Is exposure to a 24-hour news cycle doing more harm than good?


There’s no escaping the 24/7 news cycle. Television, radio, push-notifications, live billboards, trending hashtags and Twitter moments; in 2018, we’re getting bad news faster than ever before.

But, surely, there’s a limit how much we can take. How many Brexit updates, horrifying attacks, and middle-of-the-night Trump tweets can we take before we start responding to them on autopilot? Or, worse, are we so accustomed to bad news that we have no response at all?

Sometimes used as a colloquialism for secondary traumatic stress (STS), compassion fatigue describes the apathy or emotional isolation one may experience after being exposed to the persistent pain or suffering of others. Initially identified in caregivers – such as those working as social workers, doctors, teachers, relief workers, and counsellors – compassion fatigue is now also being noted in the general public.

So, is the constant onslaught of bad news we read, see and hear about on a daily basis to be blamed for generalised compassion fatigue? I put this question to Nicole Addis, a humanistic integrative counsellor and psychotherapist, with over 10 years of experience working with victims of trauma. “If we consider compassion fatigue to be a form of STS, a syndrome of repeated exposure to emotionally or physically emotive, threatening, and sad stories and events,” she says, “then I think it would be reasonable to say that constant exposure to such information would result in a form of compassion fatigue experienced by the individual, but, perhaps more importantly, suffered by a society.”


If society is suffering from generalised compassion fatigue, we may find the evidence in charitable donation trends. The Charities Aid Foundation UK Giving Report for 2017 showed a record peak in the number of people donating to charities in November, the month where a number of national charities run major campaigns, such as Children in Need, Movember, and the Poppy Appeal, simultaneously. However, once the campaigns are over, the same report shows an overall decrease in the proportion of people donating to charities throughout the year. With over 180,000 charities in the UK, it’s possible that we’re all simply overwhelmed by causes. And, as the public spotlight inevitably moves on to the next big thing, it’s inevitable that our compassion will waver throughout the year.

This fluctuation is not unusual. In fact, Jean Decety, the author of a 2010 study into compassion fatigue published in the journal NeuroImage, believes it to be a natural response that frees up cognitive resources, without which we would be unable to move on or function effectively. Imagine having to feel an equal amount of empathy towards every tragic thing that occurs every day, everywhere in the world. It’s unimaginable. It wouldn’t be healthy.

Rather than allowing ourselves to get to the point where we are so emotionally fatigued that our brains cut off all empathy, we should learn to manage our responses before this happens. You shouldn’t feel guilty for turning off the news every now and then if you feel overwhelmed or emotionally burnt-out. No single one of us should feel the burden of the world’s problems on our shoulders. You can return to the news when you feel emotionally ready. But it’s important to focus on the things that we can help, the people that we can support, and the small, special differences that we can make in our lives, and in the lives of others.

man puttng down phone

Compassion fatigue is something that can affect all of us at some point. So stay one step ahead. Consider a “news-cleanse” a form of self-care. If you find yourself feeling apathetic, or overwhelmed, switch it off. It’s something that Nicole recommends for anyone who feels they may be struggling to process constant bad news: “Don’t be afraid to choose not to watch.”

Ways to avoid compassion fatigue:
  • Turn off all devices now and then. If you’re finding a piece of news particularly distressing, it’s important to limit exposure. Apps such as Forest, Onward, and StepLock all offer quirky ways to help us to curb our smartphone addictions.

  • Get out and explore the world beyond your front door. This can help to ground you in the moment.

  • Meet up with friends and agree to leave phones in bags. Do it the old-fashioned way, don’t say by text, or email, what you can say face-to-face.
    Be empathic, find your compassion, and practise kindness to yourself, others and society.