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Sept. 19, 2022, 12:15 p.m.

The relief of missing out: Anticipated anxiety is a big reason why more people are avoiding the news

“Obviously, I could be a little bit more into what’s going on and look myself…Knowing more about it doesn’t do anything about it, does it?”

Do you like scary movies?

Did you stand in line for a midnight viewing of “The Blair Witch Project“? Does “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” evoke late-night nostalgia or hatchet-wielding terror? Clowns: for or against?

Horror movies are one of the few consumer goods that people buy specifically to feel anxious and scared — normally considered negative emotions. (See also: roller coasters.) No one would want to walk around feeling terrified all day, but the adrenaline spike of a good controlled scare can be exhilarating to someone with the right amygdala.

Still, one of the defining characteristics of scary movies (and roller coasters) is that many people don’t like them. Those people run a cost-benefit analysis — lots of thrills! but also lots of fear! — and don’t see a tradeoff worth making. Invite them out for the latest Jordan Peele movie and watch them nope-nope-nope their way home.

While the news on any given day is only metaphorically a horror show, many people treat headlines less as information than as scary stimuli. They’d rather not be regularly reminded of all that’s broken in the world, with all-new horrors added by the hour. They’ve got plenty of other stuff to do, so why spend time doing something that will make them anxious?

This phenomenon can seem foreign to some journalists — who, after all, are people who’ve chosen to spend most of their waking hours swimming in the latest news. But news avoidance is a very real phenomenon and, frankly, a deeply rational one for many people who see news as high risk, low reward.

That’s the subject of a new paper out from our old friends Benjamin Toff and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen in the journal Political Communication. It’s titled “How News Feels: Anticipated Anxiety as a Factor in News Avoidance and a Barrier to Political Engagement,” and here’s the abstract (emphases, as always, mine):

This study uses an inductive, qualitative approach to examine the perspectives of lower- and middle-class people in the United Kingdom who regularly access little or no professionally-produced news.

Findings suggest that people’s preexisting perspectives about what news is (anxiety-inducing) and offers for them (little practical value) play an important role in shaping attitudes toward news and subsequent behavior. These perspectives highlight the importance of emotional dimensions of news use beyond its presumed value as a source of information.

While political communication scholarship has often treated news consumption as the cornerstone of good citizenship, we find avoiders hold uneven, weakly internalized norms about a perceived duty to stay informed, in part because they anticipate news will make them anxious without being relevant to their lives, resulting in limited engagement with news, and by extension, civic and political affairs. Promoting more informed societies requires grappling with these entrenched perspectives.

Nielsen and (especially) Toff have been digging into news avoidance for years. (See here, here, here, here, here, or here.) And it’s a growing problem. The latest Digital News Report tracks the increase across countries. The proportion of people who say they “sometimes” or “often” actively avoid the news in:

Brazil: 2017: 27% → 2022: 54%
U.K.: 2017: 24% → 2022: 46%
Australia: 2017: 30% → 2022: 41%
Ireland: 2017: 30% → 2022: 41%
U.S.: 2017: 38% → 2022: 42%

Why do people check out of news? Among the reasons they give: They feel worn out; it’s too confusing; it makes them feel depressed; it leads to argument; it makes them feel powerless.

This new paper draws from in-depth, hour-long interviews with 43 U.K. residents who say they avoid news. And I mean avoid: These are people who say they consume professionally-produced news “less than once a month” or “never,” ranking them in the bottom 7% of the U.K. in terms of their news habits. (In other words, these aren’t people who rail against the “mainstream media” but spend their days hoovering up news that fits their political beliefs. These people say they consume no or next-to-no news at all.)

The group interviewed tended to be somewhat poorer and less educated than the U.K. as a whole; most came from lower-middle-class backgrounds and there were more women than men.

(It’s also important to note these interviews were conducted between November 2016 and March 2017, for two reasons. First: That was an extraordinary period in the news. In the U.S., it covers Donald Trump’s shock election through his first two months in office. In the U.K., it’s between the June 2016 Brexit referendum and the formal start of the withdrawal process on March 29, 2017. Avoiding the news then would seem to require an iron will. Second, 2017 was a while back in news avoidance terms, so the interviews are snapshots of the recent past.)

What’d they find?

We find that (1) many perceive the actual content of news as intensely negative and largely devoid of information relevant to their lives; and (2) many expressed deep ambivalence about the civic importance of staying informed, documenting that more abstract norms encouraging news use were weakly and unevenly internalized.

Many conceptions about news and news use are captured in these exchanges, but the way in which preconceived perspectives generate anticipated anxiety and shape encounters with news are particularly notable. News is seen as emotionally taxing — a source of uncertainty and lack of control — making it an obstacle to deeper political engagement in a complex and upsetting world.

Some of the most common complaints (the interviewees are identified using pseudonyms):

The news is all about crime and war and terrorism.

Perceptions that news was dominated by such [crime] stories often generated visceral reactions among study participants; “I genuinely got sick,” Robert explained, when he read about “sex offenders and stuff like that and how a sex offender would get free and they’d only serve one year and stuff like that.”

For parents of young children, crime stories hit particularly hard. Chelsea said the last news story she could recall concerned a 16-year-old boy who was stabbed “walking home from school.” She said, “It was very close to our house, and it was on the radio, I think my mum had heard it on [the TV news program] ‘Calendar,’ the kids had heard it all over the computer.” Because the victim was a similar age as her son, “it’s quite close to the bone.”

“We had the London bombings and everything like that and that just brings it home that it will come to us. And when the London bombings, the train and the bus, that highlighted the fact that nobody is safe, it doesn’t matter where on the planet you are, you’re not safe. And I think reading things where people are like, ‘Oh we’ve got a bit of knowledge that something is going to happen,’ it upsets you and you worry and then nowt happens, so you’re worrying yourself unjustly.” (Andrea)

Kate, who works in customer service for a travel agency, described how a terrorist incident in Tunisia had a particular effect on her “even though we’re obviously nowhere near Tunisia.” She said, “It still was scary, because it was kind of like the…It wasn’t the first one, but it was very big, wasn’t it? And very unexpected. I think that’s kind of when I was at the point where I was, ‘It can actually happen anywhere.’” She said she could not bring herself to pay attention to the news because “in general, I’m just a nervous person when it comes to crime and death and stuff like that. Anything like that scares me.”

The news is depressing.

Olivia recalled a conversation with her mother about news involving vivid details about a priest who “got his head beheaded in France and it’s like…with a knife…it’s not a clean thing, is it?” She recounted telling her mother, “I’m going to have nightmares now, thanks for that. I don’t even know. After that I was like no, I don’t want to know anything. Why are you telling me that?

[Megan] said she briefly used a news app on her phone years ago in an effort to stay better informed but found it to be “so depressing so I just got rid of it.”

Haylie, a lawyer and also a self-professed anxious person, offered the same view: “I don’t want to pick up newspapers and things like that because of the bad news, the things that I can’t do anything about.” She attributed her news avoidance in part to advice she read in a self-help guide, “I never really enjoyed the news on TV, so that wasn’t any hardship.”

The news isn’t useful to me, and I don’t care about politics.

Some viewed news as mostly substance free (“mindless, celebrity reporting about rubbish” as Jodie put it) while others perceived news to be synonymous with politics which they saw as “boring” arguments between partisans. Few study participants had a stake in such debates; nearly two-thirds said they did not identify with or even lean toward any established political party. As Emily put it: “I just always think it’s the same kind of thing. There’s always somebody arguing for, and somebody always arguing against. And then they just do what they want anyway, don’t they?”

When considering news about the “political and financial,” [Jodie] said “it just doesn’t mean anything to me, so I just switch off.” Others expressed similar sentiments: “I don’t really understand like the different parties and stuff,” Brenna said when asked about conversations she recalled involving news.

When asked a standard survey question about placement on a left-right ideological scale, several participants asked for clarification, and a majority responded “don’t know.” Ryan, for example, said he felt he was too uninformed: “I’m like a sheep,” he said. “I couldn’t tell you one policy, I couldn’t tell you one difference between Labour and Conservative.” Amelia felt the same, asking, “Do you know like with the political party thing…? I’ve got my views on like what I think about the government, but I don’t understand what both parties have.”

The news is too confusing, and it doesn’t matter, anyway.

“Like personally for me, I thought we should stay in the EU because I believe in community and even on a global scale I think it’s a good thing. But if I read the newspaper it breaks it all down into these tiny little things. And I think there’s so much for me to catch up on. I spent 30 years not really paying much attention to the news. There’s so much to catch up on that it blows my mind, that I don’t understand what’s going on. So I sort of gave up really.” (Gracie)

Uncertainty about political matters was difficult to disentangle from a persistent cynicism about civic affairs, a view that ordinary citizens were unlikely to have any agency or impact on the world’s problems. This lack of political efficacy echoed across interviews: “My vote is not going to count, if I did vote…it’s just another one” (Ryan); “I don’t really feel like I’ve got much control over what’s going on in the world; I’m just one person” (Jane); “I can’t worry about it too much. Because I can’t change it. Especially reading the newspaper. That’s not gonna get you anywhere” (Gracie); “Nobody is going to listen to me” (Chelsea); “I really don’t think anything makes a difference what anyone says because it all goes on what the people at the top say, and I think that’s all that matters, I really do” (Amelia).

As Chelsea explained, “Obviously, I could be a little bit more into what’s going on and look myself,” but given her views about how politics works, she did not see the point. “Knowing more about it doesn’t do anything about it, does it?

Between the uncertainty and stasis of politics, and the barrage of “images at night of just wars going on, just gunshots” and other “terrifying” topics, as Lilia summed up her perceptions of news, many viewed tuning out as a survival skill. Lilia called avoiding the news her “self-defense mechanism,” a way of focusing on more manageable tasks within her control. “What can I do? I can’t change that.”

I’m not obliged to follow the news (but I feel a little bad about it sometimes).

Emily, for example, who had shielded herself from even incidental exposure online and offline as a strategy for coping with anxiety strongly rejected the view that it was important to stay informed: “Not at all. No. Again, if it doesn’t affect [you], then it’s pointless.” But as she continued, she began to second guess herself. “Maybe that’s naïve, maybe it’s wrong. Maybe I should pay more attention, but…I don’t think there’s a right or wrong answer.” She concluded, “It’s not against the law not to watch the news.”

Lilia said her father “used to tell me off for not watching the news.” She thought perhaps her own lack of interest stemmed from that feeling of obligation: “You know when your parents tell you to do something and you just don’t because they’ve told you to? Maybe it’s something to do with that. I was always like, ‘No, I’m not interested!’”

Study participants often made similar self-deprecating comments about their own lack of interest in the news, as though their failure to take an interest in news reflected poorly on their character — or at least that they should feel that way. Jane, for example, reflecting on her limited news exposure, exclaimed, “Bloody hell, I’m like living in some little bubble, aren’t I?” Jennifer said talking about her lack of interest made her feel “a bit stupid now.” Jodie, a middle-class mother of three, worried it reflected poorly on her as a parent. She recounted her son’s English teacher chastising her, explaining, “We don’t buy any newspapers at all, which I think is really bad.”

In another example, Lilia said she wanted to be “one of those people who just bought a Guardian every weekend and just sat and read the whole thing.” When asked why, she said, “I feel a bit stupid sometimes because people will be talking about, ‘Oh, this is happening,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know what you’re on about,’ and just shy away from the conversation.”

Underlying all these responses is anxiety — either the experience of it or the anticipation of it. Reading the news is like entering a lottery with only bad prizes: You’ll probably emerge unscathed — but why even play if you’re not going to get anything valuable out of it? Sure, the roller coaster is probably safe — but why get on it at all if you’re going to hate every minute?

If you work in news, these ideas might seem downright foreign. But after all the insanity of the past decade or so, I suspect even journalists understand where these people are coming from. We’ve all had some moment where the news has been so overwhelming that we wanted to step back, close Twitter, and ignore the outside world for a while. News avoiders have the same reaction — they just have a much lower threshold for triggering it.

Instead of FOMO, they’ve got ROMO — the relief of missing out.

Nielsen and Toff:

As Coleman (2013, p. 4) has argued, “the sustainability of any social practice depends to a large measure on how it feels to participate in it.” Our analysis of how news avoiders — people who say they use little or no professionally-produced news — feel about news underlines the importance of anticipated anxiety in contributing to disengagement with news.

Those we interviewed all had access to an abundant supply of news and were capable individuals navigating sometimes challenging and always demanding lives. Some of them also had an abstract sense that they ought to follow the news. Nonetheless, they consumed little of it, associating news with anxiety and believing it offered little to make them feel more in control or certain about how to navigate their lives.

Balancing often weakly and unevenly internalized norms of citizenship against the perspective that news is mainly “doom and gloom” and useless “rubbish,” which only reinforces already limited efficacy, our interviewees mostly turn their backs on what some scholars have called the “primary sense-making practice of modernity” (Hartley, 1996). Many do this with ambivalence, a sense that perhaps they should engage more, but their sense of civic duty is overshadowed by considerations such as self-care.

Through the lens of the specific perspectives we have identified here, news avoidance is cast as a reasonable choice. It feels better than the alternative, and there is no strong sense of missing out.

POSTED     Sept. 19, 2022, 12:15 p.m.
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