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Nov. 30, 2023, 5:15 a.m.
Audience & Social

So who are the consistent news avoiders?

“No single variable is more predictive of whether someone consistently avoids news than their level of interest in politics and civic affairs.”

The following is excerpted from Avoiding the News: Reluctant Audiences for Journalism by Benjamin Toff, Ruth Palmer, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. Copyright (c) 2023 Columbia University Press. Used by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

When we tell friends and colleagues that we research people who consume basically no news at all, one of the most common questions they ask is some version of “Who are these people?”

To committed news consumers, especially those who love news, avoiding news consistently and habitually seems mysterious, possible only for the most radical or reclusive of characters. In fact, consistent news avoiders are in many ways (and perhaps, to some, surprisingly) quite normal, but they do tend to have some common traits. That is, some kinds of people are more likely than others to avoid news in a sustained way over time. Some of these patterns are quite similar around the world. In general, consistent news avoidance tends to be more common among young people, women, and lower socioeconomic classes. There are also some important political divides regarding who avoids news. In the United States especially, it is much more common among people on the right ideologically. In most other parts of the world, it is more common on the left. But a bigger and more persistent gap lies along what the political scientists Yanna Krupnikov and John Barry Ryan call “the other divide”: the divide between people who are deeply involved in politics and rarely, if ever, avoid news consistently and those who are largely indifferent toward politics and avoid news far more often. To be clear, we are not suggesting that all or even most young people, women, or people of lower socioeconomic classes avoid news consistently. That is verifiably not the case. But if you do meet someone who consumes practically no news at all, there is a good chance they will fall into one or more of these categories.

Most of our book grapples with why and how news avoidance happens, but we begin by introducing three consistent news avoiders in greater depth: Sofía, a twenty-year-old student in Spain; Andrea, a thirty-eight-year-old working mother in the United Kingdom; and William, a twenty-eight-year-old construction worker in the United States. We want readers to get a sense not only of who we are describing when we talk about news avoiders—to understand that there are complex individuals behind each quote—but also how they fit into broader patterns of who avoids news. These examples also illustrate how the larger argument in our book plays out in the lives of individuals—that who we are (identities), what we believe (ideologies), and the media pathways we use (infrastructures) have a profound influence over how we relate to news. These factors are difficult to pull apart, intersecting in different ways in the three cases we describe, but cumulatively they also mirror and reproduce deep-rooted social inequalities—a point we’ll return to.

News avoidance among digital natives

“[Watching news] is something I’ve never done because it doesn’t interest me … When it comes to politics, I don’t talk about it or understand it … I’d like to be up-to-date because people say, “Oh, it’s general culture,” but I don’t know if it’s how they present them or the topics they’re covering, but I’m like, “God, here they go talking again,” and really, if my mom is watching the TV, and they come on, I say turn it off or I get on my phone or I leave or I go do something else.” —Sofía (Spain)

Sofía lives with her mother in a working-class neighborhood in northern Madrid. At the time of our interview, she was twenty years old and taking a part-time course in international commerce, but her main problem, as she saw it, was that she was still struggling to decide what to do with her life. Her priorities in the meantime were spending time with friends and trying to manage her anxiety, which had led to a trip to the emergency room when she was studying for her college entrance exams. She described herself as addicted to her phone, which she used mostly for WhatsApp, Instagram, and YouTube. She explained that news only seemed to cover politics (which she was adamantly bored by), accidents, weather, and sports, whereas “I like topics like music, makeup, fashion. Topics that interest a ton of people, really; … [news outlets] don’t have those things.” In the end, she felt that the main reason to be informed was to be able to participate in social or professional conversations about current events, which she did not need to do at this point in her life. She explained, “I imagine that now since I’m studying, it’s not necessary, but I imagine that when the day comes that I have to work, depending on the job, obviously, it will be a good idea to be informed.”

Most news avoiders we interviewed were Sofía’s age or slightly older: young adults in their twenties or thirties. Research has long shown that age is intertwined with rates of news consumption: simply put, people tend to consume more news as they get older. In our U.S. survey data, the average age of news lovers was nearly two age brackets higher than news avoiders, almost a twenty-year difference. We find a similar dynamic internationally. In all but one of the markets covered in the Digital News Report 2022, rates of consistent news avoidance were higher among younger groups, including the three countries that are the focus of this study.

So why are young people more likely to avoid news consistently than older people? The example of Sofía illustrates a few key points. For one, she had trouble relating to the topics that she saw in the news (way too much politics, for instance), and she thinks that inability to relate may have to do with her stage of life. She conceded that she had plenty of free time, but right now following news was just not a top priority. Indeed, some research finds that even when young people see news use modeled by their parents at home, there is often a lag before they adopt news consumption habits in later adulthood.

Among the news avoiders we interviewed who were just a bit older than Sofia, we saw evidence that interests and preferences related to news can indeed grow and change as people get older. Take Bruce (United States), a thirty-something parent of young kids. Bruce explained that he had recently begun to pay closer attention to news and politics, which he largely attributed to getting older. As he put it, once he “started paying taxes,” he began to think, “Hey, this stuff really affects me.”

And yet, as was the case for Bruce, just as priorities start to shift, young adults may find they have less time than ever to consume news. Their interest grows right when their free time evaporates. Many young parents like Bruce feel that the daily demands of caretaking responsibilities and full-time work leave little time available for news, even as they start to see the appeal and value of it in ways that Sofia clearly did not—at least not yet.

Indeed, on the other end of the spectrum, we have retirees, who tend to be more interested in news and have more time for it. This was especially clear to us when interviewing news lovers in Iowa, many of whom were in their fifties or sixties or older. Many were no longer working full-time, and their children were grown. They spent a significant number of hours each day consuming news, and it was clear they not only had time for it but also used it to structure their days. They described the television programs they watched at specific times and the repertoires of websites or apps they visited habitually. Indeed, when we asked news avoiders why they thought some people devoted so much more time and attention to news, many thought it ultimately came down to time: news lovers just had way more of it, in part due to their age and stage of life. Avoiders saw time spent with news as a luxury; some people just had “nothing better to do,” as Joyce (United States) put it. Of course, this phenomenon is also heavily shaped by socioeconomic class, as we discuss further later.

As we also see in Sofía’s case, some reasons young people are more likely to consistently avoid news are less related to news content and more tied to the digital environment in which they encounter news. These kinds of factors are closely related to what we refer to in this book as “infrastructures” and what earlier research called the “texto-materialistic” reasons why some people avoid news—that is, characteristics related to the material form and delivery of news that some people find off-putting. Whereas older people, like many of the news lovers we interviewed, may have great affection for traditional forms of news, such as newsprint and broadcast news with their authoritative anchors intoning the events of the day, younger people who have grown up consuming most of their information digitally, much of it via mobile phones and social media, often feel no such attachments. Sofía at one point recalled a time when, encouraged by her parents, she tried to pay closer attention to news by reading it on her phone. (Newsprint was messy and impractical, so she did not even consider it.) But the experiment had been short-lived because even on her phone she found the format—small print, long stories—so awkward. Meanwhile, the television news that her mother watched seemed old-fashioned, slow, and tedious. She wondered how the TV news anchors did not die of boredom.

We found that the digital natives we interviewed, perhaps even more than being actively turned off by the form or content of news, felt they did not need to dedicate time specifically to consuming news from a news source because they would see it on social media anyway. Academics who study digital communication have taken to calling this phenomenon the “news finds me” perception: the assumption that one need not seek news out because all the news that is really worth knowing will simply land on one’s digital doorstep. Although this assumption is not unique to young people, they spend more time on social media, and more of them report social media as their main source of news, so they are more likely to have this belief continually reaffirmed.

Young news avoiders like Sofía are also highly aware of a diverse array of other forms of media that are competing for their attention. These media include streaming services, social media, and messaging apps, which many interviewees, including Sofía, described as important parts of their media diets. Scholars have argued for years that as media options expand, people who were never particularly interested in news will consume less of it because they now simply have more access to more appealing fare. Although this expansion of media choices applies to people of all ages, young people tend to have greater facility with and exposure to the contemporary media landscape and all of its wide-ranging, attention-grabbing offerings. In combination with the various other reasons young people may be less attracted to traditional forms of news, described earlier, the vast array of alternatives may be especially likely to lead them away from news (or to keep them from forming an interest in it in the first place).

Moreover, algorithms may compound the likelihood that young people will not develop a news habit even as they age. If young users never like, follow, or otherwise engage with anything related to news topics online, thereby training algorithms to screen out such content, they may not get enough initial exposure to ignite an interest that could develop later on.

For news lovers, the ease of access afforded by digital media makes it possible to consume larger and larger quantities of news—to convert a personal preference into something akin to an addiction. But, for avoiders, especially young ones, these same infrastructures may well be integral to why and how some turn away from news altogether.

News avoidance, gender, and class

“There’s nothing I can do whatsoever to change anything, so reading it is only going to make me feel, like, scared, and there’s nothing I can do to change that. Then once I’ve read it, that’s how I feel: it’s just doom and gloom.” —Andrea (United Kingdom)

Andrea’s story shares some similarities with Sofía’s, but her relationship with news highlights other factors that we also saw replicated across a wide range of interviewees. At thirty-eight, Andrea was older than Sofía. She was also a mother raising three young kids and a full-time housecleaner in the United Kingdom, so she had little free time. She said she had dreams of becoming an astrophysicist when she was younger, but many things had gotten in the way of that plan. She explained that she has “a very busy household; I don’t really sit down and have time to watch news.” The way news made her feel was another reason she gave for avoiding it, noting, “I think sometimes when you read it, it can make you feel worse in yourself, so I’ve kind of switched off from wanting to know about all the negative things in the world because there’s so much nastiness.” Like Sofía, she actively disliked news and did not see its relevance to her life, but her reasons could be traced less to age and more to other aspects of her identity— namely, those related to her gender and socioeconomic class.

News avoidance of all forms is more common among women. In our U.S. survey data, about three out of five news avoiders were women—a dynamic replicated across most countries worldwide. In the DNR 2022, women are overrepresented among consistent news avoiders in three-quarters of the countries studied, including in Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These gender gaps are not huge. They typically amount to a few percentage points. They also tend to be highest in countries where there are persistent gender gaps in other spheres, such as politics and business. However, they persist even in more egalitarian societies such as Germany, the Netherlands, and Denmark. This is especially the case when examining gender differences that intersect with socioeconomic class.

There are many reasons why these differences in news avoidance by gender arise. Women tend to consume less news in part due to their heavy caretaking responsibilities and persistent divisions of labor in the home that often afford men more time to keep up with news (at least in heterosexual relationships). Of course, such gender divides are also learned; they don’t simply happen all by themselves. Socialization processes around news reinforce the notion that news, especially political news, is produced largely for male audiences.

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To be sure, patterns evident in survey data are not easily reduced to distinct or discrete causes in individual cases. Andrea did not attribute her consistent news avoidance to being a woman, but she and many other news avoiders did talk at length about how news made them feel—how negative they found it and how the idea of consuming it so often filled them with dread and anxiety. Those attitudes are by no means limited to women, but they may be felt more acutely by those with heavy caretaking responsibilities, which do disproportionately fall on women. In our interviews, mothers often said they avoided news in part because it felt like an endless cycle of “doom and gloom from every corner of the globe,” as Andrea put it. She explained, “It’s things like that that scare me as a parent for my children.”

Many news avoiders in fact talked of wanting their homes to be a refuge from so much negativity in the world. Although this sentiment was more often expressed by women in our interviews, some men said the same thing, especially those who had heavy childcare responsibilities. For example, stay at-home father Ryan (United Kingdom) decided to make his home free from news altogether because “I don’t want my kids listening to bombs going off and how many people died or some gun massacre somewhere.”

When we asked Andrea if there had been much news in her home when she was growing up, she responded, “I come from, like, a big working family, if you know what I mean, and all the men were out working, and the mums and stuff were all at home, cooking, and nobody were really bothered about the news, no.” This quote encapsulates nicely how, in addition to gender disparities in news avoidance, social class influences how people relate to news. People of lower socioeconomic status are much more likely to be consistent news avoiders than those who are more advantaged economically. For example, in our U.S. survey just 11 percent of news avoiders held a bachelor’s degree compared to just less than half of those with above average news consumption habits. Similar differences were noticeable when it came to household income (figure 2.2). News avoiders were also nearly twice as likely to be unemployed (28 percent) compared to typical news users (17 percent) and news lovers (8 percent).

Although socioeconomic divides in levels of news use exist in all three countries we studied, the role of class in shaping how people related to news was most heightened and visible in the U.K. interviews. Andrea, for example, talked openly about how her class identity—her profession, her income level, her educational background—affected many aspects of her life. She described feeling increasingly like an outsider in her neighborhood in Leeds, which she had seen change over time due to gentrification:

“Everything is more expensive, everything is just becoming more expensive; I’m constantly looking out for more bargains shopping and everything. Where I live round here, because it’s affluent, because I’m not necessarily really like a rich person or owt like that, I feel like a bit funny to go to, like, the local bars on the High Street and stuff because every one’s in, like, Gucci and drives the Porsches outside and stuff, and I’m just sat there with my Primark on, so I’d feel like I don’t really fit in, but I feel like I belong here because I’ve always lived round here, but I feel like I don’t fit it a bit, so I tend not to socialize up on the main street.”

In what exact ways does class affect Andrea’s relationship to news? A substantial academic literature suggests a variety of links connecting class, news consumption, and internet use. We found on the one hand that class, like gender, shapes perceptions about whom news is for and how worth while it might be to pay attention to news. Higher levels of education, also associated with higher socioeconomic status, can make following the news easier, a sentiment expressed by many interviewees who felt they did not have the educational background to grasp certain kinds of news, especially political and economic news. People with more resources in general also tend to have more time and money to spend on news as well as energy (in terms of emotional and intellectual resources)—another theme that loomed large in our interviews. Consuming news—especially certain brands in certain contexts—can also be a way for people to perform their class identities. Furthermore, class shapes the kind of work people do, which in turn shapes news consumption: unlike many white-collar jobs in which people sit in front of a computer all day, manual labor and service jobs often leave less opportunity for news consumption, and they rarely require employees to keep up with news to get the job done. Indeed, Andrea, who worked cleaning houses, said she thought “not being around the TV enough” was one reason she did not consume more news.

Crucially, class also affects the types of people individuals converse with regularly and how often they talk about news. It can even affect a sense of connection to the rest of the world. Distant matters can feel close to home when someone knows people who live in those far-off places or has traveled there, which is often more likely for people with more resources. Indeed, whereas the news lovers we interviewed often talked about their trips abroad and their interest in global affairs, news avoiders almost never did so. Sure enough, in our U.S. survey data we found that news avoiders were especially unlikely to report having traveled outside the United States or having close friends or family who had lived or worked abroad.

To be clear, class is a complex phenomenon and cannot be fully captured by simple variables such as education, income, a person’s profession, and global outlook. Nor is gender reducible to a strict binary. But consistent news avoidance does fall disproportionately and unequally among those who hail from less advantaged backgrounds and women. As Andrea’s story helps to underscore, both factors shape not only encounters with news but also views about the world, one’s place in it, and how news fits into all of that.

News avoidance and ideological beliefs about politics

“If [news] was more middle of the road and open, more truthful, then I would probably start watching mainstream news again, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon.”—William (United States)

Finally, consider our third news avoider: William, a twenty-eight-year-old construction worker. William lived in a mobile-home park with his wife and three kids younger than ten. He consumed a great deal of political information from Facebook, where he followed a lot of what he described as “independent newspeople.” They included sources such as InfoWars and Ben Shapiro, known for conservative commentary. William was also increasingly active politically. When we interviewed him following the Iowa caucus in 2020, William said he had even gone so far as to caucus for the first time to show his support for Donald Trump, even though it was not a competitive race within the Republican Party. But William’s growing interest in politics had not led him to pay more attention to conventional news sources. Instead, he rejected conventional news as deeply ideologically biased, so he deliberately sought out alternative sources of information elsewhere on the internet.

Of course, there are elements of William’s story that overlap with Sofía’s in Spain and Andrea’s in the United Kingdom: his relative youth, his use of social media as an important pathway for information, his socioeconomic status. But there are other aspects of William’s relationship to news that are also clearly about ideology, which seemed to matter as much as if not more than other aspects of his identity or the infrastructures he depended on day to day to find information. Among the news avoiders we interviewed, ideologically based rejection of conventional (or “mainstream”) news was especially common among news avoiders in the United States. More often than not, when U.S. news avoiders had a partisan leaning, they typically placed themselves squarely on the right. This is especially apparent in our U.S. survey data, where we found news avoiders disproportionately tended to be Republican and to identify as conservative. News lovers in contrast leaned more toward the Democratic Party and were more liberal.

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One challenge in interpreting these data, however, is that it can be difficult to tell whether conservatives in the United States actually consume less news or are simply using the question to voice their disapproval of the news media. Such “expressive responding” is not surprising given widespread tropes around “liberal bias” in the news media in the United States and leading political figures’ vocal antagonism toward news. Some U.S. news avoiders may well consume quantities of information comparable to that of more typical news consumers—sometimes even more—but may do so largely from alternative sources. William is a good example of this phenomenon. He specifically told us he avoided news because of “one-sided narratives and the lying,” but he kept up with political affairs online via a number of political commentators. It even turned out that he occasionally did tune in to local news channels, which he said he found to be less politically biased than national news sources.

As is so often the case, patterns in the United States are not necessarily replicated elsewhere in the world. Differences in rates of news consumption along ideological lines tend to be relatively small in most countries. What’s more, they also are quite small in comparison to the much larger divide between those who are unsure about where to place themselves ideologically at all versus those who identify themselves on the right or the left. In the DNR 2022, rates of consistent news avoidance are higher on the ideological right in only about a third of all markets, but they are disproportionately highest practically everywhere among those who say they “don’t know” where they stand on the political spectrum. In most countries, the latter segment also tends to be a larger share of the public compared to the number of people who place themselves on either the left or the right.

This raises a separate issue around ideology that is also evident in William’s story. Up until recent changes in the political climate, William had not necessarily considered himself particularly interested in politics. He didn’t grow up in a family that talked much about it. “Politics is one of those things where it’s not super important to a lot of people,” he said. “It’s low on the totem pole of things that have happened to our family in the last decade or so.” This aspect of William’s orientation to political life is especially typical of consistent news avoiders. Indeed, both Andrea and Sofía said they were uninterested or actively turned off by politics. In our U.S. survey, when we asked how interested respondents were in “information about what’s going on in government and politics,” news lovers and more typical news users were vastly more likely than news avoiders to say they were interested.

In fact, across most countries no single variable is more predictive of whether someone consistently avoids news than their level of interest in politics and civic affairs. In every market in the DNR 2021, news avoidance is more concentrated among those who say they are not interested in politics and nearly nonexistent among those who say they are.

Research has long documented that news use and political interest feed on each other. It is difficult to say one causes the other, but they reinforce each other in a feedback loop sometimes called a “virtuous circle.” That is, just as many people pay attention to news because they are interested in politics, the reverse is also true: many become interested in politics because they pay closer attention to news. As the political communication scholars Judith Moeller and Claes de Vreese note in their study of political learning among adolescents, “The more people know about politics, the more they are inclined to take on an active role in a democracy,” and the more people follow the news, the more likely they are to be knowledgeable about the public agenda and the political issues and affairs that are the substance of public life. Some researchers now suggest that as media infrastructures have fragmented and become more varied, political interest has become more important as a deciding factor in how much news individuals consume.

We think this divide around political interest deserves some additional attention because the issue is not just that news avoiders are less interested in politics but also that they tend to view themselves as less equipped to engage in political life—to effect change or make a difference in their political system. Political scientists call this attitude “political efficacy,” or the “feeling that political and social change is possible, and that the individual citizen can play a part in bringing about this change.” In our U.S. survey data, we see a small though significant difference in the strength of these attitudes among news lovers compared to news avoiders, who tend to view themselves as not only less interested in politics but somewhat less empowered as well.

These differences may seem minor, but there is more to them than meets the eye. In particular, it is important to differentiate between what political scientists refer to as political efficacy’s internal and external dimensions. That is, for some people, a lack of political efficacy comes down to feeling internally as if they have little power or agency to create political change, whereas others see the source of the problem as external to themselves, viewing the political system as largely unresponsive to the public. Divides along lines of political efficacy tend to be much larger in its internal dimensions. That said, in practice, just like age, gender, and class, the two dimensions of political efficacy are not easily reducible to distinct independent variables in surveys. Such variables are in fact interdependent and intertwined, at least in people’s lived experiences.

This excerpt has sought to set the stage for the research that follows by answering a basic yet elusive question: “Who are consistent news avoiders?” Survey data shows clear patterns around age, gender, socioeconomic class, and political interest, but only by looking more closely at individual lives—as we have tried to do with Sofía in Spain, Andrea in the United Kingdom, and William in the United States—do we get a sense of how and why these patterns occur. Importantly, the key point is not that all or even most young adults, women, or people from lower socioeconomic classes avoid news consistently but rather that consistent news avoidance is more common in these groups than among older adults, men, and the wealthy and more educated. The examples of Sofía, Andrea, and William further illustrate how news avoidance is a product of individuals’ identities, ideologies, and infrastructures as well as how news avoidance contributes to inequalities on a macrolevel.

News avoidance would be less worrisome if it were simply a matter of personal taste, but information is deeply linked to power and privilege. How well we are able to navigate the systems that shape our lives depends to a large extent on how much we know about how those systems are organized and how empowered we feel to change them. Paying attention to news can provide people with the keys to unlock those systems, but, as we have seen, groups more likely to avoid news consistently also tend to be those that are already relatively disadvantaged.

Of course, there are other aspects of inequality that we have not highlighted, mostly because they did not come up as often in our interviews. Race and ethnicity, for example, so central a factor in American politics, does not appear to be a major driver of news avoidance. That was also the case in our survey data. That is, Black and Hispanic respondents were just as likely to be news avoiders or news lovers as white respondents. However, the fact that race and ethnicity are not important for differentiating between news avoiders and other types of news consumers does not mean that racial and ethnic identities do not matter for people’s relationships to news. Indeed, social identities rooted in race can be important lenses through which people make sense of their own media choices. The same can be said for many other aspects of identity, including religion, sexuality, culture, and place.

In many instances, we have highlighted general tendencies—averages—to make some broad points about what types of people tend to avoid news and why those patterns persist. But it is worth underscoring that each of the individuals we interviewed cannot be easily reduced to a set of quantifiable variables. The best way to understand them and the way they think and feel about news is to listen closely to how they explain their news avoidance in their own words.

Photo by Caleb Woods.

POSTED     Nov. 30, 2023, 5:15 a.m.
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