The "Breaking News" logo is no longer just for big stories. It's a marketing ploy.

"The plane is circling the airport to burn off fuel before it makes an emergency landing. Stick with us right here. We'll bring you all the details."

I kept hearing on-air reports like this through my earpiece as I waited to appear on a national cable news channel last month. Although there were many important events that day, the host returned four times to the airplane story ("still circling, stay tuned"), with no new information until handing it over to the host of the next program. It was finally reported that the plane had landed safely without incident.(1)

Heck, I didn't mind the delay to my appearance. That goes with the territory of TV news. But it did make me feel sorry for the people who were watching. They were led through the rollercoaster emotions of anxiety about a possible crash and empathy with the passengers, all for what turned out to be a non-event.


Even though there was little danger, we were allowed to imagine the worst.

This type of reporting happens all the time on 24-hour news channels. Why would "The Place for Politics" choose to stick with this "breaking news" when there were so many important and complex issues that needed to be covered? One reason is that producers know that breaking news of an impending disaster brings eyeballs to advertisers. The phenomenon of rubbernecking is as old as the occurrence of accidents. Morbid curiosity attracts our attention to disasters, in spite of our better intentions.(2) The channel could have chosen simply to break into the program if the plane had crashed, but making the audience share in the airport circling extended the time people had to stay on edge and tuned in. Good business decision, perhaps, but certainly a waste of our time.

This incident makes me think more about how our digital culture has affected our need for the news. In our "gotta know it now" culture," we don't just have TV and radio. With the Internet, we have instantaneously updated websites and Twitter to keep us on top of everything even faster. And we can get email alerts about our selected topics and even texts on our cell phones when we're away from our laptops.

Because we CAN know about something as soon as it happens we feel we MUST know it NOW. This leads us to be interrupted constantly by things that may not be that important or urgent—and even by "developing" stories that turn out to be non-stories.

Our digital devices have caused us to lose all patience. We not only need to know NOW; we can no longer even bear to wait if a particular web site loads slowly. This might not be such a problem if keeping abreast of the latest happenings were our only goal in life. Fortunately, for most people, it is not. But needing to know everything the moment it happens certainly interferes with our getting things done.

Unnecessary interruptions are anathema to productivity.(3) Information overload interferes with creativity.(4) And all this gratuitous exposure to vicarious emotional experience unnecessarily increases stress.(5)


Talking heads can't compete with the titillation of potential disaster.

It's hard to detach from this nonstop contact with limitless information and concentrate on our own lives. Our gadgets make it all so accessible and so alluring. Delay of gratification has never been harder.

One thing we can do is try to figure out what types of information are essential to learn the moment they happen—things like a tornado headed your way; toxic fumes being released in your area; your child needing to be picked up because of a playground injury—and which other things are just as valuable to hear about later. If we can arrange our lives so that the urgent gets through, while the merely interesting gets delayed until we're ready for it, we'll be much better off. We can make the most of our digital devices while allowing our brains the time and space to think, enjoy life, and accomplish something.

For more tips on creating a digital environment for ourselves that fosters our goals and our mental health, read Conquer CyberOverload: Get More Done, Boost Your Creativity, and Reduce Stress.

(1) CBS News (2010). Delta plane makes emergency landing in Atlanta. http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2010/07/22/national/main6703218.shtml
(2) J. H. Goldstein, Ed. (1998). Why we watch: The attractions of violent entertainment. Oxford University Press.
(3) Spira, J.B., & Feintuch, J. B. (2005). The cost of not paying attention: how interruptions impact knowledge worker productivity. http://bsx.stores.yahoo.net/coofnotpaat.html
4) Lehrer, J. (2008, July 28). The eureka hunt: Why do good ideas come to us when they do? The New Yorker, 40-45; Wagner, U., Gais, S., Haider, H., Verleger, R., & Born, J. (2004). Sleep improves insight. Nature, 427, 352-355.
5) For example, Johnson, J. G., Cohen, P., Kasen, S., First, M. B., & Brook, J. S. (2004). Association between television viewing and sleep problems during adolescence and early adulthood. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, 158, 562-568.

 

About the Author

Joanne Cantor, Ph.D.

Joanne Cantor, Ph.D., Professor Emerita at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is the author of Conquer CyberOverload: Get More Done, Boost Your Creativity, and Reduce Stress.

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