Dr Benajmin Toff, speaking at Newsrewired, May 2023

Credit: Mark Hakansson / Mousetrap Media

News avoidance is a trend that has had the industry concerned for the last few years. In the last Reuters Institute Digital News Report, nearly half (41 per cent) of Britons said they sometimes or often avoided the news, citing mental health, negative news and information overload as some of the top reasons why.

But there is a smaller subset of audiences known as consistent news avoiders who say they consume news less than once a month or not at all. They make up about three percent of the population on average. But in countries like the US or the UK, where that percentage jumps to between six and seven, there are millions of ordinary people who would fall into this camp.

These consistent news avoiders are one of the main points of focus in a new book called Avoiding the News: Reluctant Audiences for Journalism.

Consistent news avoiders tend to be socially and politically disadvantaged, such as women, younger people, and those from lower socioeconomic classes. They become, as a result, less informed and feel less able to follow politics and news coverage.

Ultimately, they feel frustrated that the news does not appear to meet their needs. They often lead busy, stressful and anxious lives, too, meaning they are happier for abandoning the news, and there seems to be little direct consequence for doing so. They are also not integrated in the types of communities that news lovers - people who consume 10 or more pieces of news a day - are, which reinforce regular news habits.

How newsrooms can reach audiences who want nothing to do with them, and in fact, do not see their avoidance as an issue?

Increasing the quantity, form or access to news content would likely make no difference, says Benjamin Toff, co-author of the book, and assistant professor at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication, director of the Minnesota Journalism Centre, and the former lead of the Reuters Institutes' Trust In News project, speaking on the Journalism.co.uk podcast.

Even the least anxiety-inducing and lightweight type of news could go under the radar of a consistent news avoider. However, people who converted from news avoider to news reader within six months mostly pointed towards the power of word of mouth.

"When people had gotten more interested in news, it was often related to another person in their life that had kind of recommended a certain form of news that worked for their day-to-day life. And, to me, that's where there's an opportunity," says Toff.

"Part of it is it has to fit the structural constraints of people's lives, and it has to be something reinforced socially. I think there is real potential there. But it is hard. For so many people, they've created a black-and-white line between [news] they want nothing to do with and don't feel like it has much benefits in their lives. And if that's the starting point, it is a really tough, uphill road to travel."

News avoidance - consistent or selective - is not necessarily permanent, either. Some pointed towards personal circumstances, like having children, as a moment where news became a plate too many to carry. Younger news avoiders also projected themselves as more active news consumers in the future.

The online landscape is also a minefield, and some people simply find that they cannot navigate it themselves, making total disengagement a swifter solution. Toff and his co-authors call for the news industry to make a concerted effort to show why journalism can be trusted, in an environment where lots of other sources cannot be.

What better opportunity than the elections happening all around the world this year? Consistent news avoiders often feel just as alienated by politics as they do news, and newsrooms have an opportunity to help voters head to the polls feeling informed. But they need to change their approach.

"Political reporting tends to get so focused on the inside strategy, the horse race and what people who are super interested in politics are most interested in. But ultimately, for much of the rest of the public, this is precisely the sort of irrelevant information to their lives that they are least interested in," explains Toff.

"There's a lot of the public who are just looking for like a better guide to understanding what's going on. There's a lot of news avoiders that we talked to in the UK who had a hard time placing themselves on the right or left end of the ideological spectrum, who didn't really know they knew what the parties were, and they didn't really know how they fit into the parties.

"A lot of them would see political content as bickering between politicians who just felt disconnected from anything they actually cared about. And they saw journalists as being a part of that rather than serving them."

Continue the conversation with us at the digital journalism conference Newsrewired on 22 May 2024. Check out the full agenda and grab your ticket now

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