More People Are Avoiding the News Because There’s Too Much Bad News

From a Washington Post story by Paul Farhi headlined “Do you avoid the news? You’re in growing company.”:

The news was a lifelong habit for Claudia Caplan. It surrounded her like a blanket. Two newspapers in the morning, read nearly in full. Cable news in the afternoon or evening. NPR in the car the rest of the time.

But something changed during the pandemic. Maybe it was her. Maybe it was the news itself.

“It was so upsetting,” says Caplan, a retired advertising executive who is now a graduate student of history at New York University. “So frightening, so apocalyptic.”

And so Caplan began to turn away. Not all at once, and not completely, but today she’s less eager to immerse herself in the world’s troubles.

“I’ve always felt I had a responsibility to know everything,” she says. “I don’t feel that way anymore.”

Caplan — well-educated, older, with enough free time to be engaged with the world — was once the news industry’s ideal customer. Now, she may be its biggest nightmare. Haunted by a sense that the news is relentlessly toxic, once-loyal readers and viewers have been gradually ebbing away, posing a persistent threat to the news business.

The troublesome trend is spelled out in research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. For years, the Oxford-based think tank has been asking people around the world about their news-consumption habits. In its latest survey, 38 percent of U.S. respondents say they sometimes or often avoid news, including 41 percent of women and 34 percent of men.

At the same time, the proportion of people who are “extremely” or “very interested” in the news continued to sink. In the United States, this group was in the minority (49 percent) for the first time in the survey’s short history, down from 67 percent in 2015. The institute’s data also suggest a sharper percentage-point drop abroad (including 27 points in the United Kingdom).

Researchers say “news avoidance” could be a response to an age of hyper-information, when updates from the outside world flow not just from every TV set and printing press but also out of our own pockets via smartphones. Digital media has made news ubiquitous and instantly available from thousands of sources representing every ideology, geography and language.

And much of it, people say, drives feelings of depression, anger, anxiety or helplessness.

Carolyn Cohen, a retired teacher in the Washington area, was a committed MSNBC viewer and used to read The Washington Post cover to cover. Lately, she has backed off, out of a sense of self-preservation.

“I may glance at the headlines, but I can’t handle the stress put on me when I go to the front page,” she says. “What I find is, the news is depressing. It feels like it affects me directly. I don’t know if the world is worse now than it was before. But it never used to feel like a personal threat. Maybe I just feel it more.”

Cohen cites a number of topics that provoke feelings of helplessness: gun violence, climate change and climate-change denial, and President Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine the 2020 election results.

“What can I do about it?” she says. “Nothing you do gives any control,” other than laying the newspaper aside, turning off the TV and going for a walk.

Some people practice selective news avoidance. David Forrester, a retired research analyst and program manager from Reston, Va., still routinely consumes the morning newspaper, listens to NPR and all-news radio, watches cable news and reads news online. But the self-described “political junkie” scrolls past or switches channels from stories that involve Trump’s defensive statements, his attacks on opponents, and conspiratorial claims about “antifa” and “the deep state.”

“It got old, predictable and angst-producing,” Forrester says.

News avoidance may be a factor in the ominous declines that are pummeling media organizations of all kinds. The major cable-news networks — Fox, MSNBC and CNN — saw a combined viewership drop of 8.4 percent in June compared with the same month a year earlier. And although ratings typically rise as the presidential election cycle picks up, they instead dropped 7 percent from the first quarter of this year to the second.

Web traffic to a variety of news websites has been trending down since peaking around the 2020 election and the Capitol insurrection in January 2021. The New York Times was down 20 percent last month compared with a year earlier, while The Washington Post and the Wall Street Journal saw drops of 15 and 14 percent, respectively, according to the digital tracking firm ComScore.

News avoidance appears to be rising just as local media is falling deeper into crisis, with hundreds of local news sources — especially weekly newspapers that serve small towns — shuttering in recent years.

The closures primarily reflect the collapse of media business models amid the upheavals that the internet brought to readership habits and advertising practices, according to Penny Abernathy, a visiting professor of journalism at Northwestern University. But blues about the news certainly has a corrosive effect, she says.

“To be truthful, every now and then I take a break from watching national news shows and instead spend my time walking outside, reading a good novel or visiting with friends,” Abernathy says.

Which subjects are U.S. news consumers most eager to tune out? The Reuters Institute’s research found that 32 percent of U.S. news avoiders steer clear of stories about the war in Ukraine, while 43 percent avoid news about national politics; 41 percent pass up stories on social justice; and 40 percent ignore celebrity or entertainment news.

Americans who self-identify as conservative are five times more likely to avoid news about climate change than self-identified liberals, and three times more likely to avoid stories about gender and race, according to the Reuters study. Liberals are more likely than conservatives to avoid news about crime and business.

To be sure, it’s hard on any given day to find much news that can be described as “positive” or “uplifting.” By definition, “news” tends to be dramatic, unusual and rife with conflict. Consider the old journalism cliché: News is the plane that didn’t land, not the many that did.

In part, this reflects the realities of a world filled with violence, privation, disease and human-made atrocities. But there are deeper evolutionary reasons for why people give priority to negative news, according to a 2019 study of “negativity” bias. The preference for it serves as a kind of survival strategy, a warning system about imminent threats.

But bad news isn’t the only reason many consumers are tuning out the news, says Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the Reuters Institute’s director.

Part of the problem, he says, is that publishers are in hot pursuit of news consumers who are willing to pay for news — subscription buyers, in other words — and shape their offerings around the perceived needs and interests of customers who are relatively affluent, educated and “politically interested.”

That, in turn, may further alienate the “parts of the public who are disconnected from politics and less privileged,” he says — and lead to even more news avoidance.

Some argue that the media industry needs to start finding different ways to present the news.

“As journalists, we’re definitely oriented toward the negative,” says Tina Rosenberg, co-founder of a nonprofit organization called Solutions Journalism Network. “But to be balanced, you need to tell the whole story. If you’re not telling people about how other people went about solving a problem, you’re not telling the whole story.”

Her organization advocates for journalism that focuses on change and improvement when reporting on social problems such as public health, climate change, economic mobility and racial equity. Its website showcases stories about solutions, such as volunteer efforts to plant “pocket forests” in Paris to combat extreme heat and increase biodiversity.

Rosenberg acknowledges that this kind of reporting is time-consuming and can be expensive, causing news organizations to avoid it at a time of shrinking resources. It requires commitment, she says.

“We definitely need to talk about what’s wrong,” Rosenberg says, “but we also need to talk about what’s working.”

Paul Farhi is The Washington Post’s media reporter. He started at The Post in 1988 and has been a financial reporter, a political reporter and a Style reporter.

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