In psychology, passivity resulting from a lack of control is referred to as “learned helplessness.” Though logic would suggest that an increase in available news would give consumers more control, this is not actually the case. As Barry Schwartz, the Dorwin Cartwright Professor of Social Theory and Social Action at Swarthmore College, argues in his book The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, too many choices can be burdensome. “Instead of feeling in control, we feel unable to cope,” he writes. “Freedom of choice eventually becomes a tyranny of choice.”

A recent study by Northwestern University’s Media Management Center supports this phenomenon. It found that despite their interest in the 2008 election, young adults avoid political news online “because they feel too much information is coming at them all at once and too many different things are competing for their attention.” The study participants said they wanted news organizations to display less content in order to highlight the essential information. “Young people want the site design to signal to them what’s really important . . . instead of being confronted by a bewildering array of choices,” write the researchers in their final report, From “Too Much” to “Just Right”: Engaging Millennials in Election News on the Web.

The instinct that more is better is deeply ingrained in the modern psyche. David Levy, a professor at The Information School of the University of Washington, uses the phrase “more-better-faster” to describe the acceleration of society that began with the Industrial Revolution. According to Levy, we tend to define productivity in terms of speed and volume rather than quality of thought and ideas. “We are all now expected to complete more tasks in a smaller amount of time,” writes Levy in a 2007 journal article. “And while the new technologies do make it remarkably efficient and easy to search for information and to collect masses of potentially relevant sources on a huge variety of topics, they can’t, in and of themselves, clear the space and time needed to absorb and to reflect on what has been collected.” In the case of news production, Swarthmore’s Schwartz agrees. “The rhythm of the news cycle has changed so dramatically that what’s really been excluded,” he says, “is the time that it takes to think.”

Implications for Democracy

Our access to digital information, as well as our ability to instantly publish, share, and improve upon it at negligible cost, hold extraordinary promise for realizing the democratic ideals of journalism. Yet as we’ve seen, many news consumers are unable or unwilling to navigate what Michael Delli Carpini refers to as the “chaotic and gateless information environment that we live in today.”

When people had fewer information and entertainment options, journalistic outlets were able to produce public-affairs content without having to worry excessively about audience share. As the Internet and the 24/7 news cycle splinter readership and attention spans, this is no longer the case. “Real journalism is a kind of physician-patient relationship where you don’t pander to readers,” says Bob Garfield, a columnist for Advertising Age and co-host of NPR’s On the Media. “You give them some of what they want and some of what you as the doctor-journalist think they ought to have.” Unfortunately, many news outlets feel they can no longer afford to strike the right balance.

As information proliferates, meanwhile, people inevitably become more specialized both in their careers and their interests. This nichification—the basis for Wired editor Chris Anderson’s breakthrough concept of the Long Tail—means that shared public knowledge is receding, as is the likelihood that we come in contact with beliefs that contradict our own. Personalized home pages, newsfeeds, and e-mail alerts, as well as special-interest publications lead us to create what sociologist Todd Gitlin disparagingly referred to as “my news, my world.” Serendipitous news—accidentally encountered information—is far less frequent in a world of TiVo and online customization tools.

Viewed in this light, the role of the journalist is more important than ever. “As society becomes splintered,” writes journalist and author David Shenk in Data Smog, “it is journalists who provide the vital social glue to keep us at least partly intact as a common unit.” Journalists work to deliver the big picture at a time when the overload of information makes it hard to piece it together ourselves. “The journalist’s job isn’t to pay attention simply to one particular field,” explains Paul Duguid. “The job is to say, ‘Well, what are all the different fields that bear on this particular story?’ They give us the breadth that none of us can have because we’re all specialists in our own particular area.” In other words, the best journalism does not merely report and deliver information, it places it in its full and proper context.

Bree Nordenson a former assistant editor of CJR.