An annual global survey conducted by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has quantified what many people may have already suspected — that Americans are increasingly disengaged from the news. The study found that 15% of Americans had not accessed any news in the past week, up from just 3% in 2013. Moreover, the proportion of Americans who said they were “very” or “extremely” interested in the news had dropped from 67% in 2015 to just 47% in 2022, and those who said that they “sometimes” or “often” avoided the news had risen from 38% in 2017 to 42% in 2022.
Why are Americans avoiding the news?
Both internationally and in the United States, the most common reasons given by respondents were that the news contains too much coverage of politics and COVID-19, that the news brings down the respondents’ mood, that they felt overwhelmed by the amount of news, and that the news is untrustworthy or biased. For the U.S. in particular, the report broke down respondents’ reasons for avoiding the news by political leanings, revealing clear ideological divides.
Respondents left and right appear to be more or less equally put off by the news. But left-leaning respondents reported substantially more news fatigue, and right-leaning respondents were more than twice as likely to object to coverage of politics and COVID-19 — and more than three times more likely to feel that the news is too biased.
The survey didn’t answer why Americans feel this way, and there is surely not a single simple explanation. Polarization, however, is likely a significant factor.
Polarization Stokes Perceptions of Bias
Polarization is nothing new in America. The nation was founded as a fraught compromise between regional interests who clashed bitterly over economic rivalries and the status of slavery. The Civil War and the Reconstruction Amendments to the U.S. Constitution ended slavery, but the underlying regionalism, factionalism, and class divides have remained, though they have evolved.
The proliferation of cable television in the ’80s and ’90s, and of websites in the 2000s and 2010s, has made mass-media business models that exploit and amplify these underlying differences feasible. Today, a national news organization may address itself exclusively to one side of an ideological contest and still reach enough viewers, listeners, or readers to turn massive profits.
As a result, we see increasing siloing of information as audience members select news organizations that speak to them and reject organizations that do not. The Reuters study is consistent with this analysis. The survey found that polarization is especially strong in the U.S., where audiences tend to self-sort by their preferred news outlets.
Moreover, several news organizations have staked out large followings by branding themselves in opposition to “mainstream” journalism. The largest and most influential of these leans to the right. To maintain their brand identity, they must constantly attack “mainstream” outlets. So it makes sense that Americans who lean to the right would be especially likely to view the news as biased and untrustworthy. That message is orthodoxy in the information ecosystems they have selected for themselves.
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Polarization Raises the Stakes
News avoiders seem to experience a sense of malaise with respect to the news. It wearies them, overwhelms them, and kills their good mood. To some degree, these feelings are probably also due to polarization.
Polarization takes already thorny problems and raises the stakes until they feel like existential threats. School board meetings don’t feel like boring, routine meetings; they feel like battles for the very souls of our children. Elections don’t feel like they are about trying to predict whose administration is most likely to align with your interests; they feel like the last chance to save the Republic from traitors. A pandemic doesn’t feel like an always-imperfect response to a nasty disease; it feels like a conspiracy to eradicate you and your loved ones and your way of life.
Under polarization, democracy feels like war. A few of us find that exhilarating, but most of us seem to find it exhausting. And some of us are probably avoiding the daily reminders of that war.
No Easy Solutions
If polarization really is a significant factor keeping Americans from tuning in to the news, then news avoidance is likely a systemic problem that will only be solved by systemic means. Individual journalists won’t solve it by working harder, by making fewer mistakes, or using better language. Americans — not just journalists — will only solve this by working on the broader cultural and social conditions that predispose us to polarization.
All charts courtesy of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism