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