The house Anita Li grew up in is not the same as it used to be. Her family was surrounded by news: They watched the 6 and 11 o’clock broadcasts, read the Toronto Star and listened to CityNews 680 daily. But over time, those habits become harder to stick with.
“You start to get insights (into news fatigue) at a personal level first. It became so much to keep up with, a lot of inflammatory and polarizing content. Not valuable to real-life conversations,” says Li.
After two decades in the industry, the media consultant and instructor was guided by a sense that traditional news felt increasingly negative and stressful. In 2022, Li founded the hyperlocal publication The Green Line that aims to find community-driven solutions to systemic problems in Toronto.
According to Siteefy, as of 2023, there are over 200 million active websites. The Centre d’Études sur les Médias, a research nonprofit based at Université Laval, points out that about 76 per cent of people in Canada get their news online, with 49 per cent going directly to social media, numbers that may soon change considering the fallout of Bill C-18 (the new law that requires compensation deals between online news publishers and big tech companies like Google and Meta).
The 2022 Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute discovered growing patterns of disconnection with news content. Good or bad, information is more accessible than ever. In the survey, 43 per cent of the global participants said they were “put off by the repetitiveness of the news agenda with politics, COVID-19 and war.” Many are cutting back on news because it feels relentlessly toxic.
News fatigue is characterized by exhaustion with the ongoing avalanches of journalistic content. Nowadays, some increasingly have trouble keeping pace with the news because of negative impacts on their mental health. An element of this phenomenon is “compassion fatigue,” a symptom that comes with an overwhelming feeling of impotence when one is exposed to the vulnerable situations of others around the world. In June 2022, Al Jazeera reported on how the global “outrage and doom” surrounding the Russia-Ukraine war quickly subsided.
In the preceding months between April and May of 2022, according to NewsWhip, actors Johnny Depp and Amber Heard, who were at trial in a defamation case, received six times more social media interactions than the war. This attention swing came amid a decline in the volume of Ukraine coverage and organized campaigns to turn the public against Heard.
Lauren Heintzman, design editor at The Globe and Mail, was often responsible for finding images that illustrated the immensity of the Ukraine conflict. In the March 18, 2022 edition of the newsletter Amplify, she unpacks some of the thought processes behind how to choose which photographs to portray the unfolding destruction. “When we create the paper, we understand these images can be inescapable,” wrote Heintzman. “So the daily struggle becomes: Do we continue to show the devastating realities of a war with no end in sight, or try to find slivers of hope?”
The digital world made it possible to be in the know about everything, everywhere at the same time. But now some members of the public are left to figure out what to do when it becomes too much.
The focus on solutions
Newsrooms have, too, had to figure out how to reframe reporting to not only keep people tuning in, but to provide a fuller picture of the stories they’re trying to tell.
Solutions and constructive journalism have become the focus of some outlets. The Whole Story, a publication by Solutions Journalism Network, says that it’s about finding responses to a newsworthy problem, followed by insight and evidence of impact. The method also aims to identify the limitations of a solution and how communities’ experiences with them may differ.
“Oftentimes people think it’s prescriptive, or some form of advocacy. It’s absolutely not. It’s finding solutions to systemic problems, they aren’t always the singular solution or even successful, because we can still learn from them,” says Li.
The Green Line has a unique model called “Action Journey”: a reporting framework that consists of a four-step process that introduces an issue, deep dives into meaningful solutions, hosts an event where it can be discussed, and concludes the reporting with a crowdsourced solutions article. After a few action journeys that happen monthly, Li highlights how it often needs to be reiterated and refined to present solutions in engaging and meaningful ways.
In the July 2023 edition of her journalism newsletter The Other Wave, Li provides the example of a TikTok by comedian Danish Anwar, in which he shared his opinion about the 2022 convoy protests against COVID-19 mandates. His video, which explored a headline-grabbing issue with humour and attracted nearly 70,000 views, could represent the introductory phase of the model where the video would serve to spark curiosity in audience members to learn more about the issue with subsequent in-depth coverage.
In a February 2021 editorial for The Canadian Journal of Public Health, Dr. Noni E. MacDonald describes constructive journalism in action with the relationship between media and public health workers during the pandemic. COVID stories started dominating the news sphere in 2020. There were too many experts, a lot of speculation and conflicting recommendations. The study pointed out that high exposure to scientific activity changed the way journalists did their reporting, and emphasized how public health workers should work closely with reporters to bring in solutions and fight misinformation.
Li sees how community-driven journalism also makes use of this approach. For her, connecting with community members, asking questions about their lives, their problems and defining what matters to them is a useful practice that helps fill gaps in coverage left by a lack of funding and resources across the industry.
Optimism in a world of disconnection
Victoria Cardenas is a Canadian marketing and communications officer at the International Hydropower Association in the U.K. who runs the TikTok account A Positive Take, which curates good news from different outlets. “I scour the news every morning. I start with the big media channels, then the more niche ones. You never know, something good can happen that day and I’ll share it,” she says.
With over 50,000 followers, Cardenas thinks that presenting good news to wider audiences does not mean it’s all they should consume, but it should encourage people to be more informed of the events around them. Being the news industry’s ideal consumer and noticing how affected it was by negativity, Cardenas saw TikTok as the right place to reach a big audience.
Université Laval’s CEM report shows that 45 per cent of people in Canada find that watching news is easier than reading it, which explains the expansion of news content in the platform. Cardenas thinks the initiative has a “domino effect.” If people are more exposed to good news, they might follow more accounts of media channels, seek different forms of content and consequently be more engaged with the world.
“To be honest, the biggest challenge is sometimes finding five good news stories that have happened in a week,” says Amy Judd, an online supervisor at Global News in Vancouver. “The news industry can be a depressing one and sometimes, we are constrained by time, resources, and other stories that have to come first because they affect more people and it’s our duty to inform the public.”
Judd and her team run the Feel-Good-Friday newsletter, a weekly selection of B.C.’s most uplifting stories. She says that the idea came after hearing comments from the public that news organizations don’t share a lot of good information. “I think people should consume a variety of news so that they know what is going on in their communities … and in the world,” she concludes.
For Judd, there is still a lot of space for positive stories in the news.
Bridging the gap between traditional media and the future of journalism
“Good journalism that creates an understanding of a certain issue or environment is foundational to democracy,” says Li.
Traditional news media can’t be strictly limited to optimistic stories. But solutions-based coverage can serve as a functional tool to help reconnect with audiences and promote civic engagement. It doesn’t mean the collapse of conventional reporting practices, but does offer a path to diversifying reporting techniques to give news consumers the option to be updated on what matters to them in different ways.
Journalism is an ever-changing field and reporting techniques change and differ across cultures and social settings. Yet Li believes that the industry is going in a different direction, and that can be seen by partnerships between traditional media outlets like CityNews and newer news organizations like The Green Line.
“There is more need to do journalism in a more unique way,” she says.
Luis Felipe Mussalem is a Toronto journalist focused on covering science and academic research.