The relief of missing out: Anticipated anxiety is a big reason why more people are avoiding the news
Do you like scary movies?
Did you stand in line for a midnight viewing of “The Blair Witch Project“? Does “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” evoke late-night nostalgia or hatchet-wielding terror? Clowns: for or against?
Horror movies are one of the few consumer goods that people buy specifically to feel anxious and scared — normally considered negative emotions. (See also: roller coasters.) No one would want to walk around feeling terrified all day, but the adrenaline spike of a good controlled scare can be exhilarating to someone with the right amygdala.
Still, one of the defining characteristics of scary movies (and roller coasters) is that many people don’t like them. Those people run a cost-benefit analysis — lots of thrills! but also lots of fear! — and don’t see a tradeoff worth making. Invite them out for the latest Jordan Peele movie and watch them nope-nope-nope their way home.
While the news on any given day is only metaphorically a horror show, many people treat headlines less as information than as scary stimuli. They’d rather not be regularly reminded of all that’s broken in the world, with all-new horrors added by the hour. They’ve got plenty of other stuff to do, so why spend time doing something that will make them anxious?
This phenomenon can seem foreign to some journalists — who, after all, are people who’ve chosen to spend most of their waking hours swimming in the latest news. But news avoidance is a very real phenomenon and, frankly, a deeply rational one for many people who see news as high risk, low reward.
That’s the subject of a new paper out from our old friends Benjamin Toff and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen in the journal Political Communication. It’s titled “How News Feels: Anticipated Anxiety as a Factor in News Avoidance and a Barrier to Political Engagement,” and here’s the abstract (emphases, as always, mine):
Findings suggest that people’s preexisting perspectives about what news is (anxiety-inducing) and offers for them (little practical value) play an important role in shaping attitudes toward news and subsequent behavior. These perspectives highlight the importance of emotional dimensions of news use beyond its presumed value as a source of information.
While political communication scholarship has often treated news consumption as the cornerstone of good citizenship, we find avoiders hold uneven, weakly internalized norms about a perceived duty to stay informed, in part because they anticipate news will make them anxious without being relevant to their lives, resulting in limited engagement with news, and by extension, civic and political affairs. Promoting more informed societies requires grappling with these entrenched perspectives.
Nielsen and (especially) Toff have been digging into news avoidance for years. (See here, here, here, here, here, or here.) And it’s a growing problem. The latest Digital News Report tracks the increase across countries. The proportion of people who say they “sometimes” or “often” actively avoid the news in:
Brazil: 2017: 27% → 2022: 54%
U.K.: 2017: 24% → 2022: 46%
Australia: 2017: 30% → 2022: 41%
Ireland: 2017: 30% → 2022: 41%
U.S.: 2017: 38% → 2022: 42%
Why do people check out of news? Among the reasons they give: They feel worn out; it’s too confusing; it makes them feel depressed; it leads to argument; it makes them feel powerless.
This new paper draws from in-depth, hour-long interviews with 43 U.K. residents who say they avoid news. And I mean avoid: These are people who say they consume professionally-produced news “less than once a month” or “never,” ranking them in the bottom 7% of the U.K. in terms of their news habits. (In other words, these aren’t people who rail against the “mainstream media” but spend their days hoovering up news that fits their political beliefs. These people say they consume no or next-to-no news at all.)
The group interviewed tended to be somewhat poorer and less educated than the U.K. as a whole; most came from lower-middle-class backgrounds and there were more women than men.
(It’s also important to note these interviews were conducted between November 2016 and March 2017, for two reasons. First: That was an extraordinary period in the news. In the U.S., it covers Donald Trump’s shock election through his first two months in office. In the U.K., it’s between the June 2016 Brexit referendum and the formal start of the withdrawal process on March 29, 2017. Avoiding the news then would seem to require an iron will. Second, 2017 was a while back in news avoidance terms, so the interviews are snapshots of the recent past.)
What’d they find?
Many conceptions about news and news use are captured in these exchanges, but the way in which preconceived perspectives generate anticipated anxiety and shape encounters with news are particularly notable. News is seen as emotionally taxing — a source of uncertainty and lack of control — making it an obstacle to deeper political engagement in a complex and upsetting world.
Some of the most common complaints (the interviewees are identified using pseudonyms):
The news is all about crime and war and terrorism.
For parents of young children, crime stories hit particularly hard. Chelsea said the last news story she could recall concerned a 16-year-old boy who was stabbed “walking home from school.” She said, “It was very close to our house, and it was on the radio, I think my mum had heard it on [the TV news program] ‘Calendar,’ the kids had heard it all over the computer.” Because the victim was a similar age as her son, “it’s quite close to the bone.”
The news is depressing.
The news isn’t useful to me, and I don’t care about politics.
The news is too confusing, and it doesn’t matter, anyway.
I’m not obliged to follow the news (but I feel a little bad about it sometimes).
In another example, Lilia said she wanted to be “one of those people who just bought a Guardian every weekend and just sat and read the whole thing.” When asked why, she said, “I feel a bit stupid sometimes because people will be talking about, ‘Oh, this is happening,’ and I’m like, ‘I don’t know what you’re on about,’ and just shy away from the conversation.”
Underlying all these responses is anxiety — either the experience of it or the anticipation of it. Reading the news is like entering a lottery with only bad prizes: You’ll probably emerge unscathed — but why even play if you’re not going to get anything valuable out of it? Sure, the roller coaster is probably safe — but why get on it at all if you’re going to hate every minute?
If you work in news, these ideas might seem downright foreign. But after all the insanity of the past decade or so, I suspect even journalists understand where these people are coming from. We’ve all had some moment where the news has been so overwhelming that we wanted to step back, close Twitter, and ignore the outside world for a while. News avoiders have the same reaction — they just have a much lower threshold for triggering it.
Instead of FOMO, they’ve got ROMO — the relief of missing out.
Nielsen and Toff:
Those we interviewed all had access to an abundant supply of news and were capable individuals navigating sometimes challenging and always demanding lives. Some of them also had an abstract sense that they ought to follow the news. Nonetheless, they consumed little of it, associating news with anxiety and believing it offered little to make them feel more in control or certain about how to navigate their lives.
Balancing often weakly and unevenly internalized norms of citizenship against the perspective that news is mainly “doom and gloom” and useless “rubbish,” which only reinforces already limited efficacy, our interviewees mostly turn their backs on what some scholars have called the “primary sense-making practice of modernity” (Hartley, 1996). Many do this with ambivalence, a sense that perhaps they should engage more, but their sense of civic duty is overshadowed by considerations such as self-care.
Through the lens of the specific perspectives we have identified here, news avoidance is cast as a reasonable choice. It feels better than the alternative, and there is no strong sense of missing out.
Leave a Reply