Fatigue isn't the only reason people avoid news

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We're not really sure why some people never seem to watch the news. (AP Photo/Luca Bruno)

A subset of the U.S. population consumes extremely low levels of news — but news fatigue and the emotional toll of news consumption may not be entirely to blame, according to a new study. 

Instead, the study, published April 25 in Journalism, found that a general disinterest in politics, perceptions that news lacks personal relevance and low levels of self-confidence and news knowledge, when taken together, explain 25.9% of the variance in people's overall levels of news consumption — partially explaining the gap between "news seekers" and "news avoiders." News fatigue and negative emotions associated with the news were unrelated to total overall levels of news consumption, though this may depend on how a person manages stress.

A 2019 Digital News Report, produced by the University of Oxford's Reuters Institute, found that 41% of U.S. adults said they often or sometimes avoid the news. Likewise, another Reuters Institute study in July indicated that during the COVID-19 pandemic, news avoidance among the U.K. population grew, with 22% of survey respondents reporting they always or often actively avoid the news. 

It's a "paradox of choice," according to the April 25 study, that while 85% of U.S. adults own a smartphone that gives them access to consume news whenever and however they want — including style, form and medium — news avoidance seems to be increasing.

The fact that a sizable portion of the world's population still avoids the news is troubling, according to Stephanie Edgerly, author of the paper and associate professor at Northwestern University, especially given that prior research has found that news avoidance corresponds with gaps in civic and political participation. 

Edgerly noted that women, adults aged 18-34, individuals with lower levels of education and individuals from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are all more likely to be news avoiders. Separately, research has shown that lower socioeconomic groups typically have lower voter turnout levels, and even Florida's 2018 ballot initiative that restored voting rights to previously incarcerated felons across the state didn't increase voter turnout in the most-impacted communities. 

"My message is not that I want people who don't consume news to vote," Edgerly said. "But I think the more problematic pattern is, what does it mean about our democratic systems, or our spaces of decision making, if you have a particular slice of the population that's absent from these spaces?"

According to Edgerly's study, general disinterest in politics was related to lower levels of news consumption, as was an individual's perception that news lacked relevance for them. 

Low levels of confidence and low levels of media knowledge — dimensions relating to an individual's perceived ability to navigate the news — were also related to lower levels of news consumption among respondents. In a high-choice media environment, individuals have to wade through copious sources and information, and especially given the rise of "fake news," low levels of confidence may deter individuals from reading the news.

"Coexisting in the contemporary media space are legacy and digital-native news organizations, opinionated blogs and partisan media, strategic media, and entertainment media," Edgerly wrote. "While all can create content about current events and can even look very similar, not all adhere to journalistic standards. This makes the perils of poor news selection — believing false information from a non-credible source — a more pressing concern, especially when coupled with discourse about 'fake news.'" 

Fake news may be especially deterring as individuals with low levels of confidence may think it's too tricky to distinguish fake from genuine — and academia isn't helping since it hasn't worked out a cohesive definition of the term yet.  

Edgerly also hypothesized that higher levels of news fatigue and higher levels of negative emotions when following news would relate to lower levels of news consumption, but the study's regression model produced no such association. 

This finding, however, may be more nuanced than it seems at first glance given that both news avoiders and news seekers reported fatigue and negative emotions in the study. It might come down to how an individual manages fatigue and emotional tolls, though Edgerly said it's still an open question. 

"I think that for news avoiders, these people that consume a low level [of] news, that fatigue and protecting their emotional state, they're coping with those concerns by avoiding the news," she said. "I think for regular news consumers, they still feel those things, they still feel fatigued, they still get upset by the news, but they have some strategy for managing those feelings. That doesn't mean they just check out and don't consume news."

Edgerly said common strategies she's heard from news seekers include taking small breaks from news consumption, which she contends is just a different type of avoidance. 

In an effort to identify potential solutions, Edgerly identified three stakeholders who need to make changes: Journalists should rethink how they create stories and try to reach audiences with low engagement, including younger adults and individuals with lower levels of education; teachers need to design curricula that help children develop the skills and knowledge that enable news consumption, even at the elementary school level; and audiences themselves need to find a "real willingness" to try to create different habits that introduce some news into their "media diet."

"My message is, how can we get people who don't consume news to start developing a more consistent pattern of engagement with news? Because so much of what we know is that that cycle of regular engagement with news is related to things like voting or community participation," Edgerly said. "And so for me, those implications are why I think that this question is one that's important."

The study "The head and heart of news avoidance: How attitudes about the news media relate to levels of news consumption," published April 25 in Journalism, was authored by Stephanie Edgerly, Northwestern University. 

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