This might be just another negative news story. And if it is, there is evidence that many of you will turn away in despair.
The Reuters Institute revealed last month that 42% of Americans actively avoid the news at least some of the time because it grinds them down or they just don’t believe it. Fifteen percent said they disconnected from news coverage altogether. In other countries, such as the UK and Brazil, the numbers selectively avoiding it were even higher.
“In the United States, those who self-identify on the right are far more likely to avoid news because they think it is untrustworthy or biased, but those on the left are more likely to feel overwhelmed, carry feelings of powerlessness, or worry that the news might create arguments,” the institute said.
The Reuters Institute said that alongside the rising number of people avoiding news is a drop in trust in reporting in the US to the lowest point yet recorded at just 26% of the population.
All of this rang true to Amanda Ripley, a former Time journalist and author of High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped – and How We Get Out. She confessed in a Washington Post column that she was embarrassed as a reporter to admit that she has “been actively avoiding the news for years”. Ripley said it left her “so drained that I couldn’t write”.
So she rationed her consumption, cutting out television news altogether and waiting until later in the day to read the papers. But it kept coming at her on her phone and social media.
“If you look at that Reuters data and extrapolate it out, we can estimate that roughly 100 million American adults are not getting their news needs met,” Ripley said.
The result, said the Reuters Institute, is that Americans are backing away. “Prior to the invasion of Ukraine, consumption of traditional media, TV and print, declined further with online and social consumption not making up the gap,” it said.
And yet major longstanding news organisations are sceptical because their audience numbers just keep growing. Professor Emily Bell, founding director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia Journalism School, said that while there are short term peaks and troughs in engagement with the news around major events, the long term trend is up.
Bell said that in recent years the total number of stories read by Americans has grown to be much larger than she would ever have imagined. “So I start from this position of, is this really happening? People say, ‘I’m sick of the news, I’m actually taking steps to avoid it or I’m not paying attention to it.’ While one has to take them at their word, statistically I would like to see a bit more evidence it’s actually true,” she said.
The Guardian’s audience figures reflect those doubts. Readership in the US rose sharply through the first months of the Covid pandemic, fell back a little and then spiked to a new high during the 2020 presidential election. It again peaked after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in March. But the Guardian US’s long term trend is up and even when readership falls back, it remains significantly higher than before the pandemic.
Bell also pointed out that although younger people may be turning away from traditional news sources that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re turning away from the news.
“Podcasting has an incredibly strong, young audience. This is a long form storytelling format, which really appeals to the under-25s which I don’t think anybody could have predicted. A couple of years ago, I was teaching a group of undergraduates and they were largely uninterested in the basic output of the New York Times but if you mentioned Michael Barbara and The Daily podcast (the New York Times’s daily podcast) they got incredibly overexcited,” she said.
Still, Americans, exhausted by it all, may be increasingly likely to retreat between the big stories. It’s also possible that people say they are turning away from some news because so much more is coming at them, but at the same time they still consume more than they ever did.
Ripley said she has been “inundated” with messages from Americans, both in and out of the news business, who feel as she does about what seems to be a relentless barrage of negativity. “Many of them said heartbreaking things. Somebody said, ‘I felt like my brain was broken’,” she said.
“Particularly with the pandemic, there has been a lot of very unsettling, nerve racking news. You can’t avoid it, it creeps into every crevice of your life. It’s invasive in a way that it wasn’t even 10 years ago.”
Bell, who sits on the Guardian Media Group’s commercial board, agreed. “The sense of being overwhelmed, particularly with troubling and bad news, is very real. It’s exhausting,” she said. “People feel for their own mental stability, that there are a certain number of things about which you can’t do very much on a daily basis, where opting out of the news might be something that is very appealing.”
Bell said that part of the problem is how news now comes at us. Three decades ago, Americans would have read about the Rwandan genocide in the daily newspaper dropped on their doorstep, or heard about it on radio and television, and then turned the page or listened to the next news item. Perhaps they would have read about it again the next day.
“The way that we have designed our new communications infrastructure is to be absolutely relentless,” she said. “If I read one story about somebody being made ill or dying, possibly because they had to have a Covid vaccine, I get 50 stories about people dying from every single news outlet in the world. So the overwhelming impression you could get is that something bad was happening with vaccines even though it wasn’t. And even though every single story was was more or less accurate, it was only representing a tiny bit of what was happening in the in the real world.”
Molly Bingham, the founder of Orb Media which reports on global efforts to create a more sustainable future, sees an additional problem in a loss of confidence in how news is covered.
As the Reuters Institute noted, there are Americans on the right who don’t trust much of the media because it doesn’t reflect their political beliefs and so they turn away or stick with sources that tell them what they want to her. But Bingham, who made a well received documentary about armed resistance in Iraq, sees a wider credibility problem.
“There is massive simplification. If you look at the current conflict in Ukraine, and the way the American media has cast it in a narrative we’re all very comfortable with of ‘good Ukranians resisting bad Russians’. But there’s also this sort of cognitive dissonance because when Iraqis were opposing the presence of foreign troops in their country, they were terrorists, they were very bad,” she said.
“I think that very simple storylines are alienating because they don’t reflect our experience of the world.”
One of the answers, said Ripley, is solutions-based journalism – and she has some of her own. “I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people who study what humans need to thrive in an information saturated environment. There were three ingredients that were missing, and those are hope, agency and dignity. Those are things I find every time I go out in the field, reporting terrible tragedies, but I didn’t always include them in the piece,” she said.
All of which raises a hoary old question that has stalked newsrooms for years: – do readers, listeners and viewers really want positive stories? Bell is sceptical. “We often say, if only journalists would write more good news stories. This is a horrible thing to say, but people tend not to read the good news,” she said.
“For instance, you could look at some of the progress that has been made against climate goals. Now, it’s not thoroughly good news but still progress has been made. If you write a fairly long considered piece about that, it tends to get fairly low traffic. If you have a piece saying Britain is going to go to 40C (104F) next week, everybody is going to read that piece.”
Ripley acknowledges the problem. “I think there’s some truth to it but I don’t think it’s the whole story. Increasingly, stories that are hopeful, surprising, generate curiosity, those stories go viral. Stories that offer hope, agency and dignity feel like breaking news right now, because we are so overwhelmed with the opposite,” she said.