Why people are avoiding news; and what must be done to fix things

Only 42 per cent of respondents said they trust news

The 2022 report on digital news consumption shows interesting trends and raises questions. This annual report by Reuters Institute at Oxford University tracks public trust in media in 46 countries, including India. The previous (2021) report showed an increase in that trust, and was attributed to a “pandemic bump”: Much of the news was focused on the Covid-19 pandemic; the media depends more on official sources during crises; and arguably, the jump reflects this connection.

Countering that trend was the politics around the pandemic, and it seems people had an overdose of that part, frustrating the usability of news. That brief honeymoon for the news media seems to be over. This year, trust levels have fallen again, albeit higher than pre-pandemic years’ trends. (The pandemic isn’t really over.) Only 42 per cent of respondents said they trust news. The United States records the lowest trust, at 26 per cent, while it’s highest in Finland, where 69 per cent find it trustworthy.

The US media lost as many as three percentage points of trust over last year. Independent news portals and YouTube-based channels, including corporate-funded ones, have emerged. But trust deficit is back.

The louder pre-alarm alarm for the news media in India and elsewhere is that not only has trust been declining, interest in news appears to have fallen across the world: a huge plunge from 63 per cent last year to 52 per cent this year. The India sample prominently comprises younger urban media users, so this underlines future consumption patterns. Over the past two decades, television news media has hyped content, generated a continuous spectacle around our lives, triggered an atmosphere of anxiety, and attempted to redefine truths in consumer-driven ways.

Arguably, the decline in interest would have been steeper in the absence of this year’s most sustained news event: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Can this be the beginning of a settling down process after two decades of hype, spectacle and self-aggrandisation of the audio-visual news media?

There is another significant observation in digital news consumption, something the report calls “selective avoidance”. While a startling 42 per cent of respondents said they avoid news completely, a high 72 per cent said they avoid news occasionally. The reasons should be evident -- impacts on mood, weariness from the sheer quantum of news, and driver of interpersonal conflicts. Television and then the Internet successfully replaced newspapers to a damaging extent. But with the drama on TV and the unreliability of Internet-based information, this avoidance should be seen as a factor of trust. If I don’t trust something, I am not likely to buy it, much less buy into it.

We should also view this trend as a part of a longer-term process: Joseph Klapper observed over 60 years ago that people only selectively expose their attention to, perceive and retain media messages. More recent extensions to that study have included observations around selective attention, selective distortion, selective interaction, and influences of the availability of information on selectivity, of echo chambers and filter bubbles, and so on.

On the other hand, selective avoidance points to a conscious act of de-selection. So why is this occurring?

Selective avoidance may explain why a majority of people distrust a news brand. When a reader selects a media story, they automatically select the media platform. Researchers have called this co-selection. But if that selection becomes deliberate and repeated (such as subscribing to a newspaper), this co-selection becomes equivalent to brand loyalty. But social media and digital aggregation of news (as on Google News) have confounded this process.

In the digital media ecosystem, we no longer need to seek news. Instead, news finds us. As algorithms do this job of finding us, the phenomenon of news-finds-us has also resulted in an expectation that a wide spectrum of news will “find us”. A 2017 study shows that individuals who believe news will find them are less likely to use traditional news sources and, over time, are less knowledgeable on politics. Meanwhile, the digital desks of news channels and newspapers are producing news stories specifically for social media consumption. This further complicates things because stories are competing to attain better visibility — thus creating more content that blurs the boundaries between content genres. Many Facebook users (23 per cent from India) told the Reuters-Oxford survey that there is “too much news” on their feed. So, we may ask, is the difference between information, opinion, entertainment and promotion on social media effectively becoming blurred? The conflation of news and content means we cannot define news in the same way as before.

The Reuters-Oxford research does not study content, but should lead us to probe how content fits into the consumption picture. The most fundamental difference between news and content is that while news is autonomous, content is controlled. Of course, management of news — at source, production and dissemination levels — is controlled. That’s to say, bereft of all control, news is inherently autonomous because it is based on incident, upon which a media event is mounted and influential sources hop on the bandwagon of media events.

Concerningly for news producers, many respondents said they don’t understand the news.

Perhaps the biggest question for news platforms from this survey is how to reclaim brand loyalty from the clutter. Building contexts for better comprehension will lead to a linear, longitudinal consumption of news. But it is also important not to look at the Reuters-Oxford study as a brand-related exercise alone, and also to reinvest in the development of news in such a way that the media user can contextualise issues more fruitfully and understand their world better. Perhaps that would be the beginning of a serious attempt to “reclaim” the news.

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