A growing number of Americans actively avoid the news. And that is a problem for a well-informed democracy.
Not only do we not read the news, but in a growing number of cases, we actively avoid it. And that is a problem, not just for journalists and media, but for a well-informed democracy.
The Reuters 2023 Digital News Study is a pretty depressing look at the current news media landscape. The study came out just before Independence Day in the U.S. In a moment when we should be celebrating freedom of the press and the right to unfettered information, we’re tuning out. According to the study, nearly 40% of the US population (most of them women, by the way) do not engage with the news. It’s a gloomy and complex picture.
Journalists, editors, trusted sources, and news outlets are no longer the go-to sources for a new generation of news consumers. Only around a fifth of respondents (22%) in the Reuters study say they prefer to start their new’s journeys with a news website or app – that’s down 10 percentage points since 2018. A younger audience prefers news from social communities such as TikTok, Instagram, and Snapchat. And the news they want comes from celebrities, influencers, and social media personalities, not journalists. Trust in news outlets has fallen. Subscription prices place a financial burden on those who need to cut back on non-essential expenditures. And many just avoid the news because it leaves them feeling despondent.
Death by a Thousand Digital Cuts
The news catastrophe did not happen suddenly. Print media has been declining in the U.S. and around much of the world for almost two decades. A look at the morning commute on any subway or bus worldwide makes it clear that digital consumption and smartphones have replaced the broadsheet. In 2020 alone, more than 300 U.S. newspapers closed. Print and digital ad revenues for news sites saw double-digit decreases in 2020. Only 20% of U.S. news readers pay to access online editions of their favorite newspapers. Only 3% of U.S. adults cite print newspapers as their primary information source. And the number of newspaper newsroom employees has dropped by 50% since 2008. The downward spiral is only continuing.
Blame the Internet
At its inception, the Internet promised to be the Camelot of information. It was supposed to widen democratic debate and access to information. But as the Reuters study shows, respondents are tuning out the news in favor of other online experiences such as shopping, community, and social media.
Today the Internet amplifies the polarization of information. It’s no secret that algorithms feed you more of what you want to see and hear, leaving little room for exposure to alternate opinions. Less than a third (30%) say that “having stories selected for me on the basis of previous consumption is a good way to get news, 6 percentage points lower than when we last asked the question in 2016,” says Reuters.
Trust in the news has fallen across markets worldwide by a further 2 percentage points in the last year reversing – in many countries – the gains made at the height of the coronavirus pandemic according to the Reuters study. Axios reports that 56% of Americans agree with the statement that “journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations. And 58% think that “most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public.” Findings from Gallup show similar sentiments with just 7% of Americans reporting having “a great deal” of trust and confidence in the media. Meanwhile, 28% of U.S. adults say they do not have very much confidence and 38% have none at all in newspapers, TV, and radio.
Notably, says Gallup, this is the first time that the percentage of Americans with no trust at all in the media is higher than the percentage with a great deal or a fair amount combined.
The Price of Staying Informed
Social media is (thus far) free. News sites often are not. You can hunt around for bargains but on average a basic newspaper subscription to the Washington Post, Bloomberg News, New York Times, Wall Street Journal and others will set you back about $120/year. If you’ve got a choice between the similarly priced Netflix, Apple TV, and other more entertaining services, which will you choose? I’ve written about how subscriptions make us stupid in previous columns and listed the extraordinary costs of staying informed.
According to Reuters, inflation, war, the pandemic, layoffs and uncertain economic times have taken a toll on our paid news consumption. “Across a basket of 20 richer countries, 17% paid for any online news – the same figure as last year. Norway (39%) has the highest proportion of those paying, with Japan (9%) and the United Kingdom (9%) amongst the lowest. Amongst those canceling their subscription in the last year, the cost of living or the high price was cited most often as a reason. In the United States, Germany, and the United Kingdom, about half of non-subscribers say that nothing could persuade them to pay for online news, with lack of interest or perceived value remaining fundamental obstacles.”
People avoid news in part because of hopelessness and despair. Amanda Ripley, a journalist and author, made news when she confessed to having sworn off the news. After reading the paper, she writes,”I felt so drained that I couldn’t write — or do anything creative. I’d listen to Morning Edition and feel lethargic, unmotivated, and the day had barely begun. Ripley is not alone. The U.S. has one of the highest news avoidance rates in the world.
About 4 out of 10 Americans sometimes or often avoid contact with the news — a higher rate than at least 30 other countries, according to the Reuters study.
While still in its infancy, AI is poised to replace many of the jobs in the newsroom from fact-checking, to research and editing, to writing first drafts of the story. In May, NPR tweeted: Elon Musk’s “massive space sex rocket” had exploded on launch. Alas, it turned out to be an automated mistranscription of SpaceX. CNETback tracked its decision to use AI to write stories after a series of very public retractions.
On the flip side, RADAR (Reporters And Data And Robots) was launched in 2018 with grant support from Google’s Digital News Innovation Fund. It provides AI-generated, data-driven articles to digital, print, and broadcast outlets across the UK and Ireland. The Wall Street Journal and New York Times use AI to help with content moderation. Follow DataJournalism.com for more stories on AI and the future of journalism.
What’s to Be Done?
Some of the news media problems are intergenerational. Younger consumers are most likely to embrace one-siderism journalism while older consumers prefer to hear all sides of an issue. Lionel Barber, former editor of the Financial Times, writes an important essay about how journalism can regain trust. He encourages young journalists to embrace the principles of fair journalism but believes that there is room for op-eds and opinions as well.
Outlets like the New York Times have repeatedly tried everything from puzzles (the Wordle wunderkind), to special kids’ sections, to recipe mania in order to get people to pay for their subscriptions. Quick visualizations, experiments with VR storytelling, and photojournalism work are the high-tech equivalents of catering to a younger audience.
To avoid feeling helpless about the news James E. Causey, a former editor at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, espouses solution-oriented journalism. He says that it’s more community-focused, offers deep reporting, and discusses how a situation might be addressed. NPR and other public stations, fare well in Reuters when it comes to “trust”. Public radio, in particular, does a laudable job of fostering community, soliciting opinions,, and making listeners the focus of its stories. Can news journalists learn the art of community and feedback? Will that be enough to make us read the news again?