News avoidance is healthy for you, but bad for democracy and the media
Walter Lippmann begins his 1922 book, “Public Opinion,” with a story about a small colony of Western Europeans living on a distant island, in which a mail steamer delivers the news only once every 60 days. When the news arrives in September 1914, the colonists learn that for over six weeks, those among them who are English and French have been at war with those who are Germans. A war had been consuming their home countries, but it never would have touched them if they had not received the news.
Unfortunately, Lippmann does not tell what happened to those people next. Did they turn from friends to enemies? Did they wish they’d been deprived of any news? Nowadays, what they had by default due to the lack of regular communication has become the deliberate choice of many. It even has a name: “news avoidance.”
News avoidance reached its peak in 2022, totaling 38% of all people globally and 42% of Americans, according to the 2022 Digital News Report by Reuters Institute. The 2023 Digital News Report finds that globally, people most often avoid news about the war in Ukraine (39%), national politics (38%), social justice issues (31%) and crime (30%). In the U.S., the structure of selective news avoidance is slightly different, with Americans avoiding news about national politics most often (43%), followed by social justice issues (41%), entertainment and celebrity news (40%), the war in Ukraine (32%) and climate change (30%)
.In the U.S., the news people specifically avoid also reflects ideological preferences. Conservatives, for instance, are more likely to avoid news about social justice and climate change (70% and 64% respectively compared to 22% and 12% for liberals), while liberals are more likely to avoid news about crime and business (30% and 25% respectively compared to 14% and 9% for conservatives)
The term “news avoidance” first appeared in 1960, clearly coinciding with the TV boom. The next surge in news avoidance was related to the internet. But news avoidance of the TV era and the early internet was largely about news fatigue: People started experiencing information overload and therefore stopped watching or reading the news.
News fatigue can be explained through famed media analyst Marshall McLuhan’s idea of sensory numbness. When new media extend our horizons far beyond their previous reach, we receive more signals from the environment than our sensorium and brain are accustomed to. This disturbs the previous equilibrium of senses. Those old organs or capacities that are now extended by new media become numb or even “amputated.”
For example, after human memory could be outsourced through writing, our natural capacity for memorizing things deteriorated. Similarly, our skill in memorizing phone numbers (and numbers in general) has recently become numbed thanks to smartphone contact lists, which allow us to contact a friend by simply saying their name.
According to McLuhan, electronic media has extended our nervous system to the entire planet. New forms of media have literally broadened our horizons but also opened us up to more stressors. Empathy, an essential element of humans’ collective survival strategy, forces us to be attentive to the news about others, but TV and the internet deliver too much of it. To protect the mind from informational and empathic overload, our news “receptors” become numb, which in turn results in the desire to avoid news.
If the early internet oversupplied the amount of news, social media aggravated this overload by ramping up the emotional intensity of information. Since social media encourages engagement by triggering people’s reactions, it heightened emotions and polarization. Legacy media followed suit, as it needed to compete for people’s attention in this new hysteroid environment. As a result, regular news overload has been upgraded to bad news overload.
Why does bad news dominate so much of mass communication? We habitually blame journalists for all the “doom and gloom,” but the media merely follow our own deep subliminal preferences. The simple truth is that people pay more attention to bad news than to good news. For example, as economists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky show, people prefer not to lose $5 over finding $5. To put it another way, the desire to avoid negative consequences is much stronger than the desire for positive outcomes.
This negativity bias is part of a survival strategy, an early warning system that evolution has gifted us with. After all, back when you could easily become some predator’s meal, it was more important to be attuned to negative possibilities than to positive ones. Thus, we instinctively value negative information more than positive information.
Nowadays, however, the amalgamation of this negativity bias with the news overload through the internet, and bad news overload by social media has created the perfect storm of global news insanity. The more this storm rages, the more people think the world is going crazy. For instance, they feel that wars, atrocities and catastrophes are occurring at historically high rates. But this is not true; it’s a media effect rather than a historic phenomenon; or rather a historic phenomenon caused by a media effect.
There have always been wars and atrocities, and often they have been much worse than what we’re seeing today. The difference is that the news of today’s wars and atrocities is now being delivered directly to each of us, on individual screens, involving people personally—even driving some to street rallies and making overseas wars into local incidents.
Observing the effect of television, McLuhan posited that emotional perception of TV replaces rational detachment that was typical for printed material. Unlike books, electronic media provoke “empathic involvement” typical for tribal unity; McLuhan called this effect the “retribalization” of society. Now McLuhan’s retribalization has merged with the global village and given birth to global tribalism. Moreover, the expectation of this global tribal reaction drives those who cause wars and atrocities in the first place. For them, carnage is the medium that is meant to be the message. And the primary medium of violence becomes not a gun but a smartphone.
Not everyone, of course, can withstand the agitation produced by such a media environment. Some lose empathy and become cynical. Others try to fence off their empathy by avoiding bad news and, eventually, the news in general. After reaching its peak in 2022, the news avoidance trend seemed to stabilize in 2023, signaling, perhaps, that we’re reaching a new balance between empathy and news disturbance. But it is likely a temporary pause. Now, after the recent Hamas terrorist attack and Israel’s war on terror in Gaza, news avoidance will surely skyrocket further.
War news in general is one of the main causes of news avoidance. This may be especially true in countries close to the conflict, as has been the case in those nations located near the war in Ukraine, according to the Reuters report. But even in distant countries, war news might become the last straw in people’s informational and emotional news overload. The Israel-Hamas war may be thousands of miles away, but the news, much like that mail steamer in Lippmann’s story, brought it to the American and European streets and campuses, agitating some people while numbing the news receptors of others.
The media are trapped in a bad news cycle and so is their audience. Most bad news is repeated constantly, emotionally draining the readers, viewers and listeners. “When we ask people why they are actively avoiding news, they’re saying a few key things: they are put off by the repetitiveness of the news agenda, they feel worn out, and they feel that the news is bad for their mental health,” says Kirsten Eddy, a researcher at the Reuters Institute. They might be sympathetic, but since they can change nothing, they feel helplessness, anxiety or anger. Most frustrating, perhaps, is not even the news itself but the reactions of others who get it “wrong.” This is the so-called third-person effect. Everybody thinks that everyone else but me is easily deluded by the media and propaganda.
Bad news cycles don’t just put us in a bad mood, they create a psychological issue that threatens to grow into a psychiatric one. Psychologists advise us to remind ourselves that unlike 20 years ago, we are now our own gatekeepers and we can control our news consumption. Among the practical tips of media hygiene is turning off news notifications or even all pop-up notifications, using site-blockers to control hours for visiting news websites or social media, limiting our responses on social media, and so on. Since the survival mechanism of attention to negative news itself became a threat, many tips on media hygiene basically lead to news avoidance, adding a clear rationale to what people already feel instinctively.
But what is good for mental health is not so healthy for democracy. News avoidance reduces civic engagement. In the classical liberal view, democracy is based on a well-informed citizenry. Obviously, if 40% of citizens avoid news, many will not be well-informed. By eschewing frustrating news topics, people also avoid discussing them publicly. Thus, news avoidance also leads to a form of self-censorship.
As a result, the public sphere is left to those who have been (and are) agitated the most, driving the public discussion toward polarized views. It all spirals down in a vicious cycle: The more people with moderate opinions avoid public discussion, the more represented the agitated opinions become and the more the discussion heats up to the degree of hysteria, thus deterring more people with moderate opinions from participating.
News avoidance obviously harms the news industry. Since negative information is evolutionarily more valuable for humans, the news media are naturally tuned into negativity bias. As the old newspaper saying goes, “If it bleeds, it leads.” But if “it bleeds” too much, it leads to a disaster—both for society and the media. The 1898 Spanish-American War was in no small part instigated by the competition between the media empires of Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst. The stories and headlines agitated the patriotic hysteria and pushed the public and politicians toward the war.
At that time, the war was beneficial for the media, but nowadays, doom and gloom encourages news avoidance, and therefore works against the media and society. On the other hand, social turbulence normally spurs news consumption, as happened during the 2016 election or in the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Meanwhile, people in the news industry have been discussing if it is possible to build a successful media outlet without negativity bias. Most suggestions revolve around different models of “constructive journalism,” “solution journalism” or “slow journalism.” They suggest offering constructive approaches and solutions when covering acute issues. And indeed, surveys show that people say they would read positive and uplifting news. However, this is what people always say but never do.
A constructive or solution journalism project might be able to secure funding, but it would never garner a large enough audience to sustain it, not to mention making a social impact. Solution journalism might solve the problem of too few journalists, as it could potentially prompt philanthropic donors to fund media projects, but it would not resolve the problem of negativity, experienced by readers, the industry and society.
Indeed, attempts to eradicate negativity from journalism are not just unfeasible, they are inherently wrong. Negativity in the news is as important as pain is to the body. Moreover, not just negativity but the volume of negativity is meaningful. The more people are agitated, the more significant the issue is.
Of course, negativity and mass agitation can be artificially created or stirred up by malicious politicians to advance their careers, by media to drum up business, or by the very design of social media, which is aimed at boosting engagement. Perhaps, it is exactly this “added value” of negativity that drives the audience’s frustration and, ultimately, its news avoidance.
Nevertheless, even this excessive negativity is indicative of what stressors and the means of their delivery agitate society the most. Eliminating this pain would make society less aware of the important issues, whether those issues relate to politics or the state of communications. How else can society learn about the issues, say, with education, healthcare or border security if not just some, but many, forms of media are talking about it? The amount of pain—of social frustration caused by the news—matters. It should be sensed by the public and politicians for curative actions to be taken.
It turns out that the source of news avoidance represents the largest value of news for society. Is it possible to alleviate pain while preserving its indicative function? Theoretically, this could be a job for AI, when the tools of semantic analysis become cheap enough to be repurposed for mass market media.
Alleviating the emotional burden for the end user while measuring and indicating the range and structure of societal agitation can be done programmatically, offering the readers the option to regulate the personally bearable level of empathic exposure or delivering just a summary of emotional measurements, similarly to those summaries of the news and the public opinion that politicians and businessmen receive from their analysts in order to be aware of the national mood. This way, AI that measures the scale of negativity and the structure of societal agitation would mediate not news per se but agitation induced by news, potentially shielding those who are empathetic and often avoid the news due to emotional overload.
It is hard to say if a significant number of news avoiders would willingly and routinely consume news emotionally refined by AI, but some might. Instead of media selectively omitting one stressor while amplifying others and thus adding to news frustration even more, such a programmatic solution would make a user a true gatekeeper—not only for the news but for its emotional impact, too. Of course, it will work only until we reveal that algorithms of such emotional mediation can be and are tweaked, too. But this will be the story of media bias of the next level.