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Addressing the collateral damage of news avoidance

March 7, 2024 | By Chris M. Sutcliffe – Independent Media Reporter @chrismsutcliffe
The topline: The number of people actively avoiding news content is high – and the threat to media companies is what that means for their business models.

The proportion of people avoiding news content is alarmingly high. According to the latest Reuters Institute Digital News Report, the public self-reports high levels of selective avoidance: 36% of people in the surveyed markets avoid the news “sometimes” or “often.”

That has implications for news organizations seeking to grow, engage, and inform audiences. That, in turn, limits the ability of those titles to hold power to account.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is Director at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. He is also the co-author of a new book entitled Avoiding the News: Reluctant Audiences for Journalism, which delves deeper into the causes of and solutions to news avoidance in greater detail.

In an interview about the book, he tells me that the idea arose from his work on the annual Digital News Report. “We noticed that in the United States almost 10% say that they use news less often than once a month or never. And as someone who believes firmly in the importance of journalism, and who used to think that everyone engaged with the news… I just kept staring at that figure.”

So, he set out to learn more, asking “Who are these people? Why do they say they use so little news? And how do they navigate the world without it?”

He found that, while the impact of public disengagement with newspapers’ missions are the most obvious consequence of news avoidance, it has less immediately apparent implications for media business models. It presents challenges around propensity to pay for news, keyword blocking – and that does not begin to account for the societal impact of citizens choosing to avoid essential news and information.

His research also found a variety of causes for news avoidance among the public, whether that was selectively or constantly. Nielsen says that the majority of news avoiders do not avoid media in general. Rather, there is something specific about news content that repels them.

The psychological impact of negative news

One of the most prominent is that news content can create psychological stress among sections of the audience who are ill-equipped to deal with it. Whether that is as a result of wider social pressures in their lives or simple exhaustion from work, Nielsen says a proportion of respondents believe they have no mental availability to engage with news content:

“What they often seek from the media is something pleasant, something that can help them recharge and renew, as they face another day of often very demanding tasks that they have to take on to provide for themselves or families.”

That is exacerbated by a perception that news content is primarily negative. The adage that “if it bleeds it leads” is undeniably true – perhaps ever more so in the age of social media. However, the trade off for news publishers is that a subset of the audience will disengage from negativity entirely.

So when the news is perceived to be overly negative audiences will choose to avoid it. That feeds the perennial problem of keyword blocking among advertisers, who also seek to avoid association with that negativity – even when the coverage is entirely warranted by a need to inform the public.

Blacklisted, by readers and advertisers

Nielsen acknowledges that news avoidance is not a phenomenon that exists in a vacuum. It feeds into those other issues like keyword blocklists: “We could probably write a whole separate book about advertisers avoiding the news. But at the end of the day, publishers who are relying on advertising will have to consider the reality that much of the public and many advertisers aren’t interested in being next to pieces of journalism that they regard as being divisive and depressing and perhaps not that valuable.”

In Avoiding the News Nielsen and his co-authors acknowledge that, in the case of people’s attitude to media, “perception is reality.” But in line with their recommendations to publishers, they also suggest potential solutions to these issues, one of which is to take a more positive approach to coverage to prevent that disengagement:

Neilsen says that “there is a good case to be made that that media literacy has been very focused on helping people be critical, which is important. But there is a companion [argument] that it’s about helping people be affirmative, about making decisions about what’s good enough in a world of imperfect choices of information.”

Payments, perception, and representation

Another prominent cause of news avoidance is that the public – still – does not feel represented by the news. They do not believe it is either by or for them. Nielsen explains: “There is a very clear sense amongst many of our interviewees that news isn’t for people like them, that news is for people who are older, who identify as male, for people who are well off.”

He likens it to the way that some people say classical music or contemporary art is something that’s “perfectly fine for other people, but it’s not really for people like me.”

That, too, has implications for media business models. An increasing number of media organizations seek to build out subscription models. However, the perception of a lack of representation shrinks the total addressable audience, limiting the potential for converting significant numbers of readers to members or subscribers.

It goes back to what Nielsen describes as a discussion around “identity and ideology.” He notes that the belief that news is not representative is not universal, nor is it unique to either left- or right-leaning audiences. Instead it comes from a wider societal sense of disenfranchisement: the perception is stronger among right-leaning people in the U.S., but among left-leaning people in the U.K. Nielsen attributes this in part to the fact that the U.K .press is perceived to skew right more generally.

However, he points out that “In the U.K., in the U.S., large parts of the public are disenchanted with politics, and they see news as intertwined with politics not in an independent from it. And that sense of alienation from politics in turn informs their relationship with journalism.”

As a result the authors of Avoiding the News say that one potential solution is that the industry needs to recognize that it currently does not speak to as wide an array of people as it could: “It is within the power of journalists and editors to think about ‘what are the sources that we feature?’ ‘What are the topics that we feature?’ ‘How do we write about communities near and far?’ And ‘is it worth more proactively trying to address these very vocal and consistent and long standing concerns many parts of the public have?’”

Community engagement and games we play

Another factor in news avoidance lies in sections of the public not being part of any “news communities.” Nielsen explains that “They don’t get any social affirmation or reinforcement, the way that many white collar people with high levels of formal education move in circles where they’re constantly affirmed that engaging with the news is important and it makes us kind of a better person. It’s not only right, it’s also righteous.”

For news organizations whose audience acquisition and retention strategies rely on bringing audience members into their own news communities, that presents a problem. It is one thing to introduce someone who already interacts with other people around news content into the fold; it is another thing entirely to create that behavior in people.

Membership-based organizations like the U.K.’s “slow news” brand Tortoise rely in part on using their engaged members as ambassadors for the brand.

However, as the success of the New York Times’ cooking and games apps make clear, news content is not the only thing that draws new audience members into the fold. Adjacent products like crosswords – which make community high scores etc. part of their appeal – are ways to sidestep this issue and potentially engage those audiences at a later date.

This time, it might really be personal

News avoidance has risen in priority among media companies’ priority lists over the past few years. On February 27th in the U.K., a House of Lords committee into the impact of technology on news saw it raised as a problem that needs to be overcome, for example. While much of that concern is predicated on the impact on the efficacy of journalism, the subtext is that news avoidance is contributing to media companies’ revenue woes.

Nielsen says that while a lot of the reasons for news avoidance are societal and structural rather than as a direct result of media companies’ decisions, there are still actions editors and journalists can undertake to mitigate it:

“I know that many journalists and news organizations feel a bit uneasy about ideas of personalization. [But] if news media and journalists want to serve everybody, they probably need a more differentiated offer including packaging things for people who may want to hear some things that did not go wrong in the world yesterday before we get to things that [did].”

Ultimately many of the potential solutions presented in the book lie in doubling down on journalism’s promise: to represent the whole public, not just the most affluent members of society, and to ensure that readers and viewers feel that representation.

Nielsen says: “I also would just invite journalists and editors to read some of what citizens told us in our interviews as we feature in the book, because I think on closer inspection, some journalists and editors may admit that people have a point about some of their criticisms of journalism.”

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