News avoidance is a symptom of a much bigger problem.
The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated what has been lingering under the surface for a long time: a strong rejection of negative news and loss of trust in traditional media.
The news rejectors
It is an overused symbol: the lazy Tick-Tock watching youngster, who only cares about his favourite social media stars while completely disregarding what is currently happening in the world. Admittedly, this is often not a false observation and young people´s indifference when it comes to politics is disconcerting at times. However, there is a new problem on the rise and its causes are more complex than simple disinterest.
To understand the phenomenon of news avoidance, we have to distinguish between simple news fatigue and active news avoidance. A person experiencing news fatigue might not be interested in checking on current topics. Nevertheless, he or she might encounter news on occasion while listening to the radio or watching TV and thereby be exposed to them. With news avoidance, this is another story. A person avoiding the news will not accept being confronted with any news. For some, this rejection only concerns certain topics; for others, it is universal.
Even before 2020, news avoidance was an often disregarded but prevalent phenomenon. The Reuters Digital Report from 2019 showed that 32 per cent of global participants were often or sometimes actively avoiding the news. In the UK this figure was above average, with 35 per cent. In the USA it was at a staggering 41 per cent. When asked about the reason, most participants answered that it negatively affects their mood. Thirty-nine percent of participants stated that they perceive the news media to be too negative.
But it is not only about blank numbers. Before 2020, when the primary focus of the news was not a pandemic, but more so Trump and Brexit, I attended a debate about the American media system with American and German students and graduates. Even then, many claimed that they avoided looking at the news, especially if it concerned topics they were personally affected by. However, what surprised me was that these students were all highly politically active, participating in voter registration events or interning at embassies. This was not an occurrence of political disinterest, it was the long-term result of a polarized media landscape and a sign of needed change.
But now, it is not only populist parties, irresponsible politicians or financial crises that dominate the media landscape. The corona virus pandemic is threatening billions of people not only economically but also their personal health and safety. This is why many big media publishers temporarily decided to feature an ‘everything but Covid-19’ section on their websites. This catered to those readers who actively avoid news on the pandemic because of their mental health and personal wellbeing. This way, news avoidance could be regarded as a form of self-care. Nevertheless, in light of the severity of the pandemic, should we view news avoidance as an understandable necessity or a harmful habit? And, does the need to be up-to-date about containment measures outweigh the need to care for one’s mental health?
Sick of the news?
But if the news media today is as fast, global and diversified as never before, why are people choosing to ignore it?
In polarized media landscapes reporting has become somewhat of a battle over reality. Today, many news sources contradict and even attack each other. This especially applies to the US where some media outlets actively undermine public trust in the reliability of other sources by prematurely calling them ‘Fake News’.
In times where notions like spinning, framing and agenda-setting are not only used by media studies professors, but are a cause for concern for many of us, distrust in the media feels natural. This feeling might even resonate more with young people because they are generally not the ones in control of the media landscape. Being more consumers rather than producers of news, their trust in this industry is even more limited.
Another thing is that quite often, our news absorption capacities are already exhausted before we even start reading. Our constant and intensive use of social media demands almost every piece of attention we have. If we have to choose where to direct our attention, it is the obvious choice to opt for light entertainment rather than gruelling headlines.
Regaining our taste for the news
Can news avoidance be overcome? And, what can consumers and producers of news do to rebuild mutual trust?
One obvious solution is to let every person find the right type of media that suits their needs and comfort zone. This could perhaps be a media outlet that phrases things more gently than the general yellow press, or one that resonates more with a person’s political beliefs without wondering into extremes. However, such an approach could also create more problems. It could lead to a filter-bubble that fails to confront people with contrasting political views. As with any issue, there is always more than one side to consider. Consumers should actively strive to be informed and challenged rather than pacified in their settled views, and this requires reaching for other sources.
An alternative approach would be to set time-frames for when to look at the news. Even though constantly receiving ‘breaking news’ notifications might seem thrilling for some, this can leave others feeling agitated. Instead, one could revert to good old traditions where you only check the news while drinking your coffee in the morning.
Another way to increase interest in following the news is to try to escape the state of powerlessness. Finding ways to contribute to positive change by signing petitions and practising citizen journalism can help connect the audience with the writers, and vice versa.
Lastly, satire or infotainment can certainly be used as a coping mechanism. These foster a humorous distance between the viewer and reality. Nevertheless, infotainment should not become the sole source of information.
As for news production itself, it still comes down to the basic principles of journalism. Simple quality reporting is the key to gaining trust. For this there needs to be more funding for journalism, maybe also in the form of government-funded but independent journalism. Reporting should be solution-focused and feature positive examples. This way, the toll on the readers’ mental health can be reduced, while still communicating important facts and perspectives.
Short term, dramatic titles may attract readers and generate revenue, but in the long run audiences can become disinterested and mistrustful of the media. If news avoidance continues to be a trend, there will be lasting consequences for our political climate as people happily succumb to staying in their own echo chambers — unknowing, uninformed and an easy target for populist thought.