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July 14, 2020, 2:59 p.m.

What makes people avoid the news? Trust, age, political leanings — but also whether their country’s press is free

“Many people’s news habits quite sensibly depend on the news available to them, and in some cases they may have good reason to view such sources as deficient or untrustworthy.”

Avoiding the news is seemingly becoming more difficult and more common.

It used to be that, if you skipped the morning paper, didn’t tune into news radio in the car, and kept the TV turned to HGTV, you could very easily go a blissful day without any notice of the outside world. Today, news — little tiny subatomic quarks of news, slipping in between memes and gifs and Uncle Ted’s thoughts on Hillary — is everywhere on digital devices, if mostly in deeply fractured form. To avoid the news on a phone, you need to take some affirmative action to shut it down.

And yet that digital omnipresence — your digital Debbie Downer on bad news days — has also driven increasing numbers of people to go cold turkey, at least in spurts.

So what are the factors that distinguish the news avoider from the news consumer? A new paper by Benjamin Toff and Antonis Kalogeropoulos has some answers. Here’s the abstract:

In a fragmented digital media environment where news is increasingly encountered passively in social media feeds and via automated mobile alerts, active avoidance of news, rather than deliberate consumption, takes on outsized importance in shaping what it means to be an informed citizen. This article systematically evaluates the factors that predict news avoidance behaviors, considering both individual- and country-level explanations.

Using a large-scale quantitative, comparative approach, we examine more than 67,000 survey respondents across 35 countries worldwide and find consistent evidence for how factors including demographics, political attitudes, and news genre preferences shape avoidance consistently across information environments.

But we also show how country-level contextual factors, what we call “cultures of news consumption,” influence behaviors beyond that which is explained by respondent-level differences. Specifically, levels of press freedom and political freedom and stability are shown to negatively predict rates of news avoidance.

These findings suggest that many people’s news use practices depend not only on personal characteristics and preferences but quite sensibly on the news available to them, which they may have good reason to view as deficient or untrustworthy, as well as culturally specific norms around its value and utility.

In other words, it’s in part about the people themselves, but also in part about the news environment those people are making judgments in.

Here’s the baseline data, the average level of news avoidance on a scale from 0 (“never” avoiding news) to 3 (“often” avoiding news). The responses are drawn from the annual surveys done for the Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute.

Among the individual elements measured: age, gender, education, political ideology, level of trust in news, social media use, and preferences for “hard” or “soft” news. The country-level elements include various external measures of press freedom, political stability, the relative strength of public broadcasters, and the health of a country’s democracy. After crunching all those numbers, these are the results Toff and Kalogeropoulos came up with for individual characteristics.

For those who need a decoder ring: Each of those charts shows how strong the relationship between each variable was with a person’s likelihood to avoid news. So, for example, the dark line under education is quite flat — meaning that a person’s level of education has almost no impact, on average, on whether they’ll avoid news.

Now compare that to the graph for trust — the line has significantly more slant, downward. So people with higher levels of trust in news are less likely to avoid news (duh). (And the lighter lines on each graph represent each of the countries they surveyed people in — showing even those two relatively clear-cut results can be different in some countries. But in general, there’s a lot of consonance.)

At the individual level, we find that younger people (b = –0.003, p < 0.001) and women (b = 0.098, p < 0.001) systematically avoid news more frequently, although education has no consistent relationship with avoidance, which suggests media resistance cuts across socioeconomics.

News avoidance is, however, predicted by ideology (b = –0.032, p < 0.001), with right-leaning individuals somewhat less likely to avoid news than those on the left. The magnitude of the effect for ideology (d = –0.09) was slightly smaller than that of internal efficacy1 (d = –0.12), which was also negatively associated with news avoidance.

The two variables measuring social media use were significantly related to avoidance but in opposite directions. People who used social media for news were somewhat less likely to actively avoid news (b = –0.095, p < 0.001), although people who relied on social media as their main source of news were significantly more likely to say they were actively avoiding news (b = 0.150, p < 0.001). The most predictive individual-level variables were those pertaining to perceptions about available media choices. Trust in news was inversely related to avoidance (b = –0.127, p < 0.001), whereas soft news preferences, which likely capture political interest as well, were positively associated with news avoidance (b = 0.137, p < 0.001). The marginal effects of these two variables were –0.26 and 0.25, respectively, larger than any other individual-level factor.

What about the national variables? Freer people tend to avoid the news less — perhaps because they feel that they might have more of a chance to influence the country’s direction. The study found that, in countries with higher levels of press freedom, political freedom, and governmental stability, people tend to be more willing to engage with the news. Countries where public broadcasters or newspapers are more prominent in the media environment also tend to avoid news less, “but only at borderline levels of statistical significance.”

I think you can think of news avoidance here as having dual purposes. At the individual level, avoiding news serves as an expression of individual characteristics — filtered through the lens of socialized identity, sure, but still very much about you and your preferences.

At the national level, though, it also serves as a kind of political immune system. If your country is less free — if the news options you have available are constrained, dominated by the state, or unreflective of reality — avoiding news is like the antibodies your body sends to drive out an attacker and maintain a balance of health. It’s a defense.

These findings should prompt a reconsideration of what is captured by conventional measures of news preferences and reported audience behaviors when citizens situated in different cultures of news consumption may be faced with fundamentally different media choices.

Taken together, these results suggest that while demographic characteristics, resources, and political attitudes may shape media habits in similar ways within countries, many people’s news habits quite sensibly depend on the news available to them, and in some cases they may have good reason to view such sources as deficient or untrustworthy.

  1. “Composite scale (from 2 to 10) combining responses to ‘I feel that I have a pretty good understanding of the important political issues facing our country’ and ‘I consider myself well-qualified to participate in politics'” []
POSTED     July 14, 2020, 2:59 p.m.
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