Yesterday I was listening to an interview with Johann Hari, a British-Swiss writer and journalist, whose latest book is called Stolen Focus: Why You Can’t Pay Attention and How to Think Deeply Again. In the interview, Hari talked about how our current way of life, where we constantly switch from device to device, is inherently bad for our mental well-being and attention span. He argues our inability to focus is not due to a lack of willpower, but the world around us, especially technology.
As a journalism student who also works as a copywriter, I spend a large chunk of my days in front of a screen. I switch from phone to laptop, app to app, tab to tab. I feel the need to stay on top of what people are talking about and what’s happening in the wider world, but in reality, there is so much content online that I could follow it full-time and never get anything else done.
The internet’s effect on journalism has been discussed widely. No wonder, because it has changed everything. The business models have changed as advertising money has moved elsewhere, the delivery has moved online as fewer people buy print newspapers, not to talk about the impact the 24-hour news cycle has on how fast and how many stories must be churned out.
Yet, Hari’s interview made me think of another effect digital technology might have on journalism. Is it making it harder to be a good journalist?
News events, such as the war in Ukraine, are being broadcast instantaneously on TikTok. Many people, including me, get their news on Twitter or Instagram. That means media companies must also be present on every platform that has enough eyeballs on it. So, to be able to do their jobs, journalists must know how to use the relevant channels professionally. Staying in the loop requires a lot of time spent scrolling.
While I certainly have learned a lot on the internet and genuinely enjoy the content I read, watch and listen to, I’m starting to question if it’s helping or hindering me more. Is there a point where the benefits of learning are undone by the mind-numbing effects of the never-ending scroll?
Social media has made the media scene more democratic, allowing many marginalised people (often ignored by traditional media) to have a voice. I have used it myself to come up with story ideas and to find interviewees. So, there are many upsides.
Yet, when Hari was talking about how his younger self used to be able to focus much better (an ability he quickly regained when spending three months without the internet), I was terrified to realise I could relate to his experience. As someone who didn’t yet have a smartphone in high school, I remember grasping large entities of information by reading through my textbooks with relatively low effort. These days, I struggle to remember what was in an online article I read two minutes ago. I have noticed my focus-problem worsen over the years, in sync with consecutive social media updates that make the apps all the more addictive so they can hold on to our attention longer.
One of the core purposes of journalism is to make sense of the world to the average person. That means digesting large quantities of information, picking out the essential parts and turning it into a clear and concise news story.
The question is, how can journalists find the balance between staying professionally connected, informed and skilled online while maintaining their ability to process information effectively?
Funnily enough, this blog itself was inspired by something I listened to on a podcast on my smartphone because I wanted some entertainment on my lunchtime walk. So, at this stage, I don’t have the answers.