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Aug. 21, 2020, 2:18 p.m.

What can “folk theories of journalism” tell us about why some people don’t trust us?

“Many of our interviewees had little direct experience with news, yet they ‘knew’ they could not trust it, or found it boring, or that it was part of a shady system intended to hide important matters from them.”

I love a good folk theory.

A folk theory is “a belief based on received wisdom, rather than concrete evidence, knowledge, or facts.” It’s a sibling to “conventional wisdom,” a cousin to “old wives’ tale,” and a next-door neighbor to “common sense.” A folk theory is, in essence, the average person’s perception of how a complicated system operates — what makes intuitive sense to them as a somewhat-removed observer.

There are folk theories of consciousness, of mind, of society, of emotions, of cyber-social systems, of social change, of racism, of behavior, of physics, of business cycles, nondual enlightenment — there’s even a folk theory of meetings. A folk theory is often contrasted with a (wonderfully named) theory theory.

My personal favorite is the folk theory of democracy, advanced by Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels in their 2016 book Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government (which I highly recommend). That one could be summed up as “the version of democracy you were taught in civics class in high school”:

In the conventional view, democracy begins with the voters. Ordinary people have preferences about what their government should do. They choose leaders who will do those things, or they enact their preferences directly in referendums. In either case, what the majority wants become government policy…

This way of thinking about democracy has passed into everyday wisdom, not just in the United States but in a great many other countries around the globe. It constitutes a kind of “folk theory” of democracy, a set of accessible, appealing ideas assuring people that they live under an ethically defensible form of government that has their interests at heart.

Unfortunately, while the folk theory of democracy has flourished as an ideal, its credibility has been severely undercut by a growing body of scientific evidence presenting a different and considerably darker view of democratic politics. That evidence demonstrates that the great majority of citizens pay little attention to politics. At election time, they are swayed by how they feel about “the nature of the times,” especially the current state of the economy, and by political loyalties typically acquired in childhood.

These loyalties, not the facts of political life and government policy, are the primary drivers of political behavior. Election outcomes turn out to be largely random events from the viewpoint of contemporary democratic theory. That is, elections are well determined by powerful forces, but those forces are not the ones that current theories of democracy believe should determine how elections come out.

I find Achen and Bartels persuasive (which for me raises big questions about how reporters and news organizations can be maximally useful to a democracy), though there’s a lively debate about their views. But it’s pretty much undeniable that there’s a major gap between the folk theory of democracy and its reality.

So, after that windup…what’s the folk theory of journalism?

That’s the subject of this new paper just published in the journal Journalism Studies. It’s by friends-of-Nieman-Lab Ruth Palmer, Benjamin Toff, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, and it tries to get at how folk theories of journalism align (or, more often, don’t) with how journalists and media scholars view our work.

And it’s a mirror image of Achen and Bartels’ dueling visions of democracy. There, the folk theory is the idealistic one and it’s the practitioners in the field who are the cynics. Here, it’s the journalists who cling to idealism and the general public that’s more likely to see something nefarious at work.

The paper’s abstract:

The idealized view of the press as an institution that operates independently from private and political interests and tries to hold power to account is central to many journalists’ self-conception and extensive academic scholarship on news. Yet surveys find significant numbers of citizens reject such views about the role of news in society.

This article draws on in-depth interviews with a strategic sample of 83 news avoiders in Spain and the UK to investigate “folk theories” about the relationship between news and politics. Instead of believing in the watchdog ideal, many saw the news media as, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, actively complicit with a distant and self-serving political and economic establishment. Many saw the news not as bringing important subjects to light, but as actively covering them up.

The difference between professional and scholarly theories that stress the watchdog role on the one hand, and folk theories where this notion is completely absent on the other, highlights the specific cultural challenge journalism faces today. Cynicism about the role of news in society poses a problem that transcends the specific economic, political, and technological challenges that currently preoccupy many journalism professionals and institutions.

So it’s worth noting that this is looking at news avoiders, a group Palmer and Toff have been interested in for some time. Here, “news avoiders” are defined as people who say that they access news less than once a month. (You, Nieman Lab reader, are not a news avoider, even if you took Twitter off your phone.) We’re talking about the bottom 3 percent in Spain and the bottom 8 percent of the U.K. in terms of news consumption.

People avoid news for all sorts of reasons — some say it makes them feel sad, some have no interest in politics, and some just don’t see it as a productive or enjoyable use of their time.

…news avoiders offer stark evidence of something that is always true of folk theories of journalism, but that is easy to forget: peoples’ ideas and attitudes about the news media are shaped not only by exposure to news products, but also by other influences, including second-hand information, elite rhetoric, and immersion in a particular climate of opinion about the press.

Those interviewed in this study often articulated well-defined attitudes about news despite rarely or never having consumed it regularly. While it may be tempting to dismiss their ideas about journalism as unfounded, it is still essential to understand them, because folk theories shape how people engage with news irrespective of whether or not journalists and scholars consider those theories well-founded.

Let’s run through some of those theories.

Politics is awful and politicians are awful, so why in the world should I read news about it?

If we apply a broad definition of politics to include the politics of everyday life, much of what we discussed in the interviews could be considered political — for example, many interviewees expressed strong views on issues such as crime, terrorism, immigration, or unemployment, and some were quite active in their communities. But even civically engaged interviewees themselves usually did not think of their opinions or actions as political…

…most interviewees reserved the terms “politics” and “political” to describe what professional politicians do, usually at the national level, and seemingly far from daily life…Many associated politics with bickering among political professionals, or, especially in Spain, what they described as political ineptitude and corruption.

Given that interviewees thought of politics in that way, it is perhaps unsurprising that nearly all of them said they were uninterested in politics, expressing an aversion that ranged from indifference to emphatic cynicism. The vast majority did not identify with any political party. Some had simply never paid much attention to politics, while others self-described as apolitical, or said they were fed up with the whole system, offering comments like Spaniard Manuel’s concise, “All the parties are the same shit with different names.”

In theory, people with an aversion to politics could value journalism for holding power to account even more than political enthusiasts, but we found no evidence of that. The lack of interest and even disdain many felt for politics seemed to bleed into their feelings about news and vice versa. In fact, far from valuing news because of its political coverage, interviewees often said that they avoided news in part because it covered politics, offering observations like Ryan’s (UK) blunt, “I hate politics. It’s probably one of the reasons I don’t read the news, to be honest.”

For these people who have negative feelings about their nation’s politics, they associate news about politics with anger, sadness, or feeling emotionally drained. News and politics merges in their mind into one giant ouroboros of negativity. (One interviewee: “I don’t really know a journalist. In my head, I’m going journalist, politician, I don’t know.”)

I can’t do anything to make politics better, so why bother reading about it?

This is the concept political scientists call political efficacy — the belief that your government is responsive and that your political actions can have an impact.

…even the few participants who said they knew politics could ultimately affect them felt they could not affect politics, so what was the point in following political news? Many made observations similar to Emily’s (UK) that, when it came to politics, “Nobody can actually change it. Because at the end of the day, us little people, it doesn’t count what us little people think. It’s whatever the government decides to do. That’s the important thing”…

While some interviewees seemed resigned to feeling they could do little to influence politics, others found it frustrating — almost as though political news coverage were rubbing their noses in issues over which they had no control. Many saw avoiding political news as part of a larger strategy for managing their emotions. Rather than engage with news that would leave them feeling sad about the state of the world and frustrated about their own impotence to change it, they chose to conserve their emotional energy to focus on their own problems.

Trashy journalists just want to sell papers/boost ratings/generate clicks/make a buck, and they’ll write whatever they think will do it.

Especially in the U.K. interviews, some news avoiders didn’t jump to politics when describing the news they were skipping. They instead thought of British tabloids, “which they associated with grisly crime news, sports, and celebrity gossip”:

With this as their default idea of what news was like, it is perhaps unsurprising that English news avoiders consistently complained that news was too sensationalistic and negative, which they saw as a symptom of a profit-hungry press. As they explained, news outlets were commercial enterprises, so they could not be trusted to present the unvarnished truth — they twisted and exaggerated as a matter of course, to “sell stories”…

This general impression of news coverage as massaged and sensationalized to maximize profit encompassed not only celebrity and crime news, but also political news on the occasion it came up in the discussion. Consistent with their tendency to think of journalism and politics as overlapping spheres, interviewees described politicians, too, as profit-seekers. For example, [interviewee] Amelia said she did not understand what the different political parties stood for, but that she assumed, “they all kind of want to do the same thing, which is get rich.”

Some shifted from cynical to conspiratorial, placing the media as colluders in a system of “dark forces [who] were deliberately hiding or twisting information to keep citizens ignorant or distracted from what powerful people were really doing.” (Like, you know, fall the pedophile cannibalism.)

News is all just political spin for whatever party the reporter or the outlet likes.

This was a more strongly held view in the researchers’ Spanish interviews. “What I do see is that the journalism is there but it’s manipulated,” said Miguel. “I mean, you watch a news broadcast on Channel One, for example, and they tell you one thing, and later you watch Telecinco, and they give it a different focus. Or if you read El Mundo it’s one thing, and if you read El Pais it’s another.” Or here’s Sofia: “All the news channels and the newspapers show information in their favor, according to their politics or their way of thinking, so in the end you’ll never get a ‘virgin’ piece of news. They can manipulate it however they want.”

(This is also a common view for Americans who think specifically of the cable news networks when they think about “news.”)

“I think the media covers up a lot of things — that because of ideology or whatever they cover up a lot of things so maybe you only get half the information, you never get all the information,” Jose said. “I think they keep some things for their own benefit, because the government doesn’t want it known or different people don’t want it known.”

Now, if you’re a stubborn idealist like me about the importance of good journalism, you probably want to scream at these people. (“Money-hungry profit-seekers don’t cover night cops in Akron, Amelia.”) You probably want to bring up all the great things that high-quality reporting has accomplished in the world — the corruption exposed, the wrongdoers arrested, the downtrodden lifted up, the secrets revealed. But these folks weren’t really having it:

On the rare occasions when interviews turned to something akin to watchdog journalism, participants were dismissive, usually citing it as another example of the kind of news they found tedious and overly negative. Adam conceded that reporting about politicians’ finances was “an important subject,” but added that “I’m sick of hearing about it, cause it’s been dragging on so long”…Jessica gave stories about politicians using government money to buy swimming pools as an example of the unnecessary, bleak news she’d like to see less of, explaining that it “put the attention on all the wrong people, rather than highlighting all the good in the world.”

Researchers showed a number of their U.K. interviewees a BBC article on a “fairly typical watchdog topic,” a look at the finances of then-Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn. Their responses didn’t seem to give reporters any credit for their work.

“I just look at it, and I just think to myself, I should be interested, because it’s telling me that he’s not paying enough tax. But then, I feel, deep down, whoever is writing it, are they trying to create a witch hunt against him? Why is it being written? Why is it being exposed?…I question why somebody has written that, what’s the ulterior motive to somebody writing something like that.”

Not only did interviewees appear not to value the BBC’s close scrutiny of a politician’s finances; if anything, some, like Nicole, saw it as inappropriate for a news outlet to pursue this kind of story. They seemed more suspicious of the news organization’s motives than of the politician’s. Perhaps their suspicion stemmed partly from an inclination to defend the Labour leader, but it was consistent with a broader belief, expressed throughout the interviews, that news organizations were primarily motivated by their own interests, not public service.

Remember: These news avoiders are really on the extreme fringe when it comes to news consumption; they’re not anywhere close to a perfect sample of the broader public. But I imagine every journalist has seem some version of these “folk theories” in their readers, friends, or family. Most journalists I know hold the idea of service to the public at the center of their identity — but large swaths of our audience see us very differently. (If you’ve been around a comments section on the internet in the past two decades, this likely isn’t news.)

A basic recognition that news operates as a separate sphere from political power is a pre- condition for the credibility of the press’s watchdog role. We did not find that interviewees believed that separation existed. They did not subscribe to the watchdog ideal or believe that news media actually held power to account on behalf of the public.

Instead, they offered up their own alternative folk theories, which described journalism in very different terms: They saw journalism and politics as embroiled in a single system of distant elites out mainly to serve their own interests. They saw news coverage about politics as relentlessly negative and pointless, with little connection to their lives. Rather than seeing news about political officials as serving the public interest, most viewed such coverage cynically, as primarily motivated by a single-minded pursuit of profit, as in the UK, or partisan political gain, as in Spain. Ultimately, they felt more disempowered by news than empowered by it to make any meaningful intervention in politics.

Is there anything we can do about it? Palmer, Toff, and Nielsen note that many of these folk theories — as folk theories tend to be — are based less on first-person experiences with news than on a sort of collective wisdom (“wisdom”), which can limit the effectiveness of any potential remedies:

Many of our interviewees had little direct experience with news, yet they “knew” they could not trust it, or found it boring, or that it was part of a shady system intended to hide important matters from them.

Our interest here is not whether these alternative folk theories are accurate or not. In terms of their consequences it frankly does not matter whether they are true or how they were formed. Folk theories provide toolkits for making sense of the world and strategies for acting in it.

If people see journalism as part of a powerful establishment rather than as independently holding that establishment to account, they will engage with news accordingly. That is true whether such beliefs are primarily shaped by firsthand experience, hearsay, political rhetoric, or immersion in a negative climate of opinion about the press — or whether scholars and journalists think their beliefs are well-founded or not…

No doubt some journalists and journalisms should not be trusted and are not, in practice, watchdogs. However, whether or not they are deserved, watchdog-skeptical attitudes can be understood as a point of weakness in the news media’s relationship to the general public. A news media that the public perceives as less trustworthy than politicians themselves, or in the same untrustworthy camp, is vulnerable to accusations by populist figures who lump the news media into a group with political and economic elites and claim for themselves the role of public defender. Indeed, our findings suggest that news avoiders could be particularly receptive to such appeals, especially if they are made through alternative media channels. Although they did not yet embrace populist movements, news avoiders we interviewed already more or less embraced that populist view of the news media.

Have a good weekend!

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     Aug. 21, 2020, 2:18 p.m.
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