Are news avoiders really news avoiders? Some are. But many who end up in this category in large surveys of news consumption probably are not really news avoiders. This essay will substantiate this claim and throw new light on the phenomenon.
The news/democracy narrative
Irrespective of the terms used – be they ‘news avoidance’, ‘non-use of news’, or ‘low use of news’ – the issues we address with these words challenges the news/democracy narrative (Woodstock 2014): in democratic societies the system of governance includes the news media as a vital part. They play their indispensable role, sometimes dubbed ‘the fourth estate’, as a vehicle of information, deliberation and public debate alongside the constitutional institutions of the legislature, the executive, and the judiciary. Sometimes this role extends into the function of ‘watchdog’, as investigative journalism uncovers system errors in the democratic machinery and helps to re-establish the proper working of the political system.
According to the news/democracy narrative, therefore, citizens should use the news media as a resource for informed democratic behaviour, which enables them to cast enlightened votes in elections and referenda. In this narrative, regular use of the news media is regarded as a prerequisite for a healthy democracy. Therefore it is a cause for concern if considerable numbers of citizens seem to be disconnected from the news, whether this happens as a deliberate strategy of news avoidance or as a more accidental consequence of marginalisation (Shehata et al. 2015).
Putting the search light on news avoidance
It is important to understand more about the phenomenon of limited or no use of news – even if the small amount of existing research on this topic does not actually provide conclusive evidence of a direct connection between non-use of news and civic passivity (Rouw & Hermans 2015; Helgerud 2015; Wadbring 2016). Such knowledge is particularly important at a time when – as shown in the Reuters Institute Digital News Reports from this year and previous years – the use of legacy media is on the wane, and easy access to an abundance of online media outlets, including social media, affords citizens the possibility of personalising media to the exclusion of unwanted voices and of content which is perceived as boring or disturbing. In a pilot study in four countries (the US, UK, Denmark, and Spain) this year’s Digital News Report therefore explores the phenomenon of news avoidance, and in particular attempts to shed light on people’s reasons for opting out of the news universe, as well as on the ways in which, possibly, some who fall into this category may nevertheless, either accidentally or serendipitously, end up being exposed to a basic news fare (Rouw & Hermans 2015).
Defining non-users of news
In qualitative studies of non-use of news, the participants are often people who self-select as using news rarely or never (Helgerud 2015; Rouw & Hermans 2015). In surveys research news avoidance is normally defined according to an individual’s frequency of news use. A recent Swedish longitudinal analysis of ‘rare use of news’ set the barrier of news avoidance at the fairly high level of ‘using news less than two days a week’ (Shehata et al. 2015; Wadbring 2016), implying that in order to be a good citizen one should use news two days a week or more. In this Reuters study of news consumption, respondents who say that they use news ‘less often than once a month’ are screened out.
This year we decided to ask these screen-outs a few additional questions:
- You say that you access news (…) less often than once a month. Is that because… (7 response options). Please select all that apply.
- In which (if any) of the following ways did you accidentally come into contact with the news in the last month? Please select all that apply. (8 response options)
- In your own words please explain why you access the news on radio, TV or online so rarely? Please give us as much detail as possible.
Usually these questions are not asked in research about news avoidance, which tends to concentrate on determining the proportion of people who come into contact with little or no news. However, building in part on Meijer’s (2007) finding that for many young adults news consumption happens by chance, Rouw & Hermans’s qualitative study mapped some of the ways in which 50 young people in the Netherlands said they encounter news content accidentally. The Reuters Institute’s study for the Digital News Report borrowed this knowledge interest and extended it, first, by asking 475 survey screen-outs across the age-span in four countries this question, and secondly by also seeking to understand their reasons for not exposing themselves to news on a regular basis. This issue was also explored by Helgerud’s qualitative study of 10 young Norwegians, which found that they could be divided into the three groups of ‘the suffering’ (news brings misery), ‘the disconnected’ (those who prefer mediated entertainment), and the ‘strategic avoiders’ (those who have low trust in the news media).
Before we present the findings, we need to mention a couple of limitations of the study. Because the respondents were recruited with the described screen-out procedure, and not as a representative sample, we cannot say anything about the number or proportion of non-users in the four countries. The percentages below, which indicate people’s reasons for not using the news as well as the ways they may accidentally have come into contact with the news should therefore be understood in relation to the screen-out samples, and are not representative of the aggregate or separate populations of the four countries. In addition, in some cases people’s verbalised reasons for non-use showed that they sometimes had second thoughts about whether they really used the news that rarely. However, we had no way of cleansing the data of such respondents. It should also be noted that some demographic groups in our analysis (e.g. young age, some countries) consist of non-representative numbers of respondents. Therefore, we present our findings as a first, tentative contour of the phenomenon of news avoiders, to be corroborated by stronger validity mechanisms in years to come.
Reasons why people avoid the news
The most frequently given reasons for non-use of the news across the sample is that “There is usually something more interesting to do” (21%) or that “News tends to upset or depress me” (23%). Many respondents elaborated especially on the latter reason: A respondent from Spain said they get depressed by negative news and politicians who don’t tell the truth:
Las noticias, suelen ser negativas y los politicos no son fiables. Todo eso me deprime. (The news is usually negative and the politicians are not reliable. It always depresses me.)
A UK respondent is very detailed about not following the news:
I don’t like the news because it’s very depressing, upsetting, frustrating, and scary. They hardly say or point out anything positive. The news causes me to lose all faith in humanity because all you hear about are deaths, murders, homicides, robberies, and so much more inhumane actions. I’d rather not be scared and slightly depressed about the horrid world we live in on a daily basis.
The third-most given reason is that “News isn’t relevant to me” (16%). Many respondents elaborated on this sentiment of not being interested, saying things like:
I don’t watch or read any news – my own life is complicated enough, I am not interested about other peoples’.
Nyheder er bedøvende ligegyldige. (News is utterly unimportant.)
Porque las noticias no me interesan. (News doesn’t interest me.)
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Table 1: Reasons for avoiding news
|There is usually something more interesting to do||21%||37%||16%||27%||17%|
|I’m too busy/don’t have the opportunity to consume news||11%||26%||19%||10%||9%|
|Someone else decides what I end up watching or reading||3%||2%||1%||5%||4%|
|News tends to upset or depress me||23%||7%||33%||28%||26%|
|News annoys me or makes me angry||14%||13%||14%||16%||16%|
|News isn’t relevant to me||16%||20%||16%||18%||19%|
Base: Aggregated respondents from US, UK, Spain, Denmark = 475
For the youngest age group (18-24) the reason of having something more interesting to do (37%) goes together with (in second place) “I’m too busy – my job or lifestyle means that I don’t regularly have the opportunity to consume the news” (26%). Here, verbalised comments add that “I don’t seem to have much time” or “Working 2 jobs no time [sic]”. Together these two reasons may be related to findings from previous Reuters Institute reports showing that young people are not ‘extremely interested’ in the news in the first place, so that other things may appeal more to the young person than keeping up with the news. This interpretation is corroborated by the finding that education-wise half of those still in school say they have more interesting things to do. The three middle age groups (25-34, 35-44, 45-54) are more likely to get upset or depressed over news (between a quarter and a third) than either the young (7%) or the old (19%).
In terms of countries, there are very small differences in the reasons given for news avoidance, with the exception that the Danes almost never avoid the news because it upsets or depresses them (4%) or makes them angry (4%), while almost a quarter of the Americans, the British and the Spaniards get upset, and 15% get angry.
With respect to gender it is perhaps notable that out of the 475 individuals who were screened out, more than two thirds (325) were women. With the mentioned caveat about our sample not being representative, this may nevertheless indicate that on the whole a typical news avoider is more likely to be female than male. However, the two genders are very similar with respect to the reasons given for non-use, except for women being more prone to get upset or depressed over the news.
Notably, almost one third of the respondents, and especially men, tick the ‘Other’ category, meaning that there are reasons for news avoidance that our questionnaire hasn’t captured. One of these reasons may be around perceived bias or lack of reliability of the news. Quite a few respondents have verbalised this by saying things like “because the BBC are a propaganda machine they do not give the news as it is, they just give their view of the news and can’t be trusted”.
Sources of inadvertent news use
Previous research into news avoidance has found, for instance, that “even when young adults are not really motivated to use the news, it seems that they get informed anyway” (Rouw & Hermans, 2015). The ways in which inadvertent news use comes about most frequently in our sample is by people using other types of TV or radio programming, “and the news came on afterwards” (TV 29%, radio 21%). But the other reasons for getting contact with news are close behind, with 17% saying that they happened to be in the same room where someone else was watching/listening to the news, or that news appeared in their social media feed (15%).
There are practically no gender differences in inadvertent news exposure, with the exception of a slight tendency for women to be in the same room where someone else is getting news
Country differences are small, with the exception of 35% the Danish news avoiders being likely to get news inadvertently from radio (against 21% of the cross-national average) and the British non-users bumping into news on TV (37%) and radio (29%) more frequently than the average.
Age differences follow a pattern of the older groups (whose overall consumption of radio and TV is higher) being more likely to bump into news programs on these media, and the younger groups being more likely to get news in the course of using social media (33%) and through F2F encounters with friends and colleagues (33%), against averages across age groups of 14-15%.
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Table 2 Accidental (or inadvertent) news usage
|Base: All who don’t access news once a month||475||147||194||–||57|
|I was listening_to the radio and the news came on (e.g. the top of the hour)||21%||29%||10%||–||35%|
|I was watching a TV programme and the news came on afterwards||29%||37%||21%||–||32%|
|I was in the room when somebody else was watching or listening to the_news||17%||24%||16%||–||9%|
|News appeared in my social media stream/feed (e.g. Facebook or_Twitter)||15%||10%||18%||–||18%|
|A friend or colleague talked about some news they have come across||14%||15%||12%||–||16%|
|I saw a newspaper billboard or headline||6%||5%||5%||–||9%|
|I watched an entertainment programme on the TV or radio that referred_to news stories||9%||7%||7%||–||14%|
|None of these||30%||29%||34%||–||19%|
Base: Aggregated respondents from US, UK, Spain, Denmark = 475
The respondents’ verbalised responses may throw light on what the “other” category may cover, as some say that they get news, not just by over-hearing the conversations of others, but from others on a regular basis:
My husband keeps up with it and then he tells me about anything interesting later when I am not so busy.
“Jeg tænker ikke over at det er vigtigt, Jeg har en kæreste der tit fortæller mig de vigtigste nyheder” (It doesn’t strike me as that important. I have a partner who often tells me the most important news).
It is striking, however, that there is a large group of respondents (30%) in Table 2, who by selecting “None of these” state that they don’t pick up any news by accident, in which case they could have ticked the “Other” response category. These individuals can be said to belong to a group of hard-core news avoiders, who are not, like the majority of the screen-outs, inadvertent rather than non-users of news. Conceivably these people could be the individuals whose verbalised comments show a deliberate disconnection caused by a deep-felt scepticism about the reliability of mainstream news:
The media (as in ALL of it) is controlled by just 6 people. It is biased claptrap of the highest order and reports obvious false flags as if they’re real events. It does not cater to my intelligence but to those who buy into the tripe that it purported to be real. There is no factual news and anything that is actually happening in our own country (that is censored by our own media) has to be viewed via foreign news agencies who have no bias one way or another.
A tentative characterisation of these news ‘real’ avoiders across our sample is that they are evenly spread over the four countries (around 30%) with the exception of Denmark (19%). Age-wise they are over-represented in the age groups 25-34 (38%) and 35-44 (43%), against 23-26% in the youngest and the two older age groups. Real non-users tend to be men (38%) rather than women (26%).
Are news avoidance and civic (dis)engagement increasing?
Based on solid longitudinal data, Shehata, Wadbring and Hopmann (2015) found that “the trend of increasing shares of news avoiders is obvious” (p. 24), from 1% of the Swedish population in 1986 to 6% in 2014, mostly due to people’s increased possibilities for following their preference for entertainment, and therefore not bumping into news by accident.
More recent work by Wadbring used the same data bank to add a generational perspective, showing that the more dutiful generations born before 1964 had 1-3% low users; among those born 1965-1989 the share was approximately 6%, while the youngest, ‘mobile’ generation (born after 1990) had a share of 10% low users of news. Significantly, however, Wadbring’s figures showed that this 10% share has resulted from a drop from over 20% since the breakthrough of mobile media. Research on the news consumption of Danish youth corroborates this pattern, where the daily use of news media by 13-23 year-olds increased from 12% to 27% from 2010 to 2014 (Kobbernagel et al. 2015). Apparently mobile and social media can act as stimulators towards increased news consumption.
Addressing the link between news use and political interest, Shehata et al. (2015) found, contrary to other research, that it is not primarily those with weaker political interests who tune out from the news. The increase in news avoidance has occurred among both those who are interested in politics and those who are not.
Other research has found that while some non-users are clearly not interested in and do not take part in civic activities, there is “no necessary connection between low use of news and civic engagement” (Helgerud 2015: 85): to have a substantial and regular news diet is not a prerequisite for being engaged and active in democratic affairs. One way to compensate for little contact with mainstream news media could be through communication received from interest organisations or fan communities, in which civic issues may emerge from time to time, for instance gender debate taking place in gaming communities (Helgerud 2015: 72).
In other words, even without regular use of news media, it appears that young people may find other ways of maintaining an appropriate level of knowledge for navigating in the terrain of civic participation.
But the research-based understanding of news avoidance is still in its infancy.
Anders Helgerud (2015). Lidelse, frakobling og strategisk unngåelse. MA dissertation. Department of Information and Media Science, University of Bergen, Norway.
Christian Kobbernagel, Kim Schrøder & Kirsten Drotner (2015). Danske unges museums- og medievaner. DREAM report (Danish Research Centre for Education and Advand Media Materials), University of Southern Denmark.
Irene Costera Meijer (2007). “The paradox of popularity: How young adults experience the news”. Journalism Studies 8 (1): 96-116.
Ciska Rouw & Liesbeth Hermans (2015). “Beyond the news: how do young adults get informed and civically engaged?”, Paper for the Future of Journalism conference, September 2015, University of Cardiff.
Adam Shehata, Ingela Wadbring & David Nicolas Hopmann (2015). “A longitudinal analysis of news-avoidance over three decades: From public service monopoly to smartphones”. Paper for the ICA conferernce, 21-25 May 2015, San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Ingela Wadbring (2016), “Om dem som tar del av nyheter i lägre utsträckning än andra”, in: Oscar Westlund, ed. Människorna, Medierna & Marknaden. Medieutredningensforskningsantologi om en demokrati i förändring. Statens Offentliga Utredningar, SOU2016:30, Stockholm 2016
L. Woodstock (2014). “The news-democracy narrative and the unexpected benefits of limited news consumption: the case of news resisters”. Journalism 15 (7): 834-849.