Untangling the Web: Newsaholics anonymous

Over Rosh Hashana I realized: I might have a problem. How much do online journalism and addictive substances have in common?

Multitasking generic 311 (photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
Multitasking generic 311
(photo credit: Thinkstock/Imagebank)
For Rosh Hashana this year, I got three-and-a-half days out of the office, basically unheard of in my current role as Internet desk manager. Not only that, but I had two full days during which I didn't have to check the news at all, not even from home. A full 48 hours without updates from radio, television or Internet is a big deal for me, and when I make statements like this, I realize I might have a problem.
Hello, my name is Elana, and I'm a newsaholic.
Though my family and social engagements over the holiday managed to distract me from the withdrawal symptoms, I got to thinking about the nature of my all-too-common addiction, and whether it's a result of this age of information in which we live, the Internet, or just something about my personality.
Smartphones and wireless Internet, laptops and social media have all come together in the last decade to create an industry which makes up-to-date news from across the world available to pretty much everyone, anytime and largely for free. Whereas in days gone by the interested news consumer would have chewed through the morning paper with his breakfast, now anyone that way inclined has the option to “read the newspaper” over and over again throughout the day. Enter an addictive personality, which I happen to have, and this interest is going to take up some serious time.
It has long been my belief that the main problem with any addiction is not the drug or the object of addiction itself, but rather the relationship with or attachment to it. That is to say, while heroin is regarded as a dangerous drug, it actually presents no inherent danger in and of itself. It's when the drug meets the user –  who has personal issues which drive him to abuse, steals to feed his addiction or harms his body with the substance – that the consequences enter the equation.
By that rationale, the news is not the problem here, but rather the newsaholic's relationship with it. Now, having an addiction doesn't just mean doing something a lot. It entails some sort of dependence, as well as doing whatever it is over and over again, despite negative results. In my case, I'm beginning to notice an urge which arises when it’s been a couple of hours since I’ve checked the news, as well as negative effects on my social and personal life from the amount of my time outside the office spent checking the news. While I see no serious danger or long-term effects at this point, it seems worth exploring from both a personal and a professional perspective.
Always good to know: I'm not alone. Google the term “news addiction,” and you'll find pages and pages of blog posts and surveys, self-help guides to giving up checking the news. Unfortunately these are not for me – for obvious professional reasons I'm not looking to give up here, but rather to get my “using” under control. Interestingly, throughout my research I found no studies or statistics on my condition. Lots of solutions, but no solid description of the problem itself.
Judging from my experience talking to people from all walks of life about my work in online journalism, the problem appears to be widespread, especially here in Israel. Armies in constant states of high alert and political figures using varying degrees of fear-mongering tactics have resulted in citizens fondling their smartphones on buses, looking for reassurance which rarely comes. This condition is the love child of history and technology.
Be that as it may, there is an important distinction to be made, which differentiates this so-called addiction from most other forms of substance abuse – journalism as an institution is important, and has a crucial place in democratic society. The question here is not one of substance, but one of dosage. Just as there's a difference between a bottle of wine at a dinner party and a bottle of gin in a gutter, there is a difference between reading the headlines on 20 sites in the newsroom on a Sunday morning, and checking 20 news apps under the table on my new smartphone at a bar on the weekend. Similarly, it's not the hours that I spend reading article after article that really worry me, but rather the risk of losing sight of what's really important, while skimming headlines looking for stories that we might have “missed.”
Because news, especially online, should always be researched, produced, written and most importantly read with a critical eye. Mindless consumption of anything, be it an illicit substance or cable news, is seldom beneficial.
This fault-line, where journalism and the Internet meet, has the potential to create terrible cynicism. Dramatic language, photos and flashing graphics can be used to manipulate readers in a way that was hardly possible with the classic broadsheet. Only focused critical reading and attention to timing and sources can help weed through all the rubbish that can be found online in order to find the “real news.”
On top of that, I think that it’s a matter of balance.
Take for example a good friend of mine who lives on a kibbutz in the North. She never checks the news, despite owning a laptop and having a wireless connection which she uses daily. She doesn't have a television, understands only bits and pieces of the Hebrew news she hears on the radio, and would rather read books than newspapers. In fact, as she told me over the holiday, apart from word-of-mouth in the chadar ochel (dining hall), Facebook is the only “news source” from which she gets current affairs, and even then, she's more interested in reading her friends' comments on a particular issue than in the story itself.
The only recent current affairs events that she could recall hearing about were the Palestinian statehood bid in the UN, though she knew few details, and the string of terror attacks on the Egyptian border which left eight Israelis dead back in August. During our conversation my friend spoke of how she felt she “should” check the news more, and how her failure to keep updated didn't fit her identification as a socially aware person.
What she was touching on here, in my interpretation, is precisely the crucial role that news media play in free society. The industry brings treachery, corruption, abuse and exploitation into the public eye, and Internet journalism in particular allows for easy discourse on such issues. Media in all of its current forms shrinks the world, increases global awareness and provides political platform, for better or for worse.
A happy medium is needed, for both me and my kibbutznik friend. Churning through the news at the rate that I, my colleagues and my fellow newsaholics do can seriously increase the risk of information overload and of falling prey to the sensationalist tendencies of the industry. And yet by staying away from it altogether and relying on peers for information, staying up to date is almost impossible. I’d suggest that someone who checks a selection of trusted news sources online a couple of times a day, uses social media to keep his finger on the pulse of world events and maybe has a subscription to a news magazine for weekend reading has the best chance of taking advantage of the accessibility, variety and speed which the Internet has brought to the news industry.
Of course, there's a professional reason that I read the news a lot, but I'm realizing that nonetheless a line must be drawn. I'm hoping that by looking at my news “usage” in a more conscious way, I'll be able to interact with the object of my addiction more moderately, and ultimately be better at both my job and my life outside work. I intend to reaffirm my commitment to reading the news to find the story, rather than just reading the news to read the news.
One thing is for certain – my ailment is a product of the Internet age and the immediacy that comes with it. If I knew that no matter how many times I checked The New York Times website, it would only be updated once a day, I'm fairly certain that I wouldn't press F5 compulsively every few minutes. And if I was born a century ago, I probably wouldn't be “addicted” to reading the newspaper every morning, though I might be equally as interested in learning about the world around me.
The writer is The Jerusalem Post's Internet desk manager