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Why people avoid the news; and what to do to fix things

The 2022 report on the consumption of digital information shows interesting trends and raises questions. This annual report from the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford tracks public trust in the media in 46 countries, including India. The previous report (2021) showed an increase in this confidence, and was attributed to a “pandemic bump”: much of the news focused on the Covid-19 pandemic; the media are more dependent on official sources during crises; and no doubt, the jump reflects this connection.

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

US media have lost up to three percentage points in confidence over the past year. Independent news portals and YouTube-based channels, including those funded by companies, have sprung up. But the confidence deficit is back.

The loudest pre-warning alarm for news media in India and elsewhere is that not only has trust declined, but interest in news appears to have plummeted across the globe: a whopping 63% drop. last year to 52% this year. India’s sample prominently includes younger urban media users, pointing to future consumption patterns. Over the past two decades, the television news media has aired content, generated a continuous spectacle around our lives, sparked an atmosphere of anxiety, and attempted to redefine truths in a consumer-centric way.

Arguably, the decline in interest would have been more pronounced had it not been for this year’s most buoyant news event: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Could this be the beginning of a process of healing after two decades of hype, spectacle and self-glorification of the audiovisual news media?

There is another important observation in the consumption of digital information, what the report calls “selective avoidance”. While 42% of respondents said they avoided the news completely, 72% said they avoided the news occasionally. The reasons should be obvious – mood impacts, news fatigue, and interpersonal conflict. Television and then the Internet successfully replaced newspapers to a damaging extent. But with the drama on television and the unreliability of information on the Internet, this avoidance must be seen as a trust factor. If I don’t trust something, I’m not likely to buy it, let alone buy into it.

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

On the other hand, selective avoidance indicates a conscious act of deselection. So why is this happening?

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

In the digital media ecosystem, we no longer need to search for news. Instead, the news finds us. While algorithms do this job of finding us, the phenomenon of news finds us has also given rise to an expectation that a wide range of news will “find us”. A 2017 study shows that people who believe the news will find it are less likely to use traditional news sources and, over time, become less knowledgeable about politics. Meanwhile, the digital offices of news channels and newspapers are producing stories specifically for social media consumption. This further complicates matters as stories compete for higher visibility, creating more content that blurs the lines between content genres. Many Facebook users (23% in India) told the Reuters-Oxford survey that there was “too much news” on their feed. So, one might ask, is the difference between information, opinion, entertainment and promotion on social media actually blurring? The confusion of news and content means that 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 picture of consumption. The most basic difference between news and content is that while news is self-contained, content is controlled. Of course, the management of information — at the level of source, production and dissemination — is controlled. That is to say, devoid of any control, the information is inherently autonomous because it is based on the incident, on which a media event is mounted and influential sources jump on the bandwagon of media events.

When it comes to news producers, many respondents said they don’t understand news.

Perhaps the biggest question for news platforms in this survey is how to reclaim brand loyalty from the clutter. Building contexts for better understanding will lead to linear and longitudinal consumption of information. But it’s also important not to view the Reuters-Oxford study as a brand-only exercise, and also to reinvest in developing information in a way that the media user can contextualize the issues of more fruitfully and better understand his world. This might be the start of a serious attempt at “recovering” the news.

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