As the different news habits or news repertoires are often considered a ‘window to the world’ which allows media users to participate in society and take an informed stance in current events (Edgerly et al., 2018.), the finding that users are increasingly tuning out during the pandemic is potentially problematic. Civic engagement has been considered highly important to successfully roll out containment measures while vaccines are pending, as governments often relied heavily on the goodwill of citizens to follow social distancing and quarantine measures (van der Weerd et al., 2011). Why then are news users, and young news users in particular (Nielsen et al., 2020), intentionally turning away from news at such a critical point in time?
Deborah Lupton, a sociologist in the field of public health, has recently put out a call to ‘document the everyday experiences’ of people living through the pandemic (Lupton, 2020). This is no different for the issue of news avoidance, which has mostly been explored using survey methods, lacking crucial information about what news avoidance practices mean to users and how they take place in everyday life. An account of why young news users are turning away from news during the pandemic should therefore begin from the experiences of these users themselves.
How do young news users avoid the news?
During the third and fourth week of the lockdown in Belgium, we conducted 25 in-depth interviews with young people under 35. We found that some of them avoided news by strategically rearranging their media repertoire. What’s more, we found that the way in which they rearrange their media repertoires was highly dependent on their personal experience of the news and the shape that the repertoire previously had. Thus, during the pandemic, we found three main modes in which young news users rearranged their repertoires to avoid the news.
1. Escapism through brainless content
The first example of how young news users rearranged their repertoires to avoid news, is also the most extensive one. In this case, users create a moment of respite from the news by ‘escaping’ in what they called ‘brainless content’ in what they considered a deliberate ‘psychological strategy to distract yourself’ (Deborah, 27 years old).
Similar stories emerged in interviews with other participants, where other parts of their repertoire, such as memes or television shows, became a lifeline in order ‘to shield [themselves]’ (Elien, 25) during the pandemic.
2. Rearranging the repertoire to regulate the flow of information
However, not all participants avoided news to that extent. Others avoided news to a limited extent and were more particularly focused on regaining control over a repertoire that had become rudderless due to the tumultuous news landscape of the pandemic.
Myriam (27), for instance, rearranged her repertoire to control the influx of information after experiencing information overload. This also resonates with how Tessa (27) reconfigured her repertoire:
I think now I consciously try to avoid the news. I try to not let too much information get through. There’s just an enormous overflow. I think I do try to block that out a little bit.
By consciously trimming down the number of news practices they engage in or fitting them into new routines, users are able to regain control over the flow of information.
3. Rearranging the repertoire to control the tone of voice
Similar to how users in the previous example tried to regain control over the influx of information, some of them sought to regain control over the tone of voice of their repertoire. This appeared to be a way to counteract the overwhelming negativity they experience in the news in a more subversive way by creating oases of positive news in which they can momentarily find relief. For example, Matthew (22) explained his strategy in the following way:
I started following an Instagram account that only shares positive news. I don’t check it more often than others specifically, but I just know: it’s going to pop up in my feed. So when I’m scrolling through it, I know I’ll have positive news as well.
Daphne (27) similarly recounted how she followed influencers on Instagram as a way to keep updated in a way that ‘gives a more positive feeling because when something bad is going on in the world, you get the feeling someone’s doing something about it’ as they often shared petitions or fundraisers.
3 THINGS TO KNOW ABOUT NEWS AVOIDANCE DURING THE PANDEMIC
Summarising the findings from our study, here’s three things you should know about news avoidance during the pandemic.
News avoidance is a cross-media practice that is inherently connected to other media practices users regularly engage in, namely their media repertoire. As a result, news avoidance is not a singular practice but is enacted by users through rearrangements of their media repertoire.
Situational news avoidance might be more critical than previously thought in light of a global pandemic where civic engagement is key in fostering support for containment measures. Considering that news avoidance takes the form of rearrangements of media repertoires, situational bouts of news avoidance might become formative of long-term changes to media repertoires. This should be monitored more closely as we exit the pandemic.
Reasons for news avoidance are strongly connected to the news environment. Media scholars have argued that solutions for intentional news avoidance should focus on the selection and presentation of news (Skovsgaard & Andersen, 2020). Participants indicated they often felt overwhelmed by information overload or the negativity of news. These results resonate with other studies on factors leading to news avoidance (Kalogeropoulos, 2017). This means that it falls to news organisations and journalists to keep users engaged. Young news users in our study highlighted the need for objective and factual journalism to provide them with a patch of solid ground when the uncertainties and stress caused by the pandemic are spinning around them. Carefully balancing the ‘duty to inform’ against commercial rationalities that lead to clickbait and paywalls are crucial in this regard. Here, participants looked at slow journalism and constructive journalism as a possible solution.
Find the full journal article published on 30 October 2021 here:
Vandenplas, R., Truyens, P., Vis, S. & Picone, I. (2021) Tuning Out the News. A Cross-Media Perspective on News Avoidance Practices of Young News Users in Flanders During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Journalism Studies, DOI: 10.1080/1461670X.2021.1990788
Edgerly, S., Vraga, E. K., Bode, L., Thorson, K., & Thorson, E. (2018). New Media, New Relationship to Participation? A Closer Look at Youth News Repertoires and Political Participation. Journalism & Mass Communication Quarterly, 95(1), 192–212. https://doi.org/10.1177/1077699017706928
Kalogeropoulos, A. (2017). News Avoidance. Digital News Report. http://www.digitalnewsreport.org/survey/2017/news-avoidance-2017/.
Lupton, D. (2020, March 29). Social Research for a COVID and Post-COVID World: An Initial Agenda. Medium. https://deborahalupton.medium.com/social-research-for-a-covid-and-post-covid-world-an-initial-agenda-796868f1fb0e
Nielsen, R. K., Fletcher, R., Kalogeropoulos, A., & Simon, F. (2020, October 27). Communications in the coronavirus crisis: Lessons for the second wave. Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. https://reutersinstitute.politics.ox.ac.uk/communications-coronavirus-crisis-lessons-second-wave
Skovsgaard, M., & Andersen, K. (2020). Conceptualizing News Avoidance: Towards a Shared Understanding of Different Causes and Potential Solutions. Journalism Studies, 21(4), 459–476. https://doi.org/10.1080/1461670X.2019.1686410
van der Weerd, W., Timmermans, D. R., Beaujean, D. J., Oudhoff, J., & van Steenbergen, J. E. (2011). Monitoring the level of government trust, risk perception and intention of the general public to adopt protective measures during the influenza A (H1N1) pandemic in the Netherlands. BMC Public Health, 11(1), 575. https://doi.org/10.1186/1471-2458-11-575