On the grim news cycle, and shutting it out

At the end of last week, Nicole Carroll, the president of news at Gannett, reflected on how three of the chain’s local papers had ended up at the center of two massive recent stories, both touching on huge issues in American public life, both devastating. Last Tuesday, the Austin American-Statesman, in conjunction with the local TV station KVUE, obtained and published surveillance and body-camera footage showing a gunman entering a classroom before killing nineteen children and two teachers in Uvalde, Texas, and police dithering in the corridor outside for over an hour. Around the same time, noise was growing around a story, first reported by the Indianapolis Star in early July, about a ten-year-old rape victim who had to travel to Indiana for an abortion due to Ohio’s restrictive laws. On Wednesday, Bethany Bruner, of the Columbus Dispatch, confirmed the story from the courthouse where the man who confessed to raping the child was being arraigned. “The truth is hard to endure,” Carroll wrote, but “our job is to report the truth.”

The initial publication of both stories had proven controversial, albeit for different reasons. The American-Statesman defended releasing the Uvalde footage on grounds of truth and transparency, noting that it had removed the sound of children screaming as it was “too graphic”—but some local politicians and victims’ relatives slammed the decision as traumatizing and disrespectful; a state house investigation had been due to release the footage soon anyway, but victims’ families had expected to be able to watch it in private first. (Some liberal commentators slammed the decision, too: on The View, Whoopi Goldberg mimed spitting on the American-Statesman.) Meanwhile, right-wing politicians—including Dave Yost, Ohio’s attorney general—and commentators poured scorn on the Star’s abortion story, suggesting overtly that the ten-year-old rape victim did not exist. When the Dispatch confirmed the story, right-wing media figures pivoted, without skipping a beat, to her attacker’s immigration status.

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In my view, the controversy was in both cases misplaced. That’s obvious with the latter story: nakedly partisan actors exploited an utterly horrific allegation with a characteristic lack of basic decency. (The headline of a dismissive Wall Street Journal editorial on the story about the ten-year-old’s abortion—still—refers to it as “too good to confirm,” phrasing that was amply disgusting before the paper had to add an editor’s note and correct the record in a separate column.) The case of the Uvalde footage was more nuanced: having chosen to remove children’s screams, the paper conceivably could have altered it in other ways, too—blurring the gunman’s face, for instance, or removing the sound of the gunfire that occasioned the screams—and more generally, the wishes of victims’ families deserve respect. But they aren’t absolute, and here, releasing the footage was clearly in the public interest. If it ever seemed tenable to allow officials to control the terms of release, the appalling lack of official transparency since the shooting demanded otherwise.

Beyond the specific factors at issue in these publication controversies, the two stories mentioned above can also be seen as feeding into a much broader debate—or web of overlapping debates—that has coalesced around the media’s wider coverage of devastating events as those have stacked up in recent weeks. Some of these debates have addressed how we should think about covering shootings and abortion post-Roe: the question of whether news outlets ought to show graphic footage of shooting victims, for example, or the question as to the types of abortion experiences that should be centered in national stories (which Rebecca Traister recently discussed at length on CJR’s podcast).

Some related debates have gone broader still, rooted in the overall grimness of the news cycles not just of recent weeks, but of recent years, with their pandemic, war, climate emergency, police killings, assaults on democracy, and so on. One, prominently, has centered the question of “selective news avoidance,” or the fear—supercharged by a recent Reuters Institute finding that 42 percent of US respondents actively avoid the news sometimes or often—that the news has grown so overwhelming that Americans are increasingly tuning it out. That figure, the journalist and author Amanda Ripley wrote in a widely discussed recent op-ed for the Washington Post, includes some people who themselves work in news—among them, Ripley herself. “It’s hard to generalize about the news media,” but “it’s fair to say that if news sites were people, most would be diagnosed as clinically depressed right now,” Ripley wrote. Extrapolate from the Reuters Institute data, she separately told The Guardian, and “we can estimate that roughly 100 million American adults are not getting their news needs met.”

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In her op-ed, Ripley weighed whether her desire to shut out the news was her problem or a journalism “product” issue, ultimately coming down on the latter side of the fence. “Today’s news, even high-quality print news, is not designed for humans,” she wrote, arguing that journalists could do a much better job of respecting news consumers’ needs for hope, agency, and dignity, including by discussing solutions to grave problems. Judging by the online reaction, Ripley’s column seemed to strike a chord with numerous journalists. But some readers had questions. My Columbia colleague Emily Bell asked whether newsrooms really have the power to fix news avoidance. “It’s unclear to me that this is an actual issue that deserves attention,” she wrote on Twitter, “or whether it is considered as a civic issue vs an economic issue.” Bell separately told The Guardian that she’d like to see more evidence as to the actual extent of the problem, pointing to apparent caveats in available data on news-consumption trends.

There seems to be general agreement that the news is increasingly, relentlessly overwhelming, or at least feels that way; I found the Gannett abortion and shooting stories to be overwhelming just on their own. But the question as to what we might collectively do about it is indeed tricky. Individual stories in the daily news cycle can often seem gratuitously weighed down by hopelessness, and some of the ideas proposed—and news values stressed—by Ripley and others are valuable, not least those that involve giving news consumers specific, actionable information where it’s available, or organizing coverage with greater responsiveness to their priorities. More broadly, though, the overwhelming nature of the news cycle reflects not only an aggregate of individually overwhelming stories, but the profoundly disaggregated way that news from a variety of sources reaches us. As Max Fisher wrote in the New York Times last week, the world is in many ways a better place than it was in the past—but the internet has collapsed the space between all the problems, constantly confronting us with dire news from somewhere. This strikes me not as a news “product” problem as much as it is a problem of the modern, global human condition.

The nature of selective news avoidance reflects this, and is itself a knotty and multifaceted trend. According to the Reuters Institute’s latest data, it is not solely a US phenomenon; indeed, while it has risen by 4 percent in the US since a similar survey in 2017, it has grown at much greater rates in Brazil and the UK, to such an extent that both countries have overtaken the US overall (with avoidance rates of 54 and 46 percent, respectively). Within the US, meanwhile, news avoiders expressed different reasons for their behavior: those on the political right were more likely to deem the news untrustworthy, while those on the left were more likely to say that the news makes them feel down or powerless.

These differences in motivation demand different responses from the press. And the extent to which different news avoiders avoid news also strikes me as material here; there is, to my mind, a big difference between “sometimes” and “often.” If the internet age has massively increased our exposure to horrible news, then it has also shifted the burden of managing the consumption of that news onto consumers, where providers once exercised greater control over what their audiences saw and how. (The media academic Damon Kiesow has a good Twitter thread on this.) In many ways, this is clearly bad. But is it always bad? I’m not convinced. I selectively avoid the news when I go on vacation to give my mind a chance to rest and recharge, and also avoid video content that I know will traumatize me when I don’t need to watch it for work; I don’t see either of these behaviors as a problem, and I write a media newsletter. The endless availability of news doesn’t confer an obligation of endless consumption.

Again, we shouldn’t make the news gratuitously overwhelming, and editorial choices that we make every day can certainly help audiences to process and manage their news consumption. But, as the Reuters Institute noted, “there will be a limit to how far journalists can go—or should go—to make the news more palatable.” In her reflection on Gannett’s abortion and shooting stories, Carroll identified what I see as this limit: to report the truth, even when it’s tough. If Gannett’s papers were right to publish those stories over specific objections, they were also right to do so in this more abstract sense, irrespective of how they’d be received by readers.

That might sound obvious—and I’ve certainly not seen anyone argue, in the course of these recent debates, that the media should suppress tough truths. But the truth is bigger than the verifiable facts we put on a page or show in a video. Powerlessness can be a truth, too: I would argue, in fact, that it’s the central truth in both the recent Gannett stories, and a growing one, more broadly, in a country whose institutions are dysfunctional and whose democracy is in retreat. Powerlessness is rarely absolute, and we should communicate that. But many of the horrible stories flooding the current news cycle reflect horrible disparities in power. And channeling false hope is worse than no hope at all.

Below, more on the news cycle and news avoidance:

  • “Editorial shame”: Erik Wemple, of the Post, slammed the Journal’s handling of its editorial casting doubt on the story about the ten-year-old rape victim, calling the note the paper added to the piece a “risible half-measure” and noting that the Journal’s second editorial “correcting the record” mischaracterized the paper’s own initial stance. Ultimately, Wemple writes, “the contrast between the Journal’s view of a post-Roe world and the actual post-Roe world as chronicled by a pair of Midwestern newspapers helps to explain why the Journal went overboard in sniping at the story and why it stumbled through an embarrassing two-step process in correcting the piece.”
  • Behind the news, I: Writing for USA Today last week, Christine Fernando noted that the wave of recent mass shootings in America has taken a toll on the journalists whose job it is to cover them. “My editors tell me it wasn’t always like this, that shootings were once spaced out enough where we had time to reflect and to give each tragedy more time in our news cycles,” Fernando wrote. “But this is the world I’m stepping into as a young person in America and as a young reporter. And as headlines of shootings pile up one by one, my heart breaks for the victims and families who deserve so much more than this same old pattern of shooting, coverage, move onto the next, ad infinitum.”
  • Behind the news, II: Also last week, Poynter’s Kelly McBride spoke with Jennifer Kho, the recently appointed executive editor of the Chicago Sun-Times, about her decision to publish a photo showing victims of the July 4 shooting in Highland Park, Illinois. “At first, I was like, ‘Oh my God this is gruesome,’ and, you know, we can’t run them,” Kho told McBride, referring to the photo and two others of the shooting. “But one of them in particular I just kept thinking about it. Like in a journalistic way I kept thinking about it. Like, ‘Oh my gosh this really tells the story.’ There’s so much chaos involved, that’s evident in the photo. People are covering up the dead and trying to help the wounded and people are still running and trying to get out. And I just kept thinking about it.”
  • A new study: Researchers at the Reuters Institute and universities in the US and the UK studied public attitudes toward the news media’s function as a watchdog, and how it correlates both with trust in news and news avoidance. “Based on data from the 2019 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, and controlling for a range of factors, we find that across 38 countries, watchdog performance evaluations are positively associated with trust in news but that they are also positively associated with higher levels of news avoidance,” the researchers wrote.

Other notable stories:

  • Yesterday, jury selection began in Steve Bannon’s criminal trial for bucking subpoenas from the House January 6 committee; Bannon tried to delay proceedings, arguing that recent committee hearings and a new CNN documentary about him would prejudice potential jurors, but a judge disagreed. (The documentary explored how Bannon has used his War Room podcast to spread election lies and mobilize “foot soldiers in an army of conservatives”; you can read more about it here.) In related news, CNN reported that Matthew Pottinger, who served Trump as deputy national security adviser, and Sarah Matthews, who served as a deputy press secretary, will testify at Thursday’s January 6 hearing. And prosecutors declined to charge staffers from Stephen Colbert’s show who were accused of unlawfully filming on Capitol grounds after a prior hearing.
  • Perry Bacon Jr., a columnist at the Post, argues that the “mainstream media has played a huge, underappreciated role in President Biden’s declining support over the past year,” starting with its “24/7, highly negative coverage” of the withdrawal from Afghanistan last August. Afghanistan “provided journalists the big anti-Biden story that I think many of them were desperate to find. And it drove down Biden’s popularity with the public, giving the media justification for even more coverage that cast the president as struggling,” Bacon writes. “Biden coverage shifted in this direction because of the media’s long-standing biases toward bothsidesism and strong criticism of those in power.”
  • For CJR, Karen Maniraho spoke with five reporters—Jason Parham, Rebecca Jennings, Ryan Broderick, Rusty Foster, and Taylor Lorenz—about their approach to covering the internet. They “are immersed in the internet but do not obsess over viral moments, which fly by too fast and seem, in isolation, to be trivial,” Maniraho writes. By focusing on creators, communities, and how algorithm-based platforms drive trends, they “find ways to cut through the noise—and surface a deeper understanding of life, online and off.”
  • In a recent court filing, major book publishers accused the Internet Archive’s Open Library of “mass-scale copyright infringement,” even though it loans books like physical libraries do via a process known as “Controlled Digital Lending.” The publishers’ suit, Maria Bustillos writes for The Nation, is actually “a Trojan horse for a very different, and radical, idea: that e-books are fundamentally—legally—different from paper books.”
  • Paul Pringle, a journalist at the LA Times, is out today with Bad City, a book detailing his reporting on scandals at the University of Southern California and how his then-bosses conspired to suppress it. (His then-bosses have denied wrongdoing and demanded that the book be retracted.) In a review for the LA Times, Héctor Tobar calls the book “a powerful and truly original addition to the genre of investigative-journalism drama.”
  • A shakeup at the Post: Ashley Parker is moving into a new role as a senior national correspondent, with her colleague Toluse Olorunnipa set to succeed her as White House bureau chief. Per Politico, Olorunnipa, who recently coauthored a biography of George Floyd, “aims to increase coverage focusing on the Biden administration’s promises around racial justice and how the administration’s policies impact racial equality.”
  • An investigation by rights groups including the University of Toronto’s Citizen Lab found that at least thirty activists, academics, and members of civil-society groups in Thailand have had their phones targeted using Pegasus, the potent Israeli-made spyware tool that has also been used to target journalists in a number of countries worldwide. Thailand’s government is suspected of launching the attacks, but that has not yet been confirmed.
  • A committee in the House of Lords, the upper chamber of Britain’s Parliament, published a report assessing possible future business models for the BBC, which is currently funded by a public “license fee” paid by owners of television sets. The committee poured cold water on purely commercial alternatives and direct government funding while urging consideration of various options in between, including a levy on local-government taxes.
  • And as temperatures soared to record levels in the UK, The Guardian’s landlord shut off the air-conditioning system at its headquarters—because the system couldn’t handle the heat. The Guardian led yesterday’s front page with an image of wildfires in France, but most of the paper’s rivals splashed photos of revelers at the beach—especially on the right, where various commentators cast official heat advisories as “nanny-statism.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Reporters check their phones near the Senate chamber Monday, Jan. 27, 2020, on Capitol Hill in Washington, before the impeachment trial of President Donald Trump on charges of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress. (AP Photo/ Jacquelyn Martin)