Does Online News Kill Your Ability to Focus?

Today, while flipping through a local print newspaper, I happened across a reprint of this column by Joan Silverman, “To truly grasp the printed word, you gotta hold it.”

Silverman writes about how, for awhile, she abandoned print news almost entirely in favor of online news:

“When I canceled my subscription to the hard-copy edition of the newspaper, I never looked back – that is, until a recent morning. I opened my e-mail headlines from the daily paper and spotted a half-dozen stories of interest. As I looked at the articles, however, I found that several were fairly long. Suddenly I felt a sense of dread, as if reading had become a form of punishment. And there’s the rub. For anything beyond casual browsing or skimming, I think I may hate the computer.”

Believe it or not, I can really relate to this…

I’m an incurable news junkie. I notice that I approach and absorb news differently depending, in part, on the media through which it’s presented.

I tend to get most of my news online since I’m on my computer so much. For me, the key benefits of online news are convenience, diversity, detail, and links. Like Silverman, I’ve noticed that reading so much news online has led me to become mainly a headline-and-summary skimmer. Unless a story strongly piques my interest, I’m unlikely to read more than the first few paragraphs.

However, I often print longer articles for later reading away form my computer. Again, like Silverman, I find I can concentrate on long articles better when I’m holding a printed version in my hands. Plus, I can put them in my backpack for when I go hiking in the mountains and not worry about batteries running out or glare on my LCD screen!

I still read printed newspapers and magazines. With these, too, I now tend mainly to skim – but it’s a different kind of skimming. I’ll often read printed articles at random, even starting with paragraphs in the middle or toward the end of the piece. I don’t know why I do this – perhaps because it offers a strong sense of serendipity. As with online news, I only read from start to finish a small fraction of the print articles that I skim.

For me, broadcast news (radio and TV) tends to get my most focused attention. No one is more surprised by that admission than me, since I loathe the quality of most TV news especially. However, when I find quality broadcast news that appeals to my interests, I’ll give it lots of attention.

In addition to being an incurable news junkie I’m also a compulsive multitasker. I rarely am doing just one thing at any given time. Therefore, any news that has an audio component (radio, TV, or streaming media over the Net) works well for me. When I’m driving, doing housework, paying bills, cooking, or handling other routine tasks I prefer to listen to the news and I’ll focus on it pretty well. I don’t “tune out” mentally after the first few sentences. In fact, most of the time when I have TV news on, I’ll just listen to the audio and I’ll barely look at the screen (unless it’s an excellent magazine show such as NOW with Bill Moyers). Frankly, I find all the zipping, scrolling, twirling, flashing, sub-windowed graphics commonly used in TV news far too distracting.

All of this reflects my own personal news-consuming preferences only. I’m not trying to generalize beyond that.

Silverman’s column struck a chord with me, even though I don’t share her sensual affinity for the visceral experience of reading a newspaper. Frankly, reading narrow columns of tiny type drives me batty after awhile, and I am not a fan of flimsy newsprint. But like her, I am aware of how online media has strongly affected how I get my news.

Yes, I’m much more of a skimmer than I was a decade ago. Yes, my preference for online news is partially to blame for that. Yes, sometimes I worry that my understanding of the world is a kilometer wide and a centimeter deep – for good reason, because in some ways that is true. However, the fact is that no one has to know everything in depth – that’s just not possible, anyway.

I don’t hate my computer. Well, no, I’m not fond of the eyestrain – but I don’t blame my computer for making me superficial, because I don’t think that I am superficial even though I mostly skim the news. In fact, I love my computer, and the Net, for giving me lots of news options while depriving me of none.

There is no shame in being a news skimmer, as long as you still know how to dive deep when it matters, and are willing to take that plunge.

5 thoughts on Does Online News Kill Your Ability to Focus?

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  1. During the Gulf War back in 1991, a well-designed study found that the more CNN people watched, the less accurate information they remembered about the events of the war and leading up to it. Partly, government propaganda is responsible. Remember all those simulations of Patriot missiles destroying SCUD missiles mid-air, when most of the time they didn’t come close? But part of the reason was that the medium makes it difficult to think critically. Reading online is not like watching pictures on TV, but I think print is still the best way to promote deliberation.

  2. From a non-physical/sensual point of view, reading news online is actually better. The recent Pew Internet study that the media spun as “Young people only get their news from The Daily Show” actually showed that most young people watch 24 hour cable news or read news online. It also found that across age, race, sex, and educational background, those who get their news online were more accurately informed about current events.

  3. “Yes, sometimes I worry that my understanding of the world is a kilometer wide and a centimeter deep – for good reason, because in some ways that is true. However, the fact is that no one has to know everything in depth – that’s just not possible, anyway.”

    Interesting. This guy seems to have tried on his own to provide wide and deep information:

    Some pages are long though. Some areas are not covered. Sometimes I skim read the articles to be honest.

  4. My understanding is that reading from a computer screen is inherently more difficult for the human eye, due to issues of resolution and screen flicker. It’ll be interesting to see whether technology can eventually close that gap — and by how much.

    – Amy Gahran

  5. This is interesting. For some time if I needed to read the entire content, I have much preferred to print the text. I just thought that it was my eyes. Oh well, maybe for me it is my eyes or maybe it isn’t?