The worrisome 13 per cent

Are people who turn off the news still getting informed?

Midafternoon on a Tuesday, the food court in Scotia Square shopping centre in Halifax is full of people sitting alone. Professionals working in the area are on their lunch breaks. If they aren’t only focused on their food, they’re holding a newspaper or cellphone. Some are looking at news apps or online news sources, but for most following the news is not part of their daily routine.

Lydia Ross, eating chicken and rice while messaging on her iPhone, says she’s never had a news habit. She’s a 30-year-old university grad who admits she feels guilty for not following the news while still spending time on Facebook.

Ross is not lazy or uninvolved in the community. She’s an environmentalist who’s worked with Parks Canada, and volunteers at the Sierra Club and the Ecology Action Centre. She votes in elections, using voter’s aid websites to choose candidates.

Earlier this year, StatsCan released the report Spotlight on Canadians: Results from the General Social Survey — The use of media to follow news and current affairs. In 2003 seven per cent of Canadians over 15-years-old rarely or never followed the news; this almost doubled by 2013, to 13 per cent. Those who follow the news daily dropped from 68 to 60 per cent.

People older than 55 are still – for the most part – consuming news regularly. Typically, more education means a higher likelihood of following the news. Younger Canadians, though, have drastically different news habits. People over 54 without a high school diploma are following the news almost 20 per cent more than university graduates aged 25-54. The 13 per cent of adults who don’t follow news at all are almost four million people.

Ross says she’s concerned about the credibility of new outlets, and mentions media conglomeration, censorship, and “muzzled scientists”. She’s not alone. Only 40 per cent of Canadians have confidence in Canadian media, with lower rates for young people.

Critics say one reason for this drop in respect for journalism is that news outlet consolidation is more common than ever in Canada. After Postmedia bought 175 newspapers and digital properties from Sun Media in 2015, the company took possession of both major daily papers in Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa (it already owned both in Vancouver).

Nick Taylor-Vaisey, National Director of the Canadian Association of Journalists, says that Canadian journalists are still producing quality work. But if 13 per cent of people aren’t listening, that’s “an enormous number.”

A Cultural Shift

On Saturday afternoons, Damian Trilling enjoys reading the newspaper. Over a cup of strong dark coffee, he decides which sections to read and which to save for Sunday’s breakfast. His weekend news routine relaxes him.

Trilling, an assistant professor in the department of communication science at the University of Amsterdam, says that for many people following the news is just a habit. His study Skipping current affairs: The non-users of online and offline news was published in 2012 by the European Journal of Communication. Trilling examines how today’s niche market affects exposure to general news. The Internet provides users with an abundance of sources. If people only want information about their own specific interests: sports, science, feminism, whatever, they can easily find sources that will provide them with nothing else. This can prevent people from incidentally discovering general information.

Trilling says it’s important not to overstate the magnitude of this effect. If this were the only factor, it would affect a larger percentage of people. People who don’t pay attention to news may still be interested in connecting with their society, but in other ways.

For generations growing up without a newspaper subscription, news rituals are less likely to be part of their routine. Reading the news on a smartphone might not be as structured, says Trilling, but people are still informed.

As social media incorporates news, more people get information passively — in some cases without even knowing it. Avery Holton, a communications professor at the University of Utah, suspects most people are getting more news than they think.

Holton is the author of the study News and the overloaded consumer: factors influencing information overload among news consumers, published in 2012 in the journal CyberPsychology, Behaviour and Social Networking. He says “information overload” is changing our news habits, and finding information on the Internet can feel like rummaging through a no man’s land. Holton says this leads to “zoning out” and ignoring information, or avoiding it altogether.

Six years ago, almost three-quarters of his American sample felt at least somewhat overwhelmed by the amount of news information available. Overload is less common as people become more comfortable with technology. People “like” pages or download apps that help compartmentalize the information they’re interested in. Holton says his students are often unaware that the information they receive is news, because they don’t get it from a traditional news source.

When people are active on social media they often share and create more news. “There’s so much news going on every day,” Holton says. “There’s absolutely no way to keep up with every single topic that’s going on.”

Enjoyment of news can prevent feelings of information overload, but stress and anxiety about the news triggers it. When worrisome events are sensationalized in the news, Holton suspects, people are more likely to ignore or avoid the media.

Back in Scotia Square, Ross says that when she hears news about the Syrian conflict she feels “disheartened”, “saddened”, and “helpless”. Ross has no interest in following information about Donald Trump, but she’s often exposed to it on Facebook.

Hyunjin Song, an assistant professor in the department of methods in the social sciences at the University of Vienna, says news isn’t the same for everyone. In Song’s 2016 study Why do people (sometimes) become selective about news? The role of emotions and partisan differences in selective approach and avoidance, published in the journal Mass Communication and Society, he looked at how emotions influence the choice of news sources that people use. One finding: he says Democrats and Republicans respond to fear differently. Democrats afraid of Trump are likely to access more conservative news outlets, while Republicans afraid of Hillary Clinton are less likely to seek out liberal ones. The Democrats’ behaviour is motivated by the belief that information can help you make better judgments. Fear makes them less concerned that the information is in line with their beliefs.

lydia
Lydia Ross on her lunch break in Halifax.   Francesca Handy

An Active Citizen

Back in Canada, Canadian Association of Journalists national director Taylor-Vaisey says it’s the media’s obligation to report when candidates say false things— so they don’t go unchecked. According to Maclean’s magazine, in the first presidential debate Trump told twenty-five lies and Clinton told four. Mendacity is one reason the Trump campaign received so much attention in the news. “You can’t cover the man less because he says controversial things,” Taylor-Vaisey said. “He says things that terrify and excite people.”

If people aren’t informed, democracy is at a disadvantage. “When we talk about this people start to think we’re a little holier than thou and kind of self-righteous,” he said. “But it’s absolutely true that journalism is a pillar of democracy.”

Louise Woodstock says that when people don’t follow the news they still feel informed because it’s “so much in the air.” Woodstock is an associate professor of media and communication studies at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania. In 2014 her study The news-democracy narrative and the unexpected benefits of limited news consumption: The case of news resisters was published in the journal Journalism. In it, she challenged the idea that all good citizens keep up with the news.

Woodstock says for “news resisters” following the news can result in feeling hopeless. Avoiding it gives these people a sense of optimism that empowers them to create positive social change. News information, Woodstock says, is important, but not everyone has to pay attention to it, “especially if it’s emotionally depleting.”

Lydia Ross isn’t sure why she doesn’t follow the news. Finishing her lunch, she says she is focused on the putting her energy toward environmental issues. “I can’t just sit back and do nothing, so I’m going to do what I can do.”

The mall opened in 1969, when more people spent their lunchbreaks reading newspapers. Today, the food court has its own Wi-Fi network, TheMix. With access to the World Wide Web it is hard to say people are disconnected.

“Someone who’s interested in culture is actually interested in society, because culture is an artifact of society,” says Damian Trilling of Amsterdam. “It might be that people aren’t interested in the latest breaking news about small bits and pieces, but they still might be interested in society in general.”