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March 25, 2024, 10:45 a.m.
Audience & Social

Avoiding the news isn’t the same as not consuming it

Plus: What investment ownership has done to local news, the credibility of photos on social media vs. news sites, and Republicans in Congress share far more low-quality news than ordinary people do.

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 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.

As many news organizations have worked in recent years to reach audiences that have at times felt increasingly fickle and apathetic, a lot of attention has focused on news avoidance. A great deal of excellent research has been published on news avoidance, some of it highlighted in this newsletter, looking especially at who avoids news, why, and how. (Some of the best of this work, including a new book, has been done by the international team of Benjamin ToffRuth Palmer, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen.)

On one level, news avoidance is an extremely simple concept that’s exactly what it sounds like — people avoiding the news. Yet it’s easy to think of low (or nil) news consumption as a proxy for news avoidance. And it makes basic sense as a proxy — avoiding the news means you don’t consume much of it, so news avoidance is a good way to think about the non-consumers that news organizations are trying to reach, right?

Not quite. Not only are news avoidance and low-to-no news consumption not the same thing, but most people who avoid the news are actually consuming quite a bit of it. And most people who consume very little news aren’t actively avoiding it.

Those are the counterintuitive findings of a new study in the journal Mass Communication and Society by a team of Austria-based researchers led by Dominika Betakova. They surveyed about 1,000 Austrian adults regarding their news consumption, grouping them into four categories based on their level of news consumption (high or average/low) and the intentionality of that consumption (high/average avoidance or low avoidance).

Betakova and her colleagues weren’t the first to find a distinction between news avoidance and news non-consumption. But what they aimed to do was spell out more precisely how they are and aren’t related to each other, looking particularly at factors that might predict one or the other behavior, or particular combinations between the two behaviors.

The basic distinction they found between news avoiders and low news consumers was a sharp one: Just over 70% of intentional news avoiders still reported average or high news consumption, and just over 70% of people with low news consumption also reported low or average intentional news avoidance. (That means the people who intentionally avoid news and don’t consume much of it made up a very small group, if you’re looking for reason for optimism in this study.)

Despite this distinction, the two behaviors had some precipitating factors in common: Both were predicted by a lower perceived civic duty to keep informed and by lower political interest. But the list of factors that distinctly predicted only one or the other was longer. Intentional news avoidance was predicted by younger age, more dissatisfaction with perceived negativity of news, and (surprisingly) a higher sense of political efficacy. Low news consumption, meanwhile, was found among those with lower trust in media and politics, and lower income.

As the study broke the survey respondents down further into four groups, the individual predictors for each group became more complex and eclectic. But as the researchers noted, the main findings make sense when looked at more closely. Intentional avoidance is itself often a byproduct of higher news use — as many people saw during the pandemic, the more frequently you’re exposed to distressing news, the stronger a need you may feel for a break, even as you remain exposed to news in other ways and through other routines. And low news consumption may be so reinforced by habit and structure (such as news-free algorithmically curated social media feeds) that intentional avoidance isn’t necessary.

But the distinct predictors, the researchers concluded, do reflect meaningful differences in these concepts. “Low news consumption reflects a general detachment from media and politics,” they wrote, “while intentional news avoidance stems from the need to take a break from the emotionally burdensome news.” Thus, the two have different potential solutions: Low news consumption could be improved through increased trust, transparency, and a more inclusive approach to news, the researchers concluded, while intentional avoidance could be addressed through constructive journalism that emphasizes more positivity, coping, and solutions. First, though, we have to take the step of simply thinking about them as two different, easily conflated phenomena.

Research roundup

“The new news barons: Investment ownership reduces newspaper reporting capacity.” By Erik Peterson and Johanna Dunaway, in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science.

An important thread of research on news for many years has focused on the impact of media ownership: To what extent does it make a difference to news coverage or reporting resources if a newspaper is family-owned, let’s say, rather than being part of a larger conglomerate?

This question has become especially pertinent as local media in the U.S. have faced intensifying crises, from dwindling advertising revenue to thinning audience attention. But perhaps most pernicious of all, many U.S. local newspapers have gone through ownership upheavals that have left newsrooms hollowed out, diminished versions of their former selves. What is the impact of this rapid rise in hedge funds, private equity firms, and other investment-type owners controlling U.S. newspapers? (Aside: How much has changed? As this study notes, in 2005, only 1 in 100 of the largest U.S. newspapers was investment-owned; by 2022, that number was 55 out of 100.)

Analyzing more than 13,000 digitized media directory pages, Peterson and Dunaway chart the evolutions in news staff at 211 major newspapers from 2005 to 2022. By their estimation, “the acquisition of a newspaper by an investment owner reduced the paper’s newsroom by nine reporters and editors compared to newspapers that remained under other ownership, a cut equivalent to 14% of the average newspaper’s staff.” These cuts, they found, were concentrated in general assignment and political reporting, the bread and butter of public affairs coverage.

“While many factors contribute to the local media crisis — smaller print audiences, reduced advertising revenues, and difficulty monetizing online readers — we show the entry of investment owners has accelerated the decline of newspapers,” the authors write. And that development, they note, arose in 2005, when Warren Buffett became the first investment owner with his purchase of Buffalo’s newspaper.

Take note: Peterson and Dunaway’s study is part of a power-packed special issue, “Media policy for an informed citizenry: Revisiting the information needs of communities for democracy in crisis,” edited by Nikki Usher, Joshua P. Darr, Philip M. Napoli, and Michael L. Miller, that appeared in The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. The issue includes a number of leading scholars who study news, media policy, and political communication — as well as journalists such as Sewell Chan and Margaret Sullivan — writing about questions that will be of interest to RQ1 readers: How sticky is “pink slime” journalism? What is media policy? What do we know so far about state and local legislation to support local news? How are Latinx digital media startups distributing news via WhatsApp to meet local information needs from the bottom up? And much more.

“Measuring the effect of presentational context and image authorship on the credibility perceptions of newsworthy images.” By Brian McDermott, Tara Marie Mortensen, and Robert A. Wertz, in Social Media + Society.

Digital media are awash in images, as any scroll of Instagram will illustrate. Increasingly, newsworthy imagery travels across various apps and services: Photojournalists take pictures that appear on news sites and on social media, and, in turn, images taken by ordinary people sometimes appear on news sites (for example: the famous photo on Twitter of the U.S. Airways flight landing on the Hudson River, an amateur photo that eventually made its way to front pages across the world).

In all of that news-related photo sharing, the source, authorship, and context of an image can quickly become lost. What are the consequences for the perceived credibility of the photo in question?

McDermott and colleagues explored that question through a large-scale survey-based experiment on Amazon MTurk, randomly assigning participants to one of four presentational contexts: (1) professional photos on news websites, (2) amateur pictures on news websites, (3) amateur photos on social media, and (4) professional photos on social media.

They found very little difference in how people rated the credibility of the images, regardless of the context involved. Study participants were “willing to accept newsworthy images as credible on social media, and social media images as credible in the news.” Or, put another way: “works of visual journalism from established mainstream sources do not have any special monopoly on credibility from the audience’s point of view.”

Future research, they point out, could work to clarify the “aesthetic, informational, and presentational factors that influence how an audience rates the credibility of news imagery,” helping news organizations to more effectively handle the profusion of newsworthy images created by amateurs that are shared on social media.

“Partisan differences in the sharing of low-quality news sources by U.S. political elites.” By Kevin T. Greene, in Political Communication.

“Curating the news. Analyzing politicians’ news sharing behavior on social media in three countries.” By Willem Buyens, Peter Van Aelst, and Steve Paulussen, in Information, Communication & Society.

Like the rest of us, politicians use social media to like, comment on, and share the news. So, to what extent are they similar or different compared to most people in how they share news and information online?

We have two studies here that address different aspects of that question.

In the first, Greene examines how often political elites — in this case defined as U.S. members of Congress — share links to low-quality news sources. Political elites matter a lot because we know from decades of research that ordinary people tend to take their cues from such elites as they form attitudes and make decisions. So, politicians promoting low-quality sources set an obvious bad example for others to follow. Plus, they may “increase polarization while providing legitimacy to low-quality outlets,” the study notes.

Analyzing more than 300,000 links shared on Facebook by members of Congress, Greene finds that these politicians “share more links to low-quality sites than the public, that Republican members share considerably more than Democrats, and that this gap has increased over time.”

How large were the differences? Um, very large: In 2021, depending on how things were measured, some 65% to 85% of Republican members of Congress shared a link to a low-quality domain, compared to 5% to 25% for Democrats and 9% for the public.

“One might argue,” Greene writes, “that the partisan gap is a simple reflection of the difference in the supply of low-quality sites [i.e., that there are far more conservative-leaning junk sites than liberal-leaning ones]. However, our results suggest these party differences are not strictly driven by differences in the supply of low-quality sites. [For one thing], while there are roughly ten times as many right-leaning low-quality sites, Republican officials share forty times as many links to low-quality sites” [emphasis added].

In the second study, Buyens and colleagues conducted a content analysis of nearly 6,000 Facebook posts by politicians from Belgium, the Netherlands, and the U.K., analyzing posts that referred to a news item.

They found that online news sharing is its own kind of strategy for politicians. Government party politicians, it turns out, share fewer news items than opposition members (perhaps because the ruling party may be criticized in the press, or because opposition party members are trying to claim more of a public voice). Additionally, radical right-wing politicians tend to distribute more news published by alternative news outlets (which is not entirely surprising, and corresponds with the study mentioned above). In general, though, the authors find fairly similar patterns of news sharing across the three countries studied, suggesting that there are meaningful patterns in the news-sharing behaviors of politicians depending on their party and its place in power.

“Polarization all the way down: How coverage of elite and partisan polarization spills over to perceptions of the U.S. mass public.” By Gavin Ploger, in Political Communication.

“Navigating political polarization in news production: The case of Italy.” By Sergio Splendore and Arianna Piacentini, in Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly.

Continuing the theme of news and politics, let’s consider two studies that together address key aspects of a phenomenon that gets all kinds of attention these days: political polarization.

In the first, Ploger explores how ordinary citizens make sense of and respond to different kinds of political polarization in the U.S. Recent research, he notes, finds that people think that the parties are deeply polarized — “but, in reality, the extent of polarization depends on whether we focus on political elites or the mass public.”

So, Ploger used two survey experiments involving nearly 3,000 participants to study people’s perceptions about polarization (1) among party elites, (2) among party voters, and (3) in the mass public — and with an eye, too, toward the media’s role in all of this. “Do people think the public is polarized because they see news stories about mass polarization [among the public]?” he writes. Or, do people read stories about fractious conflict among political elites and then assume that such polarization represents what’s happening among the public, too?

Ploger found that people feel politics is polarized at all three of those levels, and to such an acute level as to point to serious long-term consequences. As the study concluded, people appear to “believe that many other normal citizens — even ordinary Americans in the mass public — are almost as extreme and hostile as partisan elites. Accordingly, the consequences of these perceptions may extend well beyond attitudes about elites. Perceptions of mass polarization can make people become more hostile toward ordinary members of the opposing party and lose trust in strangers and society at large, leading to a self-fulfilling prophecy of polarization.”

The news media, indeed, play a significant role in this process: Coverage of elite politics — and the polarized conflict that goes along with it — is stoking the flames of division and creating spillover effects in the way people view not only politicians but also each other. There is, however, some indication that coverage of mass compromise and moderate politics can help, at least a little, in tamping down such high levels of perceived polarization.

In the second study, Splendore and Piacentini consider political polarization from the perspectives of Italian political journalists, using 40 interviews to explore how journalists think about polarization in the media environment and how they navigate it in their daily work.

They find that political reporters in Italy tend to adopt five strategies for dealing with a polarized environment: mitigating, aligning, nurturing, creating, and ignoring polarization. The authors think the first and last strategies are worth the most attention: “While mitigating requires an attitude and a conscious act aimed at de-polarizing the context, ignoring appears to be the triumph of polarization, which is rooted in and permeates the media context and journalistic environment to such an extent that it is assumed to be self-evident.”

In this latter sense, journalists seem unable to identify polarization’s deficiencies, taking its rules and dynamics for granted, re-enacting it again and again in their work. That would, unfortunately, speak to the very issues identified in the earlier study: that the news media is a big part of the political polarization problem.

“Does high-quality news attract engagement on social media? Mediatization, media logic, and the contrasting values that shape news sharing, liking, and commenting on Facebook.” By Jieun Shin, Seth C. Lewis, Soojong Kim, & Kjerstin Thorson, in New Media & Society.

We’ll close by returning to the question of quality. A lot of people worry about whether mostly “junk” information gets all the love on social media. Is there room for high-quality news, in particular, to be rewarded with attention in such spaces?

In this study, Shin and colleagues (full disclosure: Seth was a co-author) took a large corpus of news articles shared on Facebook and asked journalists and consumers to evaluate those articles according to “normative values” (journalistic norms like accuracy and public importance) and “social media values” (things likely to drive popularity and viral spread). Then, using actual Facebook engagement metrics for clicks, likes, and shares, the researchers could compare perceptions about likely success vs. reality.

The study found that “both the public and journalists can reliably predict what plays well on social media and that these social media values drive the selection and sharing of news online.” Meanwhile, even though both groups could reliably identify normative news values, those journalistic factors appeared to have minimal influence on social media engagement.

“Altogether,” the authors write, “we observe a tradeoff between normative and social media values such that high-quality news required for a democratic society is not marketable in a social media environment.”

Photo by bady abbas on Unsplash.

POSTED     March 25, 2024, 10:45 a.m.
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