ISOJ panelists discuss the current state of growing news avoidance and what journalists can do about it

View video of panel here.

News avoidance is a long-standing and increasing problem facing journalists.

In the past several years, much of the public has shown increasing distrust in the media which has directly lent itself to their intentional and unintentional avoidance of news. In fact, research has found about one in 10 individuals consume news less than once a month. Experts at the International Symposium on Online Journalism (ISOJ) offered their ideas April 15 for how journalists can regain their connection with audiences and respond to news avoidance.

During the “How to respond to news avoidance and reconnect with audiences through new approaches” panel, moderated by LaSharah Bunting, CEO and executive director of the Online News Association, panelists discussed the broader issue of news avoidance and their ideas of what the future of news might look like.

Man at the podium
Jay Rosen, an associate professor at New York University, suggested the makers of news avoidance are an important factor for why people avoid the news.

Bunting introduced Ben Toff, senior research fellow at the Reuters Institute, who described what news avoidance is and shared some of his related research at the Institute where he and fellow researchers interviewed more than 160 news avoiders.

Toff revealed that the most consistent news avoiders tend to belong to groups that lack power and privilege, including those from lower socioeconomic statuses, young people and women. Political affiliation, particularly those who don’t lean one way or another, also contributed to higher levels of news avoidance. The reasons vary from leading a stressful life, to mistrust and to feeling an overwhelming sense of constant doom and gloom.

“It wasn’t a single thing,” he said. “There is a disconnect between people’s perceptions of what is valuable and worthwhile in the news and in their own everyday lives. I think that there’s [a] real opportunity to engage with news avoiders by paying closer attention to people’s distinct experiences.”

Dmitry Shishkin, an independent media consultant based in the United Kingdom, emphasized the necessity of user needs models as a solution to this growing issue. He suggested that “the way many newsrooms choose to cover topics is wrong” because they’re not providing audiences with what they want to see. Choosing the right angles for a story and then committing to creating quality content is key to newsroom success and dealing with news avoidance, he said.

“If you satisfy your audience’s quantum needs creatively, consistently [then] strategic growth will come,” Shishkin said. “Focus on quality. Understand your focus and create the best possible content for that quality.”

Talia Stroud, founder and director of the Center for Media Engagement at UT Austin, highlighted what news avoidance looks like at the local level.

“Journalists are human and ensuring their rights is a human rights issue,” she said. In this sense, it must be taken into account that journalists bring to their work all the particularities of their being and any stressful factor will have an impact on the way journalism is done.

According to Stroud, despite local news maintaining public trust at a higher rate than national news, it still only commands half of the public’s trust which reveals a need for local media to engage their audiences more.

In a study comparing what Philadelphians want to see in their local news versus what the local news actually covered, Stroud found that local newsrooms were not consistently discussing the topics that Philadeplhians desired. Issues like sanitation, poverty, and traffic and parking “are being covered far less frequently in comparison to people saying that these are issues that are important in their neighborhoods.”

She explained that “this isn’t a report card” but rather an opportunity for local news to understand that one of the reasons news avoidance occurs is that “they’re not talking about the issues that affect [people] in their day-to-day lives and their neighborhoods.”

Understand local needs

Stroud proceeded to offer ideas for how journalists might be able to understand what their local audience needs, including everything from just Googling to using tools like Hearken or monitoring traffic patterns.

Jay Rosen, an associate professor at New York University and the author of PressThink, introduced an important “missing factor” in the conversation: the makers of news avoidance. The makers of news avoidance are not the journalists and editors creating the news, but rather the individuals who benefit from the continuance of news avoidance.

He exemplified a maker of news avoidance in Steve Bannon, former White House chief strategist. Rosen explained that by “flooding the zone with crap,” which closely resembles Bannon’s famous words in reference to the media, the makers of news avoidance are able “to dismay, confuse and overwhelm people and thus drive them from the public square” to aid their own cause.

“The firehose of falsehood is what you flood the zone with,” Rosen said. “[The method is] well adapted to the Internet age, with its competition for attention, its super abundance of content and zero marginal cost of distribution. [The] business model for news requires clicks. And the easiest way to get attention is through a firehose of outrage, fear and doom.”

While the panelists’ presentations revealed in-depth issues surrounding news avoidance, they also emphasized what editors, journalists and news organizations as a whole can do, signifying that all hope is not lost. During the Q&A period, each of the panelists discussed their hopes and cautious optimism for the future of news avoidance.

Author’s Bio: Raiyan Shaik is a first-year journalism major at the University of Texas at Austin. Shaik currently reports for The Daily Texan and Texas Primetime.