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It’s time to understand the un-audience

“In addition to asking ‘why do people consume news?’ we need to ask (without judgment) ‘why don’t people consume news?'”

Not everyone consumes news (gasp!). Despite living in a media age with near constant streams of news coming from multiple sources and devices, there’s a segment of the population that consumes little to no news.

Now, I should preface this prediction by saying I have a very open notion of what constitutes “news” — I’m sure my definition would make many people cringe and would not be their own. And, yet, even with a more flexible measurement of news, there are still people anchoring the very low end of the news consumption continuum.

My prediction for 2019: The time has come to better understand the segment of people who are not the news audience, who are the news un-audience. Several years ago, I estimated that about 20 percent of the U.S. adults were what I described as “News Avoiders.” More recently, I found the habit of news avoidance predates adulthood, with 50 percent of U.S. teenagers (ages 12 to 17) reporting very low exposure to any type of news.

Why is studying the news un-audience important? One answer is that news organizations need news audiences. If half of U.S. teenagers are News Avoiders, and that doesn’t change when they reach adulthood, it’s problematic for the long-term survival of the news industry. In more immediate terms, News Avoiders reflect a potential audience-growth strategy for select news organizations.

A second answer is that democracy needs news consumers. News avoidance is related to several negative democratic outcomes. In both studies I mentioned, it was News Avoiders who exhibited the lowest levels of participation across a variety of political and community-based activities. It was their voices, their concerns, and their help that was largely absent. For all the important differences in the types of news that people do consume, the fact remains that being a news consumer is related to civic and political participation.

So here we are. How to better understand the un-audience? It requires reframing the question. In addition to asking “why do people consume news?” we need to ask (without judgment) “why don’t people consume news?” These are different questions that yield different insights. What drives people toward news is not the same as what drives them away. Understanding the un-audience requires going beyond demographics. For example, what does it mean for education level to play a role in unequal news consumption? What is education a proxy for, really? Is it capturing the struggle to understand the language of news, the types of jobs people have (and thus the relevance and time for news consumption), or maybe the different sharing networks people are embedded in?

The un-audience can be tricky to understand, especially for those of us who regularly consume news and work in news-related fields. I see the puzzled look on many of my (journalism) students’ faces when I ask them why people don’t consume news — it’s difficult for them to imagine these people even exist. It’s a much easier task to brainstorm the many reasons people consume news. This is why studying the un-audience for news is so important. If the goal of audience insight is to understand the psychology of news consumption so that we can be more effective storytellers, innovators, and designers, then this insight needs to also include the psychology of news avoidance.

I will end this prediction with one potential jumping off point. Through my own research, I have found one belief to be a particularly powerful explanation of news avoidance. It’s the belief that “news is not made for someone like me.”

In 2019, let’s see if we can change that.

Stephanie Edgerly is an associate professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications.

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