The bad news is people are avoiding the news


Last weekend I received an email from an eminent journalist telling me that, with the exception of RNZ’s “Moaning Report”, he was avoiding the news. He is not alone.

He attached an essay from last Friday’s Washington Post that was headed “I stopped reading the news. Is the problem me – or the product?” It was written by Amanda Ripley. No, not the character from the Alien film and video game franchise, but a former Time magazine correspondent who has covered more than her fair share of horror. You can read her essay here. In it she shared a guilty secret: She has been actively avoiding the news for years. She is not alone.

The Reuters Institute’s much-heralded annual Digital News Report, released last month,  found that in the United States the number of people completely disengaged from news sources has risen from three per cent in 2013 to 15 per cent this year. They are not alone. There were similarly high 2022 figures in Japan (15%) the United Kingdom (9%), France (8%), and Australia (8%).

Then  there are those who selectively avoid the news. More than half of the Brazilian population sometimes or often actively avoid the news. In the UK that proportion is 46 per cent and the United States is not far behind. New Zealand was not included in. the survey but if Australia is on 41 per cent we will not be far behind.

Some of the disengagement can be put down to the pandemic. Covid has had an undoubted detrimental effect on our collective mental health. The New Zealand Herald’s excellent series “Great Minds: The search for happiness” has shown that, although we had a mental health crisis before the pandemic arrived, it was exacerbated by the virus and affected the well-being of the country at large. It had descended into a Covid fog. The newspaper and its stablemate Newstalk ZB tried to offer suggestions on how people could navigate their way out of pandemic-induced anxiety and depression.

What they have not acknowledged, however, is that they themselves are part of the problem.

The Reuters Institute report found a range of reasons for disengagement. They are set out in the graphic below and clearly news of the pandemic itself has (unfortunately) become a turn-off.

Covid-19 is, however, just a specific focus for negative stories. If you looked at local lead story headlines when the country was at Red alert, you would see what I mean: “Deadliest Day”, “Dying Wish”, “Devastating blow”, “Covid deepens cancer crisis”, “IT’S HERE”. The same goes for politics, where polarisation guarantees conflict and, you guessed it, negative news.

Some respondents obviously gave the Reuters Institute researchers more than one reason for news avoidance but I think it is reasonable to assume that at least half – maybe more – were demotivated by negative news.

I looked back over front page lead story headlines in New Zealand metropolitan papers in June and the results confirmed that we, too, are fed a steady diet of negative stories. More than three quarters of the New Zealand Herald’s leads last month were negative, as were around two-thirds of those in the Press and Otago Daily Times. More than half the Dominion Post’s leads fell into the category and, although it was best of the bunch, the Waikato Times still clocked up 46 per cent. There was plenty of doom and gloom about and the old mantra ‘If it bleeds, it leads’ was well to the fore, particularly in the Herald, where 13 of the leads were about crime or serious injury.

However, the Reuters Institute survey and anecdotal evidence suggests that public tastes are changing. Perhaps it is due to the sheer volume of information with which people are being bombarded and the amount of negative news is proving to be more than just a turn-off. It is affecting people’s mental wellbeing. Amanda Ripley summed up the effect in her Washington Post piece:

“…the news crept into every crevice of life. I couldn’t avoid exposure — in my email inbox, on social media, in text messages from friends. I tried to toughen up. I gave myself stern lectures: “This is real life, and real life is depressing! There is a pandemic happening, for God’s sake. Plus: Racism! Also: Climate change! And inflation! Things are depressing. You should be depressed!

“The problem is, I wasn’t taking action. The dismay was paralyzing. It’s not like I was reading about yet another school shooting and then firing off an email to my member of Congress. No, I’d read too many stories about the dysfunction in Congress to think that would matter. All individual action felt pointless once I was done reading the news. Mostly, I was just marinating in despair.”

Ripley’s vulnerability to negative news was shared by some of her friends and colleagues. It is hardly surprising: A study by Humboldt University in Berlin last year found that the human brain has a propensity to process negative headlines more readily than positive ones and has a greater susceptibility to negative news. It is understandable that, given such a predisposition, some people simply avoid exposure.

There are plenty of aphorisms to justify the journalistic leaning toward bad news and plenty of evidence in the form of tabloid circulation figures to show that, in the past, it has worked. However, many of the industry’s truisms have been turned on their heads in recent years and maybe the consequences of Covid and the cost of living mean we have enough misery floating around our own doorsteps that the fun has gone out of journalists feeding our well-documented but unacknowledged sense of schadenfreude.

In his book The News: A user’s manual Alain de Botton was, I think, a little too kind when he explained that we may expose ourselves to “barbaric tales” in order to retain a tighter hold on our more civilised selves, “to nurture our always ephemeral reserves of patience, self-control, forgiveness and empathy.” Then again, there may be something in what he says. Maybe our reserves of those qualities have run out and we are too demoralised to bother.

When New Zealand went into Level 4 lockdown in March 2020 I wrote a commentary in which I foresaw the dangers facing our nation’s morale and fortitude. I drew parallels with the Second World War and the role that media played. I called for their modern counterparts to adopt what I called “adversity journalism”. Yes, they had to report the bad news “but even dark days need to be reported in ways that do not adversely impact the public’s willingness to soldier on.”

There were times when that did happen but our news media have now reverted to form in spite of the fact that the pandemic – and other pressures – remain with us. The country’s mood is dark, darker than it should be. And our news media must take some responsibility for that.

News avoidance is the worst possible outcome for both media organisations and for civil society. It will accelerate the shrinkage of traditional media, privilege unscrupulous commentators over legitimate digital news providers, and hamper the flow of professionally mediated information to the public at large.

There needs to be a reset. Amanda Ripley says three things need to re-injected into the news: Hope, a sense of agency, and dignity.

“There is a way to communicate news — including very bad news — that leaves us better off as a result,” she said. “A way to spark anger and action. Empathy alongside dignity. Hope alongside fear. There is another way, and it doesn’t lead to bankruptcy or puffery.”

To her list I would add balance. I do not mean the internal structure of a story that fairly represents its various sides. Rather, I am talking about a balance between light and shade in each edition or bulletin. It is the mix of stories that is as wrong as anything. Too much dark, not enough sunlight.

We see glimpses of it –positive stories that either give us a sense of progress or an appreciation of the human spirit. But they are too few and too often relegated.

Maybe Sunday Star Times editor Tracy Watkins is seeing the light. Last Sunday she led with a three-page special report on how to feel good. In it psychologist Karen Nimmo offered six tools for personal happiness, after setting out why we are so unhappy. “In 2022…happiness feels even more out of reach. With the world in turmoil, the cost of living hiking, Covid still hovering and a daily barrage of grim news, it’s easy to become overwhelmed by doom and gloom. But it’s also a trap, because it sells us on the belief that life is hopeless, that it’s all downhill, that things will never get better – and that our lives are at the mercy of fate.”

What I would like to have seen was an editorial stating the Sunday Star Times understood the part that it, too, had played in collective dejection and the role it should play in people’s happiness. It could also have made amends for the previous week when the paper led with a special report saying we were going to hell in a handbasket.


3 thoughts on “The bad news is people are avoiding the news

  1. I definitely manage my news diet. I do so by reading widely, including long form, thoughtful pieces, profiles, backgrounders etc that give a more nuanced, often less dark, sometimes hopeful view of events. But the most helpful thing for understanding our world is, I find, well researched, well written nonfiction books.
    For a pick-me-up you could start with Humankind, a hopeful history by Rutger Bregman.

    1. Gavin Ellis – Gavin Ellis is a media consultant, commentator and researcher. He holds a doctorate in political studies. A former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, he is the author of Trust Ownership and the Future of News: Media Moguls and White Knights (London, Palgrave) and Complacent Nation (Wellington, BWB Texts). His consultancy clients include media organisations and government ministries. His Tuesday Commentary on media matters appears weekly on his site
      Gavin Ellis says:

      Yes Pip but you represent the exception. Too many people are finding it much easier to simply look away.

  2. I don’t avoid news, after 45 years working mainly in newspapers that would be absurd.

    But what I do shy away from is any form of rolling news coverage where the same, sometimes disturbing, stories and images are repeated again and again. The classic example was the September 11 attack when the same, often graphic, footage was shown over and over.

    For me, once is enough. There is no need to wallow in it. If events are changing I can always return in a few hours to get the latest update.

    There was no need to avoid news when it was parcelled out in tight, carefully curated, little servings; printed newspapers twice a day, one big daily bulletin on TV and radio. Now it is everywhere all the time it’s understandable that some people withdraw.

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