Why avoiding the news is a social habit

And other highlights from news research published in February 2020

Welcome to the second edition of RQ1—and the first with actual subscribers! We are Mark Coddington and Seth Lewis—two former journalists turned academics, now teaching and researching at Washington and Lee University (Mark) and the University of Oregon (Seth).

We created this newsletter because we’ve had trouble keeping up with the constant flow of new research on news and journalism, and we want to help bring you up to speed with it as we try to wade through it as well. We hope to give you each month a quick breakdown of a notable piece of new research, and also to highlight some other interesting work you might want to check out. We can’t cover it all (and you wouldn’t have time to read that anyway), so take this as your sampler platter of the latest in news research.

If you have ideas or suggestions, please shoot us a reply—we’d love to hear them. And if you enjoy this, please share the newsletter with your colleagues so they can sign up. Thank you! If someone has shared this email with you, then you can subscribe here:

Here’s what we found in this month’s news research:

The social world of ‘news avoiders’

Scholars have been studying people’s motivations for consuming news for decades, but in recent years, some researchers have started looking more closely at the people who don’t consume news (or much of it, anyway), a phenomenon they’ve called news avoidance. What they’ve found is that news avoiders typically say they avoid news because they find it too upsetting or stressful, and because they don’t trust it.

But these are the same complaints that news consumers—even heavy news consumers—typically have. That led Ruth Palmer of IE University in Spain and Benjamin Toff of the University of Minnesota to ask an interesting question: If news consumers and news avoiders have the same problems with news, what are the differentiating factors that lead the avoiders to, well, avoid it?

They found a couple of notable answers in their new study, “What Does It Take to Sustain a News Habit?” available in the (open access!) International Journal of Communication. Based on more than 80 interviews with news avoiders in Spain and the UK, Palmer and Toff zeroed in on two norms whose absence, beyond avoiders’ traditional complaints, led them to push away from news consumption.

The first norm was that they didn’t see consuming news as a civic duty, something they should do in order to be a good citizen. Palmer and Toff tied this sense to a lack of political efficacy in their interviewees; why feel a responsibility to consume news, they ask, if you don’t think it will make a meaningful impact on the political world?

But they found the second norm more intriguing. These news avoiders had no strong ties to communities that valued news consumption, so they saw it as simply socially normal not to consume news. This started for many of them in their childhood: Although they remembered family members using news, it was an isolated activity not shared or discussed with other members of the house. And in their current social circles, avid news consumers were a distinct minority, people they saw as both annoyingly argumentative and admirably informed.

The news avoiders didn’t feel any need to emulate those friends, though. To them, their well-informed friends were the strange ones, and there were no real social or professional repercussions for not knowing about current events anyway. As Palmer and Toff put it, “‘uninterested news avoider’ was an acceptable role” for them, modeled in childhood and common in their social and professional circles.

Of course, these two norms are related. The belief that we have a civic responsibility to keep up with the news is something that, Palmer and Toff argued, has to be maintained and reinforced in community, through shared values and social practices. So if we want to reach people who aren’t consuming news, we need to think not just about their individual beliefs and attitudes, but the communities they’re in as well.

Research roundup

Here are some other studies that caught our eye this past month:

Mexican journalism under siege. The impact of anti-press violence on reporters, newsrooms, and society
Ruben Arnoldo Gonzalez
Journalism Practice

At a time when threats to journalists are growing apace, this study offers an important window onto the lived realities of anti-press violence. It focuses on Mexico, one of the most dangerous places to be a journalist. Through 93 interviews with journalists in 23 of the most violent states, Gonzalez presents a multi-faceted picture of the hostility, including how its impact plays out differently at the individual, organizational, and societal levels. One troubling conclusion: The audience doesn’t seem to care all that much about attacks on journalists, mistrusting them as part of the perceived “elite”—and so, because reporters do not feel supported by either their audience nor the authorities, they increasingly shy away from coverage of sensitive issues.

Crowding out: Is there evidence that public service media harm markets? A cross-national comparative analysis of commercial television and online news providers
Annika Sehl, Richard Fletcher, & Robert G. Picard
European Journal of Communication

Is it true that public service media make it hard for commercial media to compete? Across Europe, this is a go-to complaint among many politicians: that a strong public service media has a “crowding out” effect in their country’s media environment, creating an uneven playing field in broadcasting and digital that weakens private-sector media or discourages upstarts from entering the market. Sehl and colleagues put this hypothesis to the test by analyzing national broadcast and online markets in all 28 E.U. countries, and they find little to no evidence for crowding-out claims.

Newsworthiness and story prominence: How the presence of news factors relates to upfront position and length of news stories
Mark Boukes, Natalie P. Jones, & Rens Vliegenthart

News doesn’t just drop out of the sky; it takes shape through multiple factors that give some stories or issues more perceived importance than others. Researchers have studied such news values for many decades, but without enough clarity about precisely why news factors actually matter—particularly for determining the prominence that news items receive. Boukes and colleagues attempt to resolve this through a large-scale analysis of nearly 5,000 items (print, broadcast, and online) from 11 major Dutch news sources. They find that (1) news factors “conflict” and “eliteness” have the biggest impact, (2) there’s mixed evidence for “proximity” and “personification,” and (3) “negativity,” “influence and relevance,” and “continuity” were mostly insignificant overall.

Engaged journalism and news work: A sociotechnical analysis of organizational dynamics and professional challenges
Thomas R. Schmidt & Regina G. Lawrence
Journalism Practice

For decades, the research literature on participatory journalism has shown that journalists really resist relinquishing control over news production. It has been complicated, if not impossible in some cases, to get news organizations to buy into more “engaged” forms of journalism that situate audiences as active users and potentially co-creators of news, or that are assembled around building relationships with communities rather than simply generating audience metrics. So it’s significant that nearly every one of the 15 U.S. newsrooms analyzed in this study show some measure of success in using Hearken for involving community members throughout the news production process. This offers, Schmidt and Lawrence say, a “partial update” to the literature by hinting that “engaged journalism practices actually create opportunities for meaningful audience involvement.”

That’s not news: Audience perceptions of ‘news-ness’ and why it matters
Stephanie Edgerly & Emily K. Vraga
Mass Communication and Society

When should a tweet be considered news, and how might perceived “news-ness” influence the way people respond? Taking an audience approach to this question, Edgerly and Vraga conducted an experiment to see how people rate a tweet about a possible government shutdown according to (1) the type of headline (breaking news, exclusive, fact-check, opinion) and (2) the source of the tweet (AP, MSNBC, Fox News). Among other things, they find evidence for partisan confirmation bias, as people’s political leanings (in combination with the source involved) influence their intention to verify the news behind the headline. “In this light,” they conclude, “intent to verify may be less a check on misinformation and more a manifestation of confirmation biases which begin at the definition of what is news.”

Reporting on mental health difficulties, mental illness and suicide: Journalists’ accounts of the challenges
Anne O’Brien

News plays a role in shaping public attitudes, stereotypes, and strategies surrounding mental health difficulties and suicide, but we know relatively little about how such stories are produced by journalists. Through interviews with Irish journalists, O’Brien reveals of picture of journalists trying to navigate a series of factors: “sensitivity to the topic of suicide; care for families; balancing public and private interests; challenges to reporting facts, finding appropriate sources and meeting the needs of media platforms; interpreting guidelines on reporting and the discovery of the relative absence of mental illness stories.” A particular challenge, she finds, is reporting on such a sensitive topic amid the grueling demands of digital media, which call for ever-faster turnaround times and continual story updating.

Boundary work: Intermedia agenda-setting between right-wing alternative media and professional journalism
Silje Nygaard
Journalism Studies

Intermedia agenda-setting refers to the way that some news media set the tone for others to follow in covering particular issues, often in ways that affirm the traditional norms of journalism. But the outsized attention that right-wing outlets have received in recent years led Nygaard to analyze this question: “Do mainstream online newspapers give issue attention to right-wing alternative media?” The answer is yes, but with the caveat that mainstream journalists appear to giving such coverage in an apparent attempt to protect the boundaries of journalism as an institution against deviant actors and ideas. The coverage also follows the model sketched out by Daniel Hallin: Are these right-wing alternative media considered to be within “the sphere of legitimate controversy” (which is found to be the case in Norway and Denmark) or banished to “the sphere of deviance” (as they appear to be in Sweden)?

Preservation and evolution: Local newspapers as ambidextrous organizations
Joy Jenkins & Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

From talk of “news deserts” to concerns voiced recently about the overwhelming digital might of The New York Times, there is a lot of concern about the future of local journalism: Is there a viable model for local and regional newspapers? This study, which draws on 48 interviews with managers, editors, and reporters representing four countries (Finland, France, Germany, and the U.K.), goes a long way in showing how local newsrooms and their parent companies are adapting to shifting audience behaviors, such as by experimenting with new ways of monetizing news, expecting journalists to better understand their organization’s business strategy, and ultimately pursuing a path as “ambidextrous organizations” that “exploit the [print] products of the past while exploring innovations that may help sustain them in the future.”

Enacted journalism takes the stage: How audiences respond to reporting-based theater
Ori Tenenboim & Natalie Jomini Stroud
Journalism Studies

Speaking of experimentation, some news organizations have explored new forms of reaching audiences through live-theater performances, including ones that feature reporters on stage and engage audiences in conversation afterward. Tenenboim and Stroud examined this phenomenon through surveys of 279 people who attended three performances in the U.S., as well as interviews with 13 people involved in the plays. They show how “enacted journalism,” as they call it, can make a meaningful difference in what people know and believe—and also can broaden the ideas that audiences have about what counts as journalism, for better or worse.

Journalists, harassment, and emotional labor: The case of women in on-air roles at US local television stations
Kaitlin C. Miller & Seth C. Lewis

We started this roundup with a study about violence against journalists in Mexico, and we’re ending it with this paper about hostility toward women journalists at U.S. local television stations. The cases are not comparable, of course, but they point to the growing incidence of harassment against journalists around the world—and how easily it can become normalized if not arrested at an early stage. In this piece, Miller and Lewis examine the emotional labor—the work required to manage one’s emotions to keep others happy—that is required of journalists navigating harassment from sources, strangers, viewers, and others they encounter in the field or online. They outline four main types of abuse and the implications of each: (1) disruptive in-person harassment, (2) physical and abrasive in-person harassment, (3) online harassment as unwanted sexual advances, and (4) online harassment as threats and criticisms.

If you want to go deeper, there’s a lot more where these studies came from. Journalism Research News has a comprehensive list of journalism research published in February.

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