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How can we change refuseniks into audiences?

Why are millions of people avoiding the news? News consumption is declining, interest in news is down, and the social contract between journalism and much of the public is fraying. The authors of a new book
say news avoidance is not “just” a response to the content on offer, but also fundamentally shaped by who we are, what we believe, and the tools we rely on. Adri Kotze read Avoiding the News: Reluctant Audiences for Journalism in search of good news in a bleak media landscape.

  • Addressing news avoidance is not a question of supplying an even greater abundance of news content or making access easier.
  • News avoiders find it difficult to distinguish between professionally produced journalism and other information floating around.
  • Large-scale public relations at an industry level may be needed to alter people’s notions about what journalists do.

It feels like a spectacularly bad idea to read a book on news avoidance when The Messenger flopping dramatically is the latest bust in the ongoing bloodbath in mainstream media in the USA, online hate and outrage sells, the battle over intellectual property is only starting, and journalists risk their lives in wars.

(Did I mention the parallel reality of Donald Trump’s media allies piling in on a truly wild Make America Great Again (MAGA) conspiracy theory linking megastar Taylor Swift and her boyfriend, Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, to a plot somehow involving the National Football League and the Super Bowl to keep Joe Biden in the White House?)

But, if someone could make sense of it all and offer solutions, it would be the heavyweight authors of the book Avoiding the News: Reluctant Audiences for Journalism, published in December 2023. Ruth Palmer is associate professor of communication and digital media at IE University in Spain, and Benjamin Toff is assistant professor in the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota. Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and professor of political communication at the University of Oxford.

The professors use data from surveys and over a hundred interviews with consistent news avoiders in the UK, Spain and the US to understand how and why people circumvent news. The bad news is that journalists have reason to be worried.

In a separate piece for Nieman Lab, Palmer writes news avoiders will likely grow in the coming year. She points out that many will plead Trump fatigue in the US election year, while others, fuelled by distrust of mainstream news, will turn to alternative sources or no news at all. “Endless coverage of the election on top of two ongoing wars will test the commitment of even the most devout news lovers.”

The baseline is low: The 2023 Digital News Report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism found that the proportion of news consumers who say they avoid news, often or sometimes, was close to all-time highs of 36% across markets. (In Greece, it was 57% and in the UK, 41%.)

In their book, based on interviews done between 2016 and 2020, the professors write that less than half of internet users in many countries say they have visited a news website or app in the past week, and all news media combined draw only about 3% of people’s attention online. (It is important to note the research was done before the tsunami of false information, sparked by the Covid pandemic and fanned by the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, hit the world. It also preceded Elon Musk’s acquisition of Twitter and animosity towards news organisations, and the plummeting of referral traffic from Facebook.)

Journalism is, of course, pointless without an audience. But could you turn news avoiders into audiences?

The professors do not sound very optimistic. (Sigh.) Yet they say journalists and news organisations should at least try – and they have recommendations on how to do it.

Who are these news avoiders?

If we want to change news avoiders’ minds, we need to know who they are. The authors use a metaphor they call “the oyster problem” to explain news avoidance, which, in short, goes like this. Many people will say they don’t like raw oysters. They will admit they have never tried oysters, yet they know they don’t like oysters and won’t opt for them at a free buffet, much less pay for them at a fancy restaurant.

Maybe they didn’t grow up with oysters, or influential people told them oysters are bad (and tweet about it). Improving the oysters or serving more oysters won’t change the oyster refuseniks’ minds.

Likewise, the professors argue that consistent news avoidance is, in part, a product of factors beyond the form and content of news. It includes social identities, ideologies, and people’s relationships with media platforms and infrastructures.

“This complex interweaving of factors means that addressing growing news avoidance is not as simple as making news more trustworthy and less bleak (although that could help). Nor is publishing less news the answer,” they note.

Consistent news avoiders, the authors point out, tend to be among segments of society that are socially and politically disadvantaged, such as women, younger people, and those from lower socioeconomic classes.

The folk theories

News avoiders in different areas draw on similar folk theories of journalism to explain their news avoidance, such as the idea mainstream news is “fake news”. Donald Trump and other populists and authoritarian leaders use this as a reason the public should not trust it.

News avoiders rarely offer just one folk theory or reason to explain themselves. They string together “muddled overlapping explanations”, the professors write. These media choice narratives reflect their own versions, for example, that someone is too anxiety-prone to handle negative news, or that it is all fake or biased anyway.

News content

The authors explain that media observers and journalism professionals often assume that if people avoid news, it must be because they don’t like news. Most research on news avoidance focuses on the characteristics of news that turn people off.

That is only half the story (if that), but many news avoiders do have complaints about the form and content of news. The most common one is that news is unpleasant, untrustworthy, impenetrable and inadequately represents certain age groups.

“Although these critiques were sometimes related to news coverage of specific events, more often they were sweeping indictments of what news avoiders believed to be broad tendencies in news coverage,” the professors explain.

News for all the people?

Simply offering more of the same kind of news will not convince more consistent news avoiders to engage with journalism. The authors say the New York Times, the Times of London, and El País could double the size of their newsrooms and expand their output, but that would do nothing to change the many complex and contextual factors that play a decisive role in whether people choose to consume news. And publications offering free digital news, like NPR, The Guardian and El Diario, could invest millions more in their journalism, but that would not ensure universal inclusion.

Addressing news avoidance, the research shows, is not a question of supplying an even greater abundance of news content or making access easier. We must take people’s relationships with news seriously, and recognise how combinations of identity, ideology, and infrastructures lead a significant minority not to engage with news. They do not feel that news has anything to offer them or that it cares about people like them.

Five steps to tackle consistent news avoidance

Responding to how news feels

While news avoidance is not only a response to content, it is still a big part of the problem, the professors write. Many people say that news is depressing, irrelevant, and unintelligible. They feel there isn’t anything they can do about the problems anyway.

These complaints, the authors advise, are a starting point for meeting people where they are culturally.

“If our goal is to address consistent news avoidance it fundamentally does not matter whether these beliefs are fair or accurate. What matters is the social fact that millions of people hold these views and that these preconceptions lead some to systematically avoid the news and many others to approach it only hesitantly.”

A news organisation can differentiate itself by leading with news that is uplifting, closer to people’s lived experience, presented in more accessible ways, and focused on things its readers can influence.

Structuring stories explicitly to highlight how those stories could directly affect audience members’ lives and how they might respond would counterbalance the feeling that news is pointlessly negative, the professors say.

Taking communities and identity seriously

The meaning and value of news to individuals is deeply rational, tied in with their identities and the communities to which they belong, the research shows. News organisations must examine whether they do, in fact, serve those groups most likely to avoid the news as well as journalists would like to claim they do.

Cultivating a sense of community is central to helping people to maintain a news habit. Even the most hardened news avoiders conceded there were some social benefits to being informed about the news.

“We therefore believe that a good way to help people see more value in news is to try and emphasise the social benefits of news use and to foster new and more inclusive news communities where few or none exist,” the authors write.

Up to this point, the dominant approach is still “we publish, you read”, involving limited interaction with readers’ comments and maybe some social media debate.

Packaging and delivering content for consistent news avoiders

Many news avoiders said they felt news was too time-consuming, a poor fit with daily routines, and incompatible with their caretaking responsibilities at home.

Packaging reporting differently for different audiences could help, like simple summary pieces accompanying longer in-depth pieces.

Most consistent news avoiders and many other people rarely, if ever, go specifically to the websites and apps of news media. So, reaching the least engaged members of the public will require continued effort to meet them where they are in terms of infrastructures: on social media, messaging applications, video platforms, and the like.

News media literacy and communicating the value of journalism

Journalism and the news media, the authors say, can come across “as curiously inept at getting across the point of their own work”. News, at its best, offers real value to people and real social benefits. But it is important to explain and advertise these contributions. All the innovations will appeal to news avoiders or other potential news audiences only if people know about them.

News avoiders find it difficult to distinguish between professionally produced journalism and other information floating around.

“As such, we see an important role for improved and expanded efforts at basic news media literacy. Because news habits formed early in life are relatively stable, such efforts would ideally be a required part of school curriculum starting in primary school, and news organisations would therefore do well to actively partner with schools and do more educational outreach,” Toff, Palmer and Nielsen recommend.

In addition, we should tackle widely circulating folk theories of journalism: what these theories are, in what ways they are inaccurate and misleading; and why some actors might be deliberately propagating them.

(Re)affirm editorial values and defend professional standards

Large-scale public relations at an industry level may be needed to alter people’s notions about what journalists do, the professors advise.

“News organisations, not only individually but also collectively, must more proactively explain what they are doing, communicate its value, and defend themselves against some of the most pernicious folk theories about journalism, or they risk even more people turning their backs on news altogether.”

 If they want alternative ideas about journalism to take hold to counter the negative ones, those arguments will not all by themselves simply propagate or “find” people.

A coalition of journalism-oriented academic and non-profit organisations and news outlets is probably best to reaffirm editorial values and defend professional standards before the public. It must take seriously the fact that there are many media organisations that do not live up to the ideals of journalism.

If journalism is a public good, it deserves a “well-articulated coordinated public defence”.

“That will require a clear and explicit demarcation of the lines that separate news specifically from content more broadly, including content from organisations that fail to uphold basic professional standards,” the authors write.

Journalists tend to think their values are self-evident, but they certainly are not to news avoiders and not to many others.

Journalism and the news media like to say they operate in the public interest. They need to explain how they do so, addressing pre-conceptions and concerns about what it is that journalists do, while recognising, naming, and holding to account those parts of the profession and the industry that routinely fall short, the professors argue.

Convincing the public that the rest of the profession and industry is delivering on their mission and living up to their principles requires making that case again and again in word and deed.

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