News Avoidance and Fatigue


News avoidance refers to a phenomenon where audiences reduce their consumption of journalistic media over a continuous period of time due to either an active dislike for news or a preference for other kinds of media content.

Although many theories about the impacts of journalistic media implicitly assume that large portions of the public regularly consume those media, it is important to recognize that large segments of the population don’t actually do that. Indeed, although more journalism is produced today than ever before, the number of people who avoid journalism has also increased in recent decades.

Moreover, audiences’ journalistic media use is usually characterized by a combination of genres, such as sports journalism, political journalism, and environmental journalism. News avoidance is typically linked to the exclusion of certain genres and issues (though it may be extended to all journalistic media use). Put another way, some people (in fact, many) may routinely take in sports journalism but intentionally seek to avoid political journalism.

This development can have profound impacts on democratic societies that presumably rely upon a well-informed citizenry to self-govern because higher levels of news exposure have historically been linked to greater amounts of political knowledge and engagement. Second, news avoidance has negative economic consequences for journalistic outlets as it reduces the potential size of its audience. That, in turn, can also have consequences for non-avoiders, as journalistic outlets have fewer resources with which to produce quality journalism.

Intentional and Unintentional Avoidance

There are many reasons why an audience member may engage in news avoidance, but they can usually be placed into one of two categories: intentional avoidance and unintentional avoidance.

Intentional avoidance is the consequence of individuals consciously tuning out news media. There are three main reasons why they engage in such behavior, all of which are linked to negative dispositions toward journalistic media.

The first reason is that they perceive news coverage to be too negative and pessimistic. While some audiences are drawn to particularly negative or pessimistic news (e.g., violent crime), such news has been linked to increases in negative emotions and decreases in an individual’s well-being over time. The desire to seek positive emotions can thus result in intentional avoidance of news that is presumed to be too negative.

The second reason is that some audiences do not trust journalistic outlets. This may be due to a perception that certain groups of journalistic outlets — if not “the media” as a whole — are pushing their own political and economic interests by being selective about the topics they cover and the information they include in their coverage. The perception that such coverage will be biased against a person’s viewpoints or perception of reality can thus encourage intentional avoidance.

The third reason is that there is always a massive amount of readily accessible journalistic products out there, which can create a feeling of information overload. Not only is there a seemingly endless pool of issues being covered at any given moment, but there is also a seemingly endless pool of stories about each issue — which is impossible for any single person to consume or process. That perceived overload can create stress, confusion, and anxiety, and thus result in intentional avoidance in order for a person to reclaim a positive emotional state.

There is also unintentional news avoidance, which is based on the audience member’s relative preference for non-journalistic media. Put another way, the avoidance isn’t because a person is actively seeking to avoid journalistic media but rather because their preference for another choice — perhaps a new movie featuring Ryan Gosling — is stronger. Indeed, scholars have argued that the large audiences drawn by television news broadcasts in the 1960s and 1970s were due in part to audiences watching the news while they waited for the evening entertainment programs to start (which followed the nightly newscasts).

News Fatigue

News avoidance does not have to reflect a permanent state wherein audience members always avoid certain kinds of journalistic products, or journalistic media altogether. Quite often, it is a temporary state, as when individuals feel overwhelmed and need to take a break from an issue.

For example, consider the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. After being exposed to several stories about the pandemic every day for months, a person may have felt the need to disconnect from their preferred news sources to keep their mental state from deteriorating. However, after taking a break, that person may have resumed taking in such stories — and perhaps needed another break later on.

We can call this phenomenon news fatigue, which connotes a temporary feeling of exhaustion that can be addressed through a period of disconnection (recharging). News fatigue can occur in relation to any kind of issue or genre, such as a royal wedding or political journalism. However, it is typically most pronounced when it comes to natural disasters, illnesses, poverty, and political issues that, by their very nature, already tend to engender negative emotional responses.

Compassion Fatigue

Similarly, there is a phenomenon called compassion fatigue, which refers to the gradual lessening of compassion over time as a result of repeated exposure to traumatic phenomena. For example, consider the refugee crisis resulting from the Syrian Civil War, wherein at least 13 million Syrians were estimated to have been displaced and in need of humanitarian assistance. As the war dragged on over years, audiences around the world moved from being shocked to becoming numbed in order to psychologically protect themselves from repeated exposure to the death and destruction featured in news reports about the war.

Compassion fatigue has been associated with increased feelings of hopelessness and negative attitudes. That, in turn, can lead to desensitization and even resistance to helping those suffering if the issue is perceived as being intractable, or impossible to manage or change. Consequently, individuals may seek to turn off certain emotions as best they can. Compassion fatigue can also impact political and economic support for initiatives to address that issue. For example, in the aforementioned example of the Syrian Civil War, well-informed but fatigued news consumers may be less likely to become involved in protests against the war than their less-informed but non-fatigued counterparts.

This phenomenon is not limited to news audiences or to journalism. It has been found to impact a range of professionals, including doctors, child welfare workers, and lawyers. However, it has been found to have profound impacts on journalists themselves — and especially foreign correspondents who are shuttled from one crisis to another. Those impacts involve not only their emotional and mental states but also the depictions (and tropes) they incorporate into their journalistic work.

Combating News Avoidance

Several strategies have been proposed to reduce the likelihood of news avoidance. The first is to engage in approaches to journalism like constructive journalism and solutions journalism.

Constructive journalism aims to rebalance journalism by accompanying a selection of predominantly negative news stories about an issue with more positive coverage that illustrates the bright spots — however few they may be — related to that issue. For example, this might involve stories about how some Syrian refugees were able to successfully relocate themselves and start new lives, or how a local non-profit helped provide needed aid to displaced refugees.

Solutions journalism aims to not only diagnose problems — like the reasons for the displacement of Syrians during the war — but also adopt a forward-looking perspective that identifies possible solutions. Solutions journalism also tends to offer concrete suggestions to audiences for how to become a part of possible solutions. This may include providing contact information for local nonprofits or identifying specific humanitarian aid legislation that is under consideration.

The second strategy is to look for ways to increase trust in news organizations, such as by being more transparent about how stories are reported and explaining the journalistic processes behind them. For example, this might entail appending an information box to a story that contains anonymous sources that explains the journalistic organization’s policy on granting anonymity. It may also include an explanation that a product reviewer was not paid for the review, but that the outlet may receive money if audiences purchase the product from an affiliated online store.

A third strategy that has received more attention in recent years is to provide slow journalism alternatives. This approach moves away from providing many short and episodic breaking news products (e.g., breaking news stories or tweets). Instead, it promotes providing fewer, longer, and more holistic news products (e.g., a well-reported and in-depth story published a couple of days after the news first broke). The approach is not intended to replace traditional journalism but simply to offer a complement for those who feel stressed by information overload.

Key Takeaways

  • News avoidance refers to a phenomenon whereby audiences reduce their consumption of journalistic media over a continuous period of time.

  • News avoidance may be the result of intentional and unintentional efforts, such as an active dislike for news or a simple preference for other media content.

  • Intentional avoidance may be the byproduct of perceived over-negativity, lack of trust in news, and information overload.

  • Individuals may develop either or both news fatigue and compassion fatigue as a result of over-exposure to a particular issue.

  • There are different strategies that journalistic actors can employ to reduce the likelihood of avoidance, though some measure of avoidance is inevitable.