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Aug. 24, 2021, 12:02 p.m.

How the pandemic (sort of) changed the way we consume news

Plus: What makes journalism truly “valuable” for people, news fatigue amid repetition, and how the movement of contributors reveals political polarization in the media.

Editor’s note: Longtime Nieman Lab readers know the bylines of Mark Coddington and Seth Lewis. Mark wrote the weekly This Week in Review column for us from 2010 to 2014; Seth’s written for us off and on since 2010. Together they’ve launched a new monthly newsletter on recent academic research around journalism. It’s called RQ1 and we’re happy to bring each issue to you here at Nieman Lab.

Covid-19 news and a new perspective on news avoidance

From the moment the pandemic hit in full force in March 2020, it was clear that its seemingly all-encompassing magnitude was having a seismic impact on many people’s news consumption habits. Conversations on and offline routinely included discussions of how we were either unplugging from the news or being sucked in more deeply than ever. (Or both!) We even began using a new word — doomscrolling — to capture the mesmerizing continual intake of fear- and despair-inducing news on our devices.

The pandemic bores on, but the implications of that initial shift in news consumption remain cloudy. How do we fit what happened to news consumption over the past year and a half into what we’ve known about it for the past several decades? And will the changes in our news habits during those overwhelming first few months have any long-term ramifications?

Two studies published this summer look at exactly those questions. Both studies used remarkably similar methods — open-ended qualitative questionnaires conducted early in the pandemic — to study news consumption patterns during the pandemic. In the first, Dutch scholars Marcel Broersma and Joëlle Swart were interested in the formation of news habits. We know a lot from prior research about how habits shape news consumption, but much less about how they’re formed or changed in the first place.

Broersma and Swart wanted to find out whether a major disruption to everyday life could change news habits or form new ones, and what factors could help determine whether that happened. They used an open-ended questionnaire of 1,293 Dutch news users during April and May 2020, then conducted 22 follow-up interviews later that summer and fall.

They found five groups of users based on their responses to the pandemic. Two reduced news consumption — stable news avoiders and followers turned avoiders — with the latter initially using more news, then avoiding it based on the emotional weight and feeling of helplessness it produced. Two increased news consumption — frequent news users and news junkies — adding new routines that lasted at least a couple of months. (One group, the stable news users, didn’t change its habits.)

So, what determined which people ended up in each group? There were several interconnected factors, led by the degree to which the pandemic affected their everyday routines. That is, those for whom the pandemic continued to obtrusively affect their daily lives were more likely to develop new, increased news habits. Social contexts had an effect as well: Those whose friends and family were discussing the pandemic more often were more likely to stick with new news habits.

Emotions played a major role, too, but more ambiguously. Pandemic-induced anxiety led to both less and more news consumption in different cases, and emotional investment in the news more generally led to new habits. Ultimately, people needed more than just a disruptive event to change their news habits; they needed consistent practical and emotional rewards from consuming Covid-related information to give it staying power as a routine.

Beyond this broad overview of changes in news habits, a second study, by Norwegian scholars Brita Ytre-Arne and Hallvard Moe, dug into patterns of news avoidance prompted by the pandemic and its interplay with news consumption. Ytre-Arne and Moe gave an open-ended questionnaire to 550 Norwegian news users in March and April 2020, looking particularly at their strategies for managing the flood of pandemic news.

Ytre-Arne and Moe found an overall pattern that resembled Broersma and Swart’s followers turned avoiders — a brief period of intensified monitoring of Covid-19 news that simply couldn’t be sustained, prompting both information overload and emotional drain.

Ytre-Arne and Moe were most interested in what people did as they came to terms with the unsustainability of their new news consumption habits. They began to pull away from news, but did so strategically, combining avoidance with periods of more intensive news consumption. Some set time-based parameters for avoidance — avoiding the news except for certain times each day — and others set content-based parameters, limiting themselves to government press conferences or the like.

There’s lots more to both these papers (including our first academic definition of doomscrolling in the latter), but the sharpest takeaway may be Ytre-Arne and Moe’s conclusion regarding news avoidance. They challenge the notion that news avoidance is necessarily problematic, arguing that in this case (and likely others), it’s a thoughtful, strategic part of news consumption more broadly, not its irresponsible or anti-democratic opposite.

“We are all, at times, news avoiders,” they conclude. So it’s time to understand this type of situational news avoidance “as meaningful and situated, as inherently human rather than inherently problematic.”

(On a related note regarding news consumption during the pandemic: Seth and co-author Jacob L. Nelson published this summer an article in New Media & Society — “Only ‘sheep’ trust journalists? How citizens’ self-perceptions shape their approach to news” — that explored how U.S. news consumers made sense of news during April-May 2020. Through interviews with a broad cross-section of 60 American news consumers, they found that people “believe journalism generally suffers from issues of bias, but that they are savvy and independent-minded enough to see through those biases to find the truth.” This inflated sense of confidence can lead people to do their own fact-checking — because they have such little trust in journalists — even if such efforts lead them worse off informationally in some cases. Ultimately, the authors concluded that “people’s approach to and trust in news is as dependent on what they bring to the news as it is on what news brings to them.”)

Research roundup

“What is valuable journalism? Three key experiences and their challenges for journalism scholars and practitioners.” By Irene Costera Meijer, in Digital Journalism.

At a time when news organizations increasingly rely on memberships, donations, subscriptions, and other forms of audience-driven engagement to survive, a critical question looms: What is it about news that is truly valuable — that is worth paying for in time, attention, or both?

There is, perhaps, no better scholar to address that question than Irene Costera Meijer, who has done as much as anyone in the field to shape and chronicle the ongoing “audience turn” in journalism studies and whose research helps us better understand the subtle nature of news experience — as opposed to a counting-based approach to measuring news consumption alone.

In this article, Meijer develops the concept of Valuable Journalism by conducting what she describes as a meta-analysis of more than 20 audience-focused research projects since 2005, which includes input from more than 3,000 respondents. By emphasizing what people experience in news as truly meaningful and valuable — rather than what is recognized as “important” or “quality” or “popular” — Meijer shows how Valuable Journalism can be manifest in three key ways: learning something new, gaining recognition, and enhancing mutual understanding.

What does this mean for journalists? Meijer outlines how reporters and editors, in seeking to facilitate more valuable experiences for readers and viewers, might reflect on what she classifies as “six virtues of audience attentiveness”: accuracy, sincerity, listening, hospitality, being a good friend, and keeping a proper distance.

“Fatigued by ongoing news issues? How repeated exposure to the same news issue affects the audience.” By Gwendolin Gurr and Julia Metag, in Mass Communication and Society.

Keeping with the theme of how audiences experience news — and avoid it as a coping mechanism in some cases — this study considers the impact of extensive news coverage on a particular issue over a prolonged period. What happens when people are exposed to a single, seemingly never-ending news topic for weeks, months, or years?

The authors used a triangulation of methods — involving having people record their feelings in diaries as well as interviews with the same people — to explore how Swiss news consumers experienced the ceaseless coverage of Brexit in 2019. The results reveal just how maddening the experience of Brexit drama was for many news consumers (and I’m sure many of us can relate): the redundancy of the coverage led to feelings of annoyance, anger, and boredom that led to negative evaluations of the news media (for lacking depth or novelty, for its sensationalized quality, etc.). These reactions, in turn, were associated with behaviors such as news avoidance.

The authors conclude that such news fatigue from overly repetitive coverage can have downstream consequences on political engagement, such as what people know about politics and how willing they are to trust the press.

“Writer movements between news outlets reflect political polarization in media.” By Nick Hagar, Johannes Wachs, and Emőke-Ágnes Horvát, in New Media & Society.

The question of political polarization in digital news consumption has long been a hot-button question surrounding so-called filter bubbles and how to “burst” them by tweaking algorithms, developing improved recommendation systems, or encouraging different user behavior (even as evidence, we should point out, strongly indicates that social media filter bubbles aren’t really so concerning as conventional wisdom would suggest). This study takes an intriguing twist by sidestepping questions of media consumption or distribution and instead focusing on production: namely, “structural production forces driving partisan leanings.”

Analyzing thousands of stories from 13 digital news outlets (some left-leaning, others right-leaning, etc.), the authors track the “movement patterns” of contributors (journalists, freelancers, and political actors who wrote the stories) as well as the nature of the content they produce. “By constructing a cross-outlet network purely based on contributor movement patterns,” they write, “we show a clear partisan divide within the digital news ecosystem.” Even for journalists who ostensibly adhere to professional codes of impartiality, they often stay true to the partisan bounds of the organizations they are writing for, the authors find.

Why does this occur? “Somewhere within the editorial process of pitching, selecting contributors, assigning stories, and producing news coverage,” the authors suggest, “a dynamic arises that structurally prefers contributors whose publishing histories ideologically align with a publication’s own. This may arise from institutional policies, from individual editors’ preferences, or from the pitching process of individual contributors.”

Among other intriguing findings: much like Yochai Benkler and colleagues discovered, the authors here encountered a similar network structure of news media — “a loosely connected group of left- or center-leaning outlets, a dense core of right-leaning outlets, and a very little activity between.” And, they found that topics less related to politics were more common for contributors who moved between various clusters, which might suggest that more politically neutral topics could be a more effective entry point for eventually facilitating more cross-cutting political exposure.

“Independent or a political pawn? How recipients perceive influences on journalistic work compared to journalists and what explains their perceptions.” By Magdalena Obermaier, Nina Steindl, & Nayla Fawzi, in Journalism.

Journalists in most Western democracies believe they are largely autonomous; in their view, there are rather few political or economic agendas shaping their coverage. But do audiences see it the same way? There is evidence to suggest that many readers and viewers actually assume the reverse: that journalism is driven by political interests or a desire to make money. In such a situation, it’s little wonder trust in media is so low.

This study evaluated the degree to which audience members perceive influences on what journalists do, how those attitudes compare to those of journalists, and which variables might explain such (mis)understandings. A survey of German news consumers, in combination with the Worlds of Journalism study that maps journalist attitudes across many countries, indeed found that audiences imagine stronger effects on reporting than journalists do, especially with regard to economics and politics.

Interestingly, these differences between news audiences and journalists “became more distinct as recipients displayed higher levels of anti-elitism, selective exposure and media literacy.” This suggests that a variety of influences — one’s anti-elite populist attitudes, or a preference for self-confirming media sources — can play a part in how one comes to skeptically perceive the press and its relative autonomy.

“The familiarity paradox: Why has digital sourcing not democratized the news?” By Aviv Barnoy and Zvi Reich, in Digital Journalism.

“Making sources visible: Representation of evidence in news texts, 2007–2019.” By Mark Coddington and Logan Molyneux, in Journalism Practice.

“Sourcing pandemic news: A cross-national computational analysis of mainstream media coverage of Covid-19 on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.” By Claudia Mellado, Daniel Hallin, Luis Cárcamo, Rodrigo Alfaro, Daniel Jackson, María Luisa Humanes, Mireya Márquez-Ramírez, Jacques Mick, Cornelia Mothes, Christi I-Hsuan Lin, Misook Lee, Amaranta Alfaro, Jose Isbej, and Andrés Ramos, in Digital Journalism.

We conclude with a three-part look at the nature of news sources — how they have changed (or not) in the digital era as well as in the recent pandemic period.

First, Barnoy and Reich take up a question that remains unresolved in the research literature: Amid all the transformations brought on by social media, smartphones, and other digital developments, to what degree do journalists rely on new types of sources? And, if so, are these sources verified in new kinds of ways, and with what kind of consequences? (Etc.)

The authors present what they call first-of-its-kind longitudinal evidence about the role that digital news sources have played during the past 15 years. (“To be considered digital, a source must follow two requirements: (1) it must be an informative entity that cannot be identified as a specific person (by the reporter) and (2) this entity is accessed via the Internet [the world-wide-web, email, social networks etc.].”) Their study focuses on reconstructions of 1,594 news items, produced by a representative sample of Israeli journalists, and categorizes the more than 5,000 sources in those stories.

The result: “We found that digital sourcing did not open the gates for alternative voices. Moreover, digital sources are verified less than non-digital ones and are mentioned less often in final publications.” But — and this is important — follow-up interviews with journalists found that this was because of “the traceable footprints of digital sources that can protect journalists against future attacks, thus making these sources reliable.” Ultimately, they suggest that until journalists overcome a “familiarity paradox” that leads them to prioritize longstanding elite sources, it is unlikely that technology alone will lead to meaningful widespread change in democratizing news sourcing.

The next article, by Mark and co-author Logan Molyneux, examines a related but rather different question about sourcing in the digital age: How much of it is aggregation versus other types of so-called “original reporting,” and how have things changed over time? They conduct a content analysis that compares newspapers to digital-native news sites at three time points (2007, 2013, and 2019), and find that while “non-mediated attributed speech” (i.e., interviews) remains the most widespread form of evidence, it has become less and less common over time — even among newspapers that so commonly rely on interviews for data.

What is increasing is the use of mediated speech appearing elsewhere (e.g., social media, documents, press releases, etc.). “The result,” they write, “is a news text that is more visibly assembled from other published texts. Given this greater distance from evidence, journalistic claims of originality are more contested than in the recent past.”

Interestingly, they find that newspapers and digital news sites, once quite different from each other in sourcing habits, are increasingly behaving like the other: e.g., newspapers more readily cite social media posts as evidence, and digital sites are mimicking newspapers’ use of firsthand and secondhand evidence as opposed to heavy aggregation of other news organizations as sources.

Finally, the article by Mellado and colleagues examines how sources were used in coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic, based on an analysis of social media posts by mainstream news organizations in several countries (Brazil, Chile, Germany, Mexico, Spain, the U.K., and the U.S.). Mellado’s team conducted a computational content analysis of nearly 1 million posts published to Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter by 78 sampled news outlets during 2020.

One important question they sought to address had shades of the Barnoy and Reich study above: “whether news organizations might pivot towards greater pluralism in the kind of voices represented in their posts in social media, adapting to a more popular, participatory logic commonly assumed to characterize social as opposed to traditional media.”

The answer, it turns out, was no. “One finding,” they write, “stands out as particularly striking: the dominance of political sources across countries and platforms,” reinforcing a longstanding orientation toward elites as well as a strong role for the state in influencing pandemic-related news. Health sources were also prominent, and the composition of sourcing varied by country and in connection with pandemic intensity. Notably, a “significant diversity of sources, including citizen sources, emerged as the pandemic went on.”

Photo by Jayana Rashintha on Unsplash.

POSTED     Aug. 24, 2021, 12:02 p.m.
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