In media circles there is a popular, if disquieting, new phrase this month: “Selective news avoidance.”
It comes from the newest edition of the annual Reuters Institute Digital News Report.
While most people “remain engaged and use the news regularly, we find that many also increasingly choose to ration or limit their exposure to it — or at least to certain types of news,” the researchers wrote. And they cited a variety of reasons for doing so.
The institute’s report is billed as “the most comprehensive study of news consumption worldwide.” At the recent New York launch event, my ears perked up when I heard Rasmus K. Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, describe the phenomenon.
Media analysts have written a lot about news fatigue in the US, often in connection with exhausting Trump-related news cycles, but Nielsen has been seeing it elsewhere, as well. The institute’s surveys of online news readers in 46 markets found a growing amount of “news avoidance” from Brazil to Australia to the UK to the US.
Some people simply have “less interest in news than they had in the past,” Nielsen said. And even among people who are generally avid news consumers, many are “selectively avoiding news often or sometimes,” whether because the specific topic is a turnoff or the amount of info is overwhelming.
“When we asked them why, part of this is about politics,” Nielsen said. “Some would say they find the news untrustworthy or biased.” But it’s about more than that. “A large number of those who selectively avoid the news say the news has a negative effect on their mood,” he said.
Think about it: A never-ending stream of news on a phone screen is like a piercing scream, far different from, for instance, a half-hour newscast that always ends with sports or a feel-good story. At the same time, the internet contains an equally never-ending number of alternatives to news. It’s no wonder why more people are self-reporting that they are changing their habits.
Journalists are sensing it, too. “Over the last few months, we’ve gone from horrifying tragedy to the next,” HuffPost editor-in-chief Danielle Belton wrote in a Twitter thread.
Author and professor Brian Klaas called it a “dystopian loop” of dreadful news “where fresh revelations about an organized coup attempt get pushed out of the news by a mass shooting of kids, which gets pushed out of the news by the loss of basic rights, which gets pushed out of the news by a truckload of dead migrants, which…”
“And that will get pushed out of the news by whichever comes first,” Klaas tweeted after a string of shocking headlines in the previous days that included the end of abortion rights under Roe v. Wade and the discovery of more than 50 migrants who were found dead in a tractor-trailer in Texas.
During a New York panel discussion sponsored by Reuters, Vox publisher Melissa Bell talked about the “powerlessness” that readers sometimes feel when confronted by bleak story after bleak story. She urged newsrooms to think about producing journalism “as a service to audiences” versus just an act of publishing.
News “moderation,” not avoidance, may be the key, science writer Susan D’Agostino wrote in response to the Reuters Institute findings.
Below are some other findings from the new report.
Stressful state of digital media
– Nielsen reminded attendees that “this is the most competitive marketplace for attention in human history.”
– Overall, the report stated, “trust in the news has fallen in almost half the countries in our survey, and risen in just seven, partly reversing the gains made at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic.”
– In the US, “those who self-identify on the right are more than twice as likely to distrust the news compared with those on the left. In early 2021 only 14% of those on the political right said they trusted the news.” It’s not like this in other countries. “In Finland,” the report said, “we see almost no difference in news trust based on politics.”
– While some subscription models are encouraging, “much of the public isn’t paying for the news” and many don’t want to pay, Nielsen noted.
– One of his slides was titled “the Substack revolution still has some way to go.” Roughly 1 in 5 Americans pay for any form of online news, the researchers found, and only 7% of them “currently pay for a journalist email.” In other words, lots of room for growth.
– When researchers asked, “What’s your main way of getting to news?,” only 23% of respondents cited direct visits to news websites. The rest cited “side doors” like social media, search, and mobile alerts.
– “TikTok is globally the fastest growing network for news,” the report said, and is most popular with under 25-year-olds. More broadly, “visual social networks continue to grow for news.”
– The researchers found that “growth in podcasts seems to have resumed, with 34% consuming one or more podcasts in the last month.” Here is the full report.
– The researchers also took a look at perceptions of media coverage of the war in Ukraine.
– In this article for Poynter, Rick Edmonds asked the report’s lead author, Nic Newman, to assess “what might be done about news avoidance.”
– The data shows that “younger audiences increasingly consume and think about news differently than older audiences do,” research fellow Kirsten Eddy wrote. “They are more casual news users, rely more on social media, and are less connected to (and therefore less loyal to) news brands. They also have different perceptions of what news is and how it’s practiced.”
– What’s New In Publishing compiled “10 key takeaways,” including that “interest in climate change news is higher than you think and that’s an opportunity.”
– “I don’t think we should feel defeated by this data, I think it’s a challenge for journalists,” Ros Atkins of the BBC said.