Nieman Foundation at Harvard
HOME
          
LATEST STORY
Here’s what ProPublica learned about managing a collaboration across hundreds of news organizations
ABOUT                    SUBSCRIBE
June 17, 2019, 9:50 a.m.

Why do some people avoid news? Because they don’t trust us — or because they don’t think we add value to their lives?

What if distrust is a smaller problem than the way news consumption leaves readers stressed, anxious, depressed, afraid, disempowered, and exhausted?

The modern digitally connected human (Homo smartphonicus, identifiable by its trademark slumped shoulders and bleary eyes) has access to more news and information than any other human in history, whenever they want it, most of it free, all of it in their pocket.

But it’s not only news that they have more access to — it’s everything, from Clash of Clans to Keanu memes to old friends’ photos to Ariana Grande songs to TikTok. Those things, if administered correctly, serve as entertainment and tend to make their consumers happy. News, you may have noticed, isn’t that great at generating happiness these days. So lots of people are happy to stick to Keanu and avoid Trump/Iran/Putin/climate change/mass shootings/Brexit/racism entirely.

That phenomenon — improved technology increases access to news, but also makes it easier to avoid it — is fairly well established by now, and I’ve been watching with interest a new flowering of research into what the academic literature calls “news avoidance” the past few years. People like me — and I suspect you, dear reader of Nieman Lab — love consuming news and relish the Internet’s capacity to leave us awash in headlines all day. But we’re weirdos, and lots of normals embrace the Internet’s ability to let them check out of news altogether.

The latest edition of the Digital News Report that came out last week included some data on news avoidance. In 2017, 29 percent of those surveyed worldwide said they “often or sometimes avoid the news,” including 38 percent in the United States and 24 percent in the U.K. By 2019, those numbers had increased to 32 percent worldwide (+3), 41 percent in the U.S. (+3), and 35 percent in the U.K. (+11). (Even the Japanese — the world’s most devoted news consumers — saw news avoidance increase from 6 to 11 percent.)

Why do people avoid news? In the 2017 data, the leading causes for Americans were “It can have a negative effect on my mood” (57 percent) and “I can’t rely on news to be true” (35 percent).

I give you all that quantitative data as prologue to some qualitative data on the same subject. LinkedIn senior editor-at-large Isabelle Roughol wrote a short piece Saturday summarizing this year’s Digital News Report, highlighted the news avoidance data in the headline, and asked readers about their own experience with news avoidance. And people left comments — comments that I think are instructive in how people who aren’t journalists view the news as a chore, increasingly one that can be skipped. One comments section is obviously not a scientific sample, but these are people who would probably be prime targets for a news organization wanting to expand its audience — and they’re not buying.

Here are a few of their comments. (I’ve cleaned up some typos and wording.)

I dare you to look through the titles on the Metro newspaper. I guarantee every page and headline has a negative word embedded in it. Mainstream news is a waste of time and energy — so yes, I avoid the news.

Energetically, the news is salacious and draining, so I protect myself from the fear factory as much as possible.

I dip in every now and then but leave it to others to update me if it’s necessary.

I have cut down on news consumption because, through extensive self-exploration and reflection, I realized it had a major negative impact on my general mood and overall mental health. I still haven’t found a way that works. The big news usually has a way of finding me.

Yes, even to the point of deleting news stories about whatever Trump is doing or not doing. Why? Because I have no control and there is nothing I can do except vote next year — which I really am looking forward to, voting him out of office and putting a woman president in there.

I stopped reading newspapers or watching the news when I realized that facts don’t matter anymore. Pressing a political or commercial interest is all they’re good for, and that isn’t healthy.

I quit news 10 years ago because I felt frustrated with all the bad things happening around me and realized that I couldn’t do anything about it except feel helpless. Prior to that, I used to avidly read newspapers, at least one hour a day.

Scan it often, but delve sparingly.

I avoid watching the news as much as possible, but my roommates are infatuated with the news. So I get a glimpse of it every once in a while — but I just leave or ask if I can watch something else.

Yep. Guilty. Unneeded stress.

No one should ever feel helpless to change events.

There is never anything positive in it. It’s always negative, and I’m not a negative person — I hate hearing or reading a paper that constantly has nothing but bad reports in it.

Not just negative, but also with no clear way of doing anything about it.

News organizations have become dependent on sensationalism and shocking news. While I agree that we need to shed light on what is terrible and the atrocities in the world, balance those with what is right in this world. If bad news is reported, tell us what’s being done to change it, what can we do to help. My question to you is why would I waste my energy and psychological wellbeing looking at grotesque pictures or reading depressing draining news? I would much rather see a magazine full of ads and no news.

I keep up with things that are relevant to my work, but I stopped watching local news about accidents, shootings, etc. a long time ago.

It’s more about being strategic with your exposure. You can stay current with the news without listening to many different reports on the same event or continual updates. Also, taking a break from it now and again is important. One small thing I do is subscribe to the Good News Network for a few uplifting stories every day.

[Posted by a journalist] I obviously don’t avoid the news, but I can understand why some people would be incredibly passive consumers. In my previous job, I spent most of the workday in front of five screens — two to work on, one to monitor Twitter, one to monitor the Reuters newswires and world markets, and one to watch four of the major cable networks at once. When I transitioned to my new role, I could feel my stress levels fall dramatically. Obviously, that’s an extreme case, but I can see why non-journalists would want to reduce their exposure in even small amounts. My suggestion is to at least read the morning newspaper or spend 20 minutes reading its website.

Most alternative health practitioners will advise digital detoxes but also detaching from all things stressful, so it’s very beneficial to us to switch it off and detach. The question of how much to believe is another issue — it’s impossible to know what is the truth.

I haven’t read a newspaper in years. It was all too depressing, and I have enough to read.

I haven’t read a newspaper in years! I silence the radio when it comes on in the car and never have it on at home! My son relayed this to his teacher when they got a homework assignment to discuss current news topics and she told him I was a very irresponsible parent. Not sorry! I just don’t have the time or mental capacity for the negativity that the news spoon-feeds everyone. There is never anything positive reported!

Why waste your energy and fill your mind with toxicity and untrue BS? Better to focus on good things. If you believe in the law of attraction, watching, listening, or reading the news means you will bring more of the same negativity, and no surprises, that is exactly what we have in the world, both locally and internationally.

Whenever we’re consciously, and not compulsively, living our lives, we stop being distracted by all that never-ending news on a loop. When we have mental clarity, we know what’s really important to us and let go of all the rest. It’s about learning not to let too much external noise determine who we are. So yes, turning off the white noise helps us think clearly from the inside out. Staying “switched on” by tuning out.

When I went into burnout some time ago, the first bit of medical advice I received was: “Stop looking at news and current affairs.” Cutting out electronic and print media removes the often hyped sensationalism, the mental aggravation, the stress of worrying about the impossible to change. In that state, learning that 50 women were massacred in Syria, two people were killed in a road accident in another state, or some jerk punched and killed a guy and got off because he has “potential” in some sport are things you don’t need to think about. Let the world worry about itself. Worrying about yourself is of better value.

I simply cannot imagine consuming political or crime news ever again. I stopped about ten years ago and only read business news on platforms I trust, like LinkedIn. Unfortunately, our brains are drawn to shocking news stories (our survival instincts make us fearful), so it’s not an easy addiction to quit — but it’s essential if you value peace of mind.

I never listen to the news. If there’s something important you tend to hear it. 99.99% of “news” is either gossip, celebrity nonsense, or simply doesn’t affect me — and if it does, for the most part, I can’t do anything about it. I prefer to focus on things that I can do something about.

News are no longer informative — they are merely pulpits for factionism, bigotry, and all kinds of -isms. Mental health is at risk if exposed to that toxicity for too long or too frequently.

I have resolved to read and watch but never comment about anything controversial on social media especially. It takes tremendous discipline, but my stress levels have fallen precipitously!

Wow. A couple of thoughts:

  • The solutions journalism people should be sending this article to all potential funders, because the problem they’re trying to address shows up crystal clear here: News about big problems is depressing if I’m not presented with potential solutions. Regular news consumption can engender a kind of learned helplessness that make clear the appeal of ideologically slanted news — which offers up a clear cast of good guys and bad guys with no moral gray — and just avoiding news entirely.
  • These comments are also excellent evidence of the “If the news is that important, it will find me” phenomenon. “I leave it to others to update me if it’s necessary”; “The big news usually has a way of finding me”; “If there’s something important you tend to hear it” — these are people who trust that the sliver of news that’s of use to them will wind its way through social media, word of mouth, or some other distribution vector. In many cases, they may be right! And when they’re not, they probably won’t hear about it.
  • The No. 1 journalism buzzword of the post-Trump era has probably been “trust.” It makes sense, given that we get called “fake news” every five minutes on Twitter, and a few of these commenters point to “media agendas” and related issues. But is it possible we’ve been overestimating the role of trust in why more people aren’t reading, watching, or listening to our stories? Remember, “It can have a negative effect on my mood” is consistently a bigger factor in why people avoid news than “I can’t rely on news to be true.”

    By emphasizing the nihilistic fringe that comes at us on Twitter — the folks who say we’re all liars and fabulists — I worry that we’re missing the larger group that just doesn’t like the meal we’ve been serving. The ones who find the news we produce disempowering, stress-inducing, and, frankly, not worth the time and effort. What’s the news product that fixes that problem? I doubt it’s listing your corrections policy in your website footer.

News consumption used to be about daily habits — reading the paper every morning, watching the 6 o’clock news every night. Now it seeps into our days as much or as little as we want it to. Civically useful journalism is competing with every other form of media, content, or diversion on your phone. In that context, many people decide, as rational economic actors, they’re better off without us. How can we convince them otherwise?

POSTED     June 17, 2019, 9:50 a.m.
SHARE THIS STORY
   
Show comments  
Show tags
 
Join the 50,000 who get the freshest future-of-journalism news in our daily email.
Here’s what ProPublica learned about managing a collaboration across hundreds of news organizations
“Since the project began in 2017, we received more than 6,000 submissions, gathered hundreds of public records on hate crimes, and published more than 230 stories.”
People who are given correct information still misremember it to fit their own beliefs
Plus: “There is no bygone era of a well-informed, attentive public. What we have had in lieu of a well-informed citizenry is what might be termed a ‘load-bearing’ myth — the myth of the attentive public.”
This is how Report for America ended up funding a community Wikipedia editor (!) at a library (!!)
“Do something different and do it together.”