The latest Reuters report on the state of the international news market has sounded an alarm for news producers: the systematic avoidance of certain categories of news by large sections of readers. Although this trend has been visible in certain markets for several years, the latest figures show that it is now a widespread phenomenon across international news markets.
Of course the events of the past two years — the COVID-19 pandemic, the war in Ukraine, and the increasing impact of climate change — have created a news environment that is more negative than usual, but this is unlikely to be the whole story.
What’s driving this disengagement? How can news producers combat its effects?
What is news avoidance?
The term selective news avoidance, coined by Reuters, defines the behavior in which people worldwide “increasingly choose to ration or limit their exposure to [news] — or at least to certain types of news.” This habit is rising across all studied markets, with citizens of Brazil, the United Kingdom, and the United States distancing themselves from news the most. There are several reasons for this avoidance.
As 43% of study respondents said, there was just too much news about politics or COVID-19. In addition, 29% of respondents said the sheer amount of information wore them out. Another 29% said the news is biased or untrustworthy. And a significant proportion said they avoid the news because it negatively affects their mood (36%). This should be of no surprise, as studies have found that consistent exposure to bad news and graphic images can result in PTSD-like symptoms. Additionally, younger audiences in several western countries have trouble understanding and following traditional news reporting.
This avoidance has significant implications for the digital news markets. All markets saw a drop in news interest from 63% in 2017 to 51% in 2022. With fewer people consuming news and pressure on household budgets from increasing energy prices and inflation, this is a phenomenon that is likely to impact publishers’ bottom lines.
Combating news avoidance
The news industry has become increasingly digital over the past decade, with digital newspaper advertising expected to surpass print by 2026. As such, news publishers must learn how to individuate themselves and grab readers’ attention in the online space. Here are four strategies:
Develop a customer persona
Publishers should take notes from marketers and develop a customer persona. Also referred to as a buyer persona, a customer persona helps companies and organizations identify their target audience. To combat the omnipresent algorithms on social media and the sheer amount of information on the internet, publishers need to get specific about who they show their content to and how.
Say they want to reach a younger audience, like Gen Z. Born between 1996 and 2012, this generation primarily consumes video content on apps like Snapchat, TikTok, and Instagram. They also care about different topics — or more about existing ones — than previous generations. For example, three of the top social matters for Gen Z are healthcare, racial equity, and economic security.
To connect with this group, publishers should prioritize video content on these topics. The Washington Post does a great job of this. The newspaper started its TikTok account in May 2019 and has since amassed over 1.4 million followers. The organization posts videos daily using trending sounds and transitions, taking a comedic approach to “negative” topics like monkeypox and the recession.
Utilize social media
According to a Datareportal report released in January, 4.62 billion people worldwide are active social media users — many of these users look to their social media for news. To capture these users’ attention successfully, publishers should understand each social media platform and why people are there.
For example, the rapidly growing TikTok saw a shift in purpose this year. Users will remember the original app as a feed full of choreographed dances and lip-syncing videos. However, this year’s Russian-Ukrainian conflict led to an uptick in users looking to the platform for their news as Ukrainians document their experience with the war, and major news networks join the app to combat misinformation.
While there has been speculation over the years on the relevance of Facebook, it remains the most used platform for news — 59% of Reuter’s African respondents say they look to the app for information. However, many Facebook users say they see too much news on the app.
As What’s New in Publishing writes, “[N]ot all content is suitable for every social media platform.” Learn the demographics of each social media site and identify users’ motivations for being there to understand how to use social media effectively for news.
Engage in creative storytelling
Even once publishers have succeeded in getting their news in front of people, they still need to entice them to engage with it. Publishers can differentiate their stories from the millions of other information by utilizing creative storytelling.
One way to do this is through effective data visualization. Effective data visualization goes beyond aesthetics to elevate a story and leave a lasting impression on readers through an objective and easy-to-understand presentation of complex data.
The New York Times excels at this. In an article from June 2022, “How America Lost One Million People,” the NYT uses scrolling, moving graphics to illustrate the impact of COVID-19 in the United States. As the reader scrolls, they see hundreds of dots come together and then separate to create graphs and maps illustrating the death toll across the country. This non-traditional structure maintains readers’ attention, making them more likely to read the entire piece and retain its information.
Make the news easier to understand
Most news is complex. However, with 15% of younger readers citing “difficult to understand” as their main reason for news avoidance, news publishers need to explore easier ways to present important information.
Podcasts are a potential avenue. After a pause due to the pandemic, podcasting is on the rise again within the publishing space, with over 34% of people in 20 countries saying they listen to at least one or two podcasts a month. 12% of those listeners select a news podcast as one of their monthly listens, according to the Reuters report. Some popular news podcasts today are The Daily by the NYT, CNN 5 Things, and Up First by NPR.
Publishers have known for decades that an enticing headline and a good hook are the keys to attracting and retaining readers. These aspects remain staples, but with news avoidance on the rise, publishers need to adopt a few more tactics to keep people engaged.
Also a question of trust
One of the most cited reasons for news avoidance is the perceived untrustworthiness of the news media.
Recent surveys have shown a significant fall in the percentage of news consumers who trust the news media in their country to provide them with reliable reporting. This loss of trust has been most striking in the USA which came last in a recent survey of 47 countries with just 26% of respondents saying they trusted their news media to tell them the truth.
In a future post, we shall be looking at in more detail at the results of this and other surveys probing the delicate question of trust in the relationship between news media and their audiences.