The Media Today

Many people say they avoid the news. The news doesn’t avoid them.

June 13, 2024
Image: Adobe Stock

In our new election-focused issue, Josh Hersh contends with the problem of news avoidance. Network ratings are below what executives would expect at this point in the campaign cycle; as the journalist Brian Stelter put it, “The overarching emotion among voters is apathy and even burnout.” That could be a matter of circumstance—“a uniquely disliked set of candidates, a rare presidential rerun,” Hersh writes—but it may be that “something more fundamental, and therefore worrisome, is going on.” According to a public interest group called More in Common, there is an “exhausted majority” of Americans who feel unwilling or unable to keep up with the constant stream of coverage, even when it’s not an election year. “It doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily tuned out,” Daniel Yudkin, a social psychologist who helps lead research at More in Common, says. “There’s just other issues and topics and questions that people are dealing with.” Many among the exhausted majority actually do interact with news, as Hersh notes—only indirectly, and often on social media.

Yesterday, Pew came out with data that illuminates Americans’ relationship to the news online. In a 2023 study, Pew found that half of US adults at least sometimes get their news from social media; this latest research surveyed ten thousand people about their internet habits, examining the way “specific platforms differ widely in structure, content, and culture.” The findings reveal how people perceive their relationships to news on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, and X. The last of these, formerly known as Twitter, is the only site for which respondents see keeping up with the news as a reason to log on. Among those who say they regularly follow news on X, eight in ten report getting it from news outlets or journalists on the site.

Still, Pew notes, “People are seeing news on all four platforms.” On Facebook—where fewer than half of survey respondents say that news is a draw—most (91 percent) see content related to the news, be it an article, an opinion piece, or a funny post that references current events. That exposure has sustained Facebook’s primacy as a news source for many Americans—according to the 2023 survey, 30 percent of adults say they regularly get news there—even after Meta reduced the amount of news people see in their feeds. On Instagram and TikTok, which respondents primarily view as sources of entertainment, people nevertheless come across news (or commentary about major events) from influencers, friends, or family. The news, in other words, is really hard to avoid.

Notably, the study found that “most news consumers on each of the platforms studied say they at least sometimes see news on the platform that seems inaccurate.” That includes “roughly a quarter or more” who say they “extremely or fairly often” see inaccurate news. Perceptions of the different platforms are divided along party lines: “In general, Democrats tend to be more skeptical than Republicans of the news they see on X, while the reverse is true on Facebook.” Pew observes that X—which “stands out as a place people turn to for politics”—has improved in the estimation of the people on it (a self-selecting group, to be sure); 38 percent say it’s “mostly good for democracy,” an increase of 6 percentage points from last year. Those views, too, contrast by political affiliation: researchers found that since 2021, “the share of Republican users who see X as mostly good for democracy has roughly tripled,” while Democrats’ views of X have grown increasingly negative. “For Instagram, TikTok and Facebook,” according to the report, “the most common view is that each has no impact on democracy.”

The reality may be more complicated. Elsewhere in our new issue, Maddy Crowell writes about shifting news-consumption habits among liberals and the emerging market for “pro-democracy” content online. The 2016 election “unsettled the relationship between many liberals and their mainstream news sources,” she writes. “The popular belief that Clinton had lost the election because of legacy media’s commitment to outmoded interpretations of journalistic objectivity—combined with the supercharged environment for partisan political content in the Trump years—created a demand for something new.” An array of digital ventures rushed in, many of them backed by members of the Democratic Party. In addition to their presence on the platforms Pew looked into, many are active on YouTube, where they post videos accumulating billions of views—some from people who say they’ve sworn off the mainstream press. 

Of course, a certain amount of news avoidance can be healthy. Sometimes, we all need a break—and besides, you don’t need to inject cable into your veins to keep abreast of what’s happening. Better, perhaps, to maintain a varied media diet—and, in line with one of the people Hersh interviewed, to make some time for Billy Joel. We hope you’ll fit our new issue into your schedule, too. You can check out the whole thing here.

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Other notable stories:

  • For CJR’s new Election Issue, Anika Collier Navaroli, who was a senior policy official at Twitter during the insurrection in 2021 (and is now a senior fellow at Columbia’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism), reflects on her role in Donald Trump’s suspension from the platform—and weighs how major tech companies’ more recent decisions to whittle back their Trust and Safety teams will affect the information environment around the coming election. Also for the issue, Yona TR Golding charts how these and other efforts at content moderation on social media have been broken by politics. Angered by what they see as the “biased policing of online speech” and fueled by election denialism, right-wing politicians have alleged that researchers have served as “cogs in a government program of repression, silencing conservative voices,” Golding writes.
  • And Poynter’s Kristen Hare spoke with Taylor Six of the Journalists Recovery Network, a resource for journalists struggling with substance abuse. “I was living a double life with being an award-winning journalist by day, and a down-bad drunk at night. But, I was a full-time, functioning alcoholic,” Six recalls. “I was tormented grappling with both versions of myself and felt like I couldn’t work in this industry and be an imperfect human being. Turns out I can, and I wanted to let other people similarly situated know that as well.”

New from CJR: My view from inside Twitter—and how I see the threat to election integrity now

Betsy Morais is the managing editor of CJR.