News avoidance: endless crises wear people out
Media consumers look in vain for help and solutions amid rampant misinformation
You’re reading the My News Biz newsletter. My goal is to help digital media entrepreneurs find viable business models. This edition originally appeared June 30, 2022, before my health sabbatical.
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As a journalist, I am somewhat ashamed to say that I actively avoid reading the news—some of the news, anyway.
I can’t bear to read anything that mentions the name of the previous president or his political party or voter fraud or any of the blatantly false information they promote.
So I was not surprised to see that worldwide, there are ever-more news avoiders like me. The proportion of digital media consumers that says they avoid the news, sometimes or often, has increased in all 46 markets covered in the global survey of the Reuters Institute’s 2022 Digital News Report.
That proportion has risen significantly to 38% from 29% in the past seven years. Below are the reasons for actively avoiding some types of news:
A journalist and a consumer
Here is what I wrote some time ago about my personal reasons for avoiding the news:
“Every day, we see news articles predicting the imminent rise of dangerous political actors or the potential social unrest that a certain court decision could unleash. Today’s story might show us two mutually outraged and antagonistic mobs who have wildly different interpretations of a police officer’s body-camera video.”
The journalists are just doing their jobs. They are supposed to alert us to potential danger. But I can’t bear the stress that all those apocalyptic headlines induce.
I click and read if a headline suggests there is something new. It would have to be something unprecedented like “Democrats and Republicans agree to work together on health care” or “Democrat bites Republican’s dog.” (Kidding on the second one; no one gets jokes any more.)
Interest in news drops in US
Nic Newman’s executive summary of the Digital News Report also found that the US had one of the largest declines in internet users who say they are “extremely or very interested in the news”, falling to 47% from 67% in the past seven years.
A big reason is what Newman calls “news fatigue”.
“While a succession of crises including the pandemic and the invasion of Ukraine demonstrates the importance of independent professional journalism, and significant growth for some individual media brands, we find that many people are becoming increasingly disconnected from news . . . .”
So, news avoidance could have serious negative consequences on public involvement in the political processes crucial to democratic societies.
“During the COVID-19 crisis (and now Ukraine) we saw many news organisations using explainer and Question & Answer formats to try to address these issues on websites and via social media to engage younger and less educated audiences. Our data suggest this process needs to go much further.”
The Digital News Report doesn’t specifically mention doomscrolling, the practice of obsessively checking your social media feeds. The practice is relatively new. Social media, after all, are a little over a decade old. The Oxford English Dictionary named “doomscrolling” a word of the year in 2020.
The BBC published a report on The darkly soothing compulsion of ‘doomscrolling’. They quoted Pamela Rutledge, director of the California-based Media Psychology Research Center, who said doomscrolling “really just describes the compulsive need to try and get answers when we’re afraid”. We have to assess whether new information constitutes a threat, says Rutledge. “We are biologically driven to attend to that.”
Since all the major social media depend on advertising to generate revenue, their algorithms drive users’ attention to news items that provoke emotional responses, such as anxiety, fear, anger, and hate.
Journalists are notorious doomscrollers. Twitter is full of journalists who declare themselves overstressed and anxious.
The ‘exhausted’ moderate majority
All of this apocalypse-watching can be misleading, I wrote a year ago.
“Is everyone really that extreme in their views? It’s all interesting, but what does it do to help us improve the quality of journalism and serve our communities better? How does the shouting by two opposing mobs help us solve problems?
“Actually, most Americans are not on the extreme ends of the political spectrum. There are at least seven “tribes” of Americans, according to an in-depth study by More in Common, an international nonprofit whose mission is to “strengthen resilience against the forces of division” in democratic societies.
“Among the study’s conclusions: About two-thirds of Americans belong to the ‘exhausted majority’ whose voices are rarely heard above the shouts of the partisan tribes.”
How to stop
Health experts generally recommend against scrolling your social media feeds before you go to bed. It can interfere with getting enough sleep.
One of the better articles on the topic came from Wired: How to stop doomscrolling — with psychology. Many people, when they feel overwhelmed, turn to scrolling their social media feeds as a reflex distraction, says Wired’s Kenneth R. Rosen. Instead, contact friends and colleagues and ask for help.
When we anxious and afraid because of crises such as covid-19, we look for answers, often in our social feeds, Rosen says. He recommends measuring and then limiting the time spent on scrolling social media — a controlled withdrawal.
Guideposts offers some suggestions in line with its role as a faith-based organization: Doomscrolling: What it is and how to stop.
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News avoidance is growing, which has serious implications for journalism as an industry and its role in democratic societies.
The data seem to suggest that the offerings of news media organization are amplifying a sensation of endless crises, which increases feelings of exhaustion and helplessness.
The study by More in Common suggests that the advertising-driven social media and news organizations exaggerate society’s polarization. The moderate middle who are looking for answers to big problems do not speak up for fear of being attacked by the political extremes.
Participation. When people withdraw from following the news about politics, they are less likely to participate in political activities, according to a Pew Research study of nearly 15,000 citizens from 14 countries.
“Some types of engagement are more common among young people, those with more education, those on the political left and social network users,” the study found. “And certain issues – especially health care, poverty and education – are more likely than others to inspire political action.”
Other than voting (78% in the survey had done so), the other types of political activity measured in the survey were attending campaign events (33%), participating in a volunteer organization (27%), commenting on political issues online (17%), participating in an organized protest (14%), and donating money to a political/social organization (12%).
Solutions and action
So what should journalists focus on to keep people from avoiding the news? I am of the same mind as a year ago when I wrote that we should seek answers to the big questions facing ordinary people in their daily lives.
The Solutions Journalism Network has shown that quality journalism can make a difference in helping communities find solutions to issues like public transportation, job creation, economic development, crime, health care, social justice, public education, the environment, homelessness, and poverty.
As I concluded then:
“Modern social problems are complex, so we need multidisciplinary solutions. Journalists need to be humble and ask for help. We need to collaborate with experts from outside the profession. We need to stop competing and start sharing resources more. The Institute for Nonprofit News has fantastic resources to help local journalists do just that.”