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Nov. 8, 2018, 10:47 a.m.
Audience & Social

Why are some women “news avoiders”? New research suggests one reason has to do with emotional labor

“News avoidance appeared to be a strategic choice to conserve both emotional energy and time, in order to better fulfill demanding responsibilities, especially caretaking.””

The idea that news and politics are in the male sphere, with domestic duties relegated to women, might feel outdated. But these beliefs are alive and well for many, and the act of consciously avoiding the news comes with a hefty component of gender dynamics, new research suggests.

In interviews with lower- and middle-income women in the U.K., professors Benjamin Toff and Ruth Palmer found a “clear division of labor” that “helped sustain gender gaps in news use.”

News consumption fell off the to-do list completely as the women juggled jobs and childcare. They often outsourced news consumption to male partners or family members. And they “tried to conserve their own emotional energy” by avoiding news — in order to better “fulfill their responsibilities to others.”

The group of research subjects is small, but Toff and Palmer’s paper “Explaining the gender gap in news avoidance: ‘News-is-for-men’ perceptions and the burdens of caretaking” (published online last month in Journalism Studies) raises interesting questions about the gender dynamics of consuming or avoiding news.

Their findings are a reminder that efforts to increase interest in and consumption of news need to account for a dizzying array of factors, including ingrained sexism in the news industry that affects which topics are considered “newsworthy” and long-held societal expectations that women act as caretakers. Toff and Palmer acknowledge that the people they interviewed “fall at the extreme end of the news consumption spectrum” — there aren’t that many people who actively identify as “news avoiders.” But these women’s perspectives, the authors write, “act as a magnifying lens to help identify gender dynamics that we suspect influence consumption patterns among more typical media audiences.”

Toff, an assistant journalism professor at University of Minnesota and research associate at Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and Palmer, an assistant professor of communication at Spain’s IE University, conducted hour-long, in-home interviews with “43 working- and middle-class individuals in the U.K. — mostly women — who say they rarely or never access conventional news.” Finding these people was difficult, since “just 7 percent of adults online in both the U.S. and U.K. can be categorized as news avoiders” using the measure employed by the Reuters Institute (people who say they’ve accessed no news in the past month.) So the researchers partnered with market research firm Kantar to find the interview subjects, who were paid £40 for their time. (Toff has also done previous news avoidance research on members of this community, which our Christine Schmidt covered here.) Thirty-six out of the 43 participants identified as female.

We sought specifically to capture the perspectives of people with more limited social and economic resources because we suspected class to be deeply intertwined with patterns of news use and avoidance. Recruitment was concentrated in Leeds and Manchester, post-industrial cities with diverse socioeconomic populations, as well as areas in the outer ring of Oxford the government deems economically “deprived.” Study participants reported a household income between £20,000 and £24,999 per year, and only 39 percent reported having received a bachelor’s degree, slightly below the national average.

Here are some of their findings:

Attitudes toward news were highly gendered. Several of the women described men as being more interested in news. “Chelsea,” a working-class mother from Leeds, said she and her friends “don’t talk about anything important” while “the guys debate.” And:

Brianna, for example, said she might occasionally glance at a newspaper from time to time, but only because “I work with a lot of guys and guys tend to have newspapers that they’ll take them to the bathrooms, so there tends to be one” laying around. When asked about people she knew who were, unlike herself, highly interested in news, Annabell described two colleagues who were men who “just, sort of, shout over each other because they’re both quite interested in politics and stuff, so they will have their, sort of, banter” about the news at work.

Participants often described news and politics as “peripheral to their own experiences, reserved for a sphere inhabited by men who were spouses, partners, or parents.”

There was a division of labor for news. Participants often worked out relationships where they relied on someone else “to follow the news in their stead and inform them about important issues.”

Tessa, who was on long-term disability leave due to chronic fatigue syndrome, explained that her condition made “reading stuff exhausting” so she learned to rely on friends to “just text me if something awful has happened” or on her husband who “reads [the news] like all the time” and whose opinions she said she trusts to “reflect my political views as well.”

It wasn’t always the women who outsourced the news-reading: The researchers talked to one father who was the primary caretaker, for instance, who relied on his wife who worked outside the home for news. But:

…handing over responsibility for paying attention to news freed many interviewees up to concentrate on domestic duties such as childrearing—work that continues to fall disproportionately on women. Evelyn, for example, made this trade-off explicit. She said her partner “knows everything and he tells me…On his Facebook, it’s news, news, news.” Meanwhile, she prefers not to pay attention, “because the kids are always here and they have their stuff on,” but also because, she said, “I just don’t like watching it. I don’t like what’s going on.” By dividing up responsibilities for paying attention in this way, Evelyn felt sufficiently informed about important stories while able to focus on responsibilities more central to what she viewed as her main role in the household.

People avoided news because of their kids. Sometimes, they viewed that as a way of protecting the kids. Ryan, the father: “I don’t want my kids listening to bombs going off, and how many people died, or some gun massacre somewhere. I was, like, no news for the kids either, so we just have no news in the house.” In other instances, they were just too busy: “Caretaking responsibilities not only limited time to pay attention to news; they also sapped people of the emotional energy required to engage with current events.” Overall, Toff and Palmer found that in their sample, “news avoidance appeared to be a strategic choice to conserve both emotional energy and time, in order to better fulfill demanding responsibilities, especially caretaking”:

This finding recalls Janice Radway’s classic study on women who read romance novels: she finds they treasure the medium as an escape from caretaking and emotional labor. Our interviewees saw news as the opposite of the escape they needed.

The news that people cited as important was extremely local. “When many of our interviewees recalled specific news stories they had found important enough to pay attention to and even investigate further, those stories were usually about their children’s schools, crimes against individuals in their neighborhoods, or other topics likely to affect their lives and families in a direct way.”

As an American citizen, I was curious about how well these findings might also apply to the United States. Toff and Palmer told me they’re interested in investigating the cross-country differences further and plan to do similar fieldwork in the U.S. next summer, pending some grant funding. “My suspicion is that we’re likely to find more similarities here than differences,” said Toff, “but at this point, it’s just speculation.”

“We know there is a higher percentage of news avoiders in the U.S. than in the U.K.,” Palmer said. “We also know that the structural inequalities we talk about in this paper as partial explanations for the gender gap in news avoidance — burdens of household labor and care-taking that fall disproportionately on women — also exist in the U.S.” And, she pointed out, news products, newsrooms, and politics are still dominated by men in the U.S., just as they are in the U.K.

“That’s important, since we argue in this paper that those inequalities in news and politics are part of a socializing process that drives home the idea that neither are for women,” she said. “So there are lots of reasons to expect the dynamics in the U.S. would be similar. But we can’t know for sure until we do the study.”

Photo by Gary Chan.

Laura Hazard Owen is the editor of Nieman Lab. You can reach her via email ( or Twitter DM (@laurahazardowen).
POSTED     Nov. 8, 2018, 10:47 a.m.
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