The latest Reuters report shows that people are avoiding news in greater numbers than ever—because it is depressing! Why is this happening? And what does it mean for the future of those who produce news—and those who consume it?
Researched by: Rachel John & Anannya Parekh
The Reuters Institute report: A quick recap
In part one of this series, we looked at the alarming results of a global survey conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. Here’s what it found:
- The number of news consumers who sometimes or often avoid the news is at an all-time high of 36%.
- The overall demand for news is going down: “Online consumers are accessing news less frequently than in the past and are also becoming less interested.”
- The number of people actively engaged with the news has dropped precipitously. Only 22% share or comment on news—with 47% (!!!) not participating at all.
- More people than ever get their news from social media—than directly from a news outlet. And even on these platforms they pay greater attention to influencers and personalities.
- The number of people willing to pay for news has stalled out even in wealthier countries.
- Last but not least, trust in the media continues to plummet—though it remains relatively high in India.
Doomscrolling is done
The key reason for ‘news avoidance’ is that it is depressing. The pandemic era of doomscrolling—which marked the resurgence of news consumption—is over. As the world’s problems continue to pile up—Ukraine war, climate change, looming recession—people are switching off. Last year’s Reuters report captured the reason why:
Across markets, many news avoiders say they are put off by the repetitiveness of the news agenda—especially around politics and COVID-19 (43%). Around 36%—particularly those under 35—say that the news brings down their mood. Others say the news leads to arguments they’d rather avoid (17%) or leads to feelings of powerlessness (16%). A significant proportion of younger people say they avoid news because it can be hard to follow.
Interestingly, those most likely to be affected by a significant but negative news development were more likely to turn away from it. Example: News avoidance was higher in countries closest to the Ukraine conflict—like Germany and Poland.
The ‘negativity bias’ problem
In sum, the news industry is facing an unprecedented crisis of demand. More people than ever do not like its product—because it makes them feel bad. So why don’t news outlets simply switch to offering more ‘positive’ news—which these news avoiders claim to want? The reason: it is a well-established fact that human beings prefer bad news. No, not because we like it—but because our brains are wired to pay more attention to it.
Negativity bias: Decades of research shows that we are more interested in and influenced by downer information—of any kind. We suffer from a ‘negativity bias’ in “memory and attention across all kinds of stimuli.” For example: we give more weight to negative descriptions of a stranger’s personality than the positive ones.
A 17-nation study found that it is the same with news. When responding to seven BBC News stories, it “found that negative news provoked stronger physiological reactions and garnered more attention than positive or neutral news on average.”
Damning data: A more recent study published in March underlined the results by looking at 105,000 headlines published on Upworthy—which typically publishes upbeat news. The researchers concluded, “The presence of positive words in a news headline significantly decreases the likelihood of a headline being clicked on.” More unhappily: “Even controlling for the same news story, framing more negatively increases engagement.”
The negativity ‘carrot’: Now, journalists are also human—so there is a negativity bias on the supply side of news, as well. More importantly, newsrooms—like any other business—will serve people more of what they actually want (not what they claim to want). What’s interesting is that people veer toward positive content across most of the internet—think, viral cat videos. And news itself is only a minor part of their content diet. But their negativity bias is the strongest in that small segment:
But although news makes up a small fraction of online content, this is where negativity seems to have the biggest lift for traffic. Robertson said her research validated several other studies showing that people are “especially likely” to consume political and economic news “when it is negative.”
The big question: The newsroom mantra—’if it bleeds, it leads’—has long recognised this bias. So why is it a problem for news consumers now?
Enter, the algorithm
For over a decade, big platforms—like Google Search, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram—have taken over the distribution of news. If you want people to read your stories, then you have to ensure they are visible on these platforms. This means keeping their algorithms happy. This Web 2.0 model of digital news has amplified the effect of the negativity bias—to an unprecedented (and now unbearable) degree.
One: The number of people who actively participate in sharing news is dwindling. But those who are ‘active’ are more likely to share news that triggers “high-arousal emotions” such as outrage:
“There’s evidence that the people who post and retweet are both in the minority of online users and tend to be more extreme than the average user,” Robertson said. “When taking this into account, it’s logical that high-arousal content is most often shared or posted, even when it’s not what people are most interested in.”
Two: Now, add in the fact that algorithms are rigged to maximise engagement—and therefore prioritise these kinds of posts:
From 2016 to 2019, Facebook gave “anger” emoji reactions to posts five times as much weight as “likes” in deciding which posts to show other users because their machine learning algorithms found posts that angered people fueled more engagement than posts that pleased them. That partly reflected that humans do, in fact, prefer to share news that enrages them, but it also magnified that tendency, which has costs for both the site and its users.
Three: Now pile on the other great tech asset: user data, lots of it. We can now closely monitor consumer behaviour—what we click on, what gets likes, views etc.—the greatest time spent. The data-driven newsroom is supposed to be better at giving consumers what they want. But those numbers also incentivise our negative bias:
The news industry has better data than ever about what articles and posts people click on, how long they read, and how much they share. We can A/B-test headlines to squeeze a few thousand more clicks out of our audience by identifying the perfect curiosity gap. But perhaps the quantitative revolution in media is exacerbating the bad-news bias of news organisations.
Four: This is also the problem with personalisation. Social media algorithms are engineered to give you more of what you engage most with. In the area of news, this content is most often negative. In effect, we become enemies of our own mental health:
[I]t also places consumers at the mercy of their own impulses. While at a higher level they may want to want news that makes them less miserable, in the moment they might prefer doomy news — and the media and the platforms they depend on are only too happy to serve up the bad.
The key takeaway: We now live in a news eco-system built around our most immediate impulses—what makes us click or hit share/like etc. But this is bad for us in the long run—as is the case with, say, our love for candy. One industry expert offers the perfect analogy:
He analogizes the current situation to an algorithmically run airline, which decides to only serve the meals people most want in the moment. That airline would start by offering people either, say, potato chips or baby carrots; when almost everyone chose the potato chips, maybe they’d move on to asking “potato chips or brownies,” then “brownies or ice cream,” and before long the whole menu is sugar. That satisfies people’s immediate preferences, but in the long run it makes them miserable.
Can we escape the doom & gloom cycle?
At a time when the industry is grappling with its next great tech challenge—the rise of AI content—things may seem hopeless. Are we going to drown instead in vast amounts of machine-generated news—a cheaper and even more efficient way to feed our negativity bias? Actually, not—if we apply the same lens of ‘conscious consumption’ to our news diet. This in turn requires producers of news to step outside the tech-driven paradigm that has made everyone miserable—including journalists themselves.
A first step: is to establish a direct relationship between the news outlet and the audience—so neither is at the mercy of the everchanging algorithm of a vast tech platform. Here’s what Axios predicts:
AI will rain a hellfire of fake and doctored content on the world, starting now. That'll push readers to seek safer and trusted sources of news — directly instead of through the side door of social media. Advertisers will shift to safer, well-lit spaces, creating a healthy incentive for some publishers to get rid of the litter you see on their sites today. That shift is already happening.
Point to note: This direct relationship also requires (to some extent) paying for news—so your news provider isn’t forced to generate tens of millions of views by churning out clickbait—whether written by a machine or a news deskie.
More than just an ‘audience’: As the Washington Post also rightly points out, it requires communicating directly with those you speak to—rather than relying on data: “In journalism, treating people like they matter means, most importantly, listening to them… It can mean inviting viewers to talk to each other, with civility.” That requires viewing your audience as your community—not just subscribers or viewers—and meeting their far greater need for hope and, yes, joy.
Rise of the ‘niche’: This has long been a dirty word in the news industry—ever since the internet made staggeringly large numbers of users the core metric of success. But conscious consumers of news will no longer want to rely on mass platforms—and focus instead on brands that offer quality and integrity:
The days of gaming social media algorithms are coming to an abrupt — and needed — end. Commoditized or general interest content will fade in value. Any company betting only on high traffic seems doomed. The demand for subject matter expertise will rise fast… Prepare for a world of fewer big, generic brands — but more and better niche companies aimed at your passions.
The big question: When will investors who fund media get the memo?
The bottomline: There will always be a market for mass-produced, quick content that offers speed and convenience—aimed at chalking up big numbers. But the real future of news—in the most meaningful sense of the word—lies outside this daily shitstorm of noise and negativity.
PS: The Reuters report vindicates everything we bet on when we launched splainer three years ago. No, we’re not feeling smug. Why do you ask? Lol!
- If you only read two things, make it The Atlantic and Vox on the negativity of news. Each comes at the problem from a slightly different angle—and offers excellent insights.
- Amanda Ripley in the Washington Post (splainer gift link) has a very good column on why even journalists hate reading the news.
- Axios offers a slew of interesting predictions on the future of news.
- Read The Guardian and Economist for more on the role of AI.
- This recent panel on AI-driven news in Delhi—which included leading tech journalists and media experts—is worth a watch as it is more balanced on its risks and benefits.
- The latest Reuters Institute report is here—and the 2022 report is here. Or read the key takeaways in our Big Story.
- We weren’t able to get into the controversy over Reuters’ trust ratings for independent news organisations. You can read why Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa is upset in The Guardian. And Scroll argues these news outlets inspire lower levels of trust because they are most often targets of smear campaigns.