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From news fatigue to news avoidance

“Our biggest concern is that this will play out unevenly, perpetuating, or even increasing, existing inequalities.”

Managing the daily onslaught of information is among the most urgent challenges of our digital age. Journalists struggle to cope with an overwhelming torrent of potential sources, while their audiences are awash in media content on multiple screens and platforms. It’s Sisyphean on both sides, and everyone has to filter. For a growing number of people, navigating the stresses of daily life involves opting out of following the news, and we predict that trend will continue in 2019.

A Pew survey this spring found nearly seven in ten Americans felt exhausted and “worn out” by the news. Recent research on “news avoidance” has shown similar sentiments around the world. The Reuters Institute’s 2017 Digital News Report found that between six and 57 percent of populations worldwide said they “sometimes” or “often” avoided the news, usually because they did not trust it or found it upsetting. The U.S. came in at 38 percent according to that measure. The population of extreme news avoiders who report consuming news less often than once a month or never at all remains relatively small: an average of 3 percent worldwide and 8 percent in the U.S. But there are reasons to believe all of these numbers may grow in 2019.

The first reason is simply the continued growth of alternatives to news. As Markus Prior argued in an influential book in 2007, many people once tuned in to news because it was one of the few available options on their televisions. Back when there were only three channels and they all showed news at the same time, opting out took more effort than opting in. As the array of media options grew, first with cable television and later the Internet, some people began to consume less news simply because they preferred other fare. While it’s possible the exodus from news for this particular reason has maxed out (or at least changed in the age of social media), there’s little question that alternatives of every stripe continue to proliferate.

The second reason news avoidance will likely grow is the increase in political polarization, particularly “affective polarization” — or growing animosity between opposing political groups — which we’re seeing in many countries, including but not limited to the U.S. A growing body of evidence suggests a link between media distrust and political distrust, especially in places where the population is highly polarized. Meanwhile, one of the most common reasons people say they “sometimes” or “always” avoid news is because it upsets them. These findings in combination suggest that in an environment where affective polarization is increasing, more and more people may avoid the news — even as a small segment of news enthusiasts go online like addicts in search of a fix.

These are hardly encouraging predictions, but our biggest concern is that they will play out unevenly, perpetuating, or even increasing, existing inequalities. As we explain in a recent article (also covered last month by Nieman Lab), more women than men avoid news, and women are more likely to say news upsets them. As we argue in that paper, a gender gap in news avoidance is cause for alarm because, “If women, and lower-income women in particular, are less informed about political affairs than other groups, they may be poorly positioned to advocate for themselves politically.”

News avoidance, news fatigue, and other pathologies of our contemporary digital era are symptoms of larger problems concerning the health of our media systems and democracies. In a world where provocative opinions and shocking images are plentiful but agreed-upon facts are scarce, what is expected of people to be informed citizens? How does one strike the right balance between staying informed and tending to the intellectual and emotional burdens that increasingly accompany it? We suspect, in 2019, these concerns will only get worse before they get better.

Ruth Palmer is an assistant professor of Communication and Digital Media at IE University in Madrid and Segovia, Spain. Benjamin Toff is an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota’s Hubbard School of Journalism & Mass Communication.

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