The news about news is frankly… bad

The news about news is frankly… bad

As consumers are found to increasingly avoid the news, Snoddy examines what is behind this and what needs to change to reverse the tide.

Confirming what most news editors throughout the traditional media probably knew in their bones, increasing numbers across the developed world find the news “depressing, relentless and boring”, and are switching off in increasing numbers.

Instinctively, it is easy to sympathise because there would appear to be little to celebrate or cheer anyone up in the average news bulletin or information stream in the past few years.

There has been the pandemic, the horrors of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and associated atrocities, the murderous Hamas attack on Israel followed by, many believe, the disproportionate murderous attacks by Israel on the civilian population of Gaza.

Then, for good measure, stir in unprecedented low confidence levels in those elected to cope with all the aforementioned crises, and it’s lucky if any loyal news-watcher gets a wink of sleep at night.

The bad news about news comes from an impressively comprehensive survey from Oxford University’s Reuters Institute, which got YouGov to ask nearly 95,000 people in 47 counties about their attitudes to news consumption.

The numbers produced for the institute’s Digital News Report are bleak.

No less than 39% of citizens say they sometimes or often actively avoid the news compared with 29% in 2017.

At the same time, those who say they are interested or very interested in the news has dropped from 63% in 2017 to 46% now, with the percentage halving since 2015.

What happened in the UK?

In the UK, the dip started accelerating after the Brexit referendum and many people increasingly speak of their sense of “powerlessness” in the face of relentless news coverage.

If news has been a conventional consumer product faced with such a loss of market share and consumer attention, many marketing executives would have been fired.

In the UK, 73% now get news online, with TV on 50% and print down to 14%.

Meanwhile, Facebook appears to be in long-term decline, while TikTok is overtaking Twitter, particularly among the young.

The first reaction of those in the journalist community might well be to say that an escape from news is actually an escape from reality, and there is some truth in that — but not quite enough.

Abandon such large numbers and you may well be abandoning functioning democracies to their fate at the hands of those deliberately, or inadvertently, pumping out facile conspiracy theories over the internet.

How can the news industry tackle this?

Luckily, the Reuters Institute, which has this week brought us the bad news, put out some suggested solutions, in advance.

Toff, Palmer and Nielsen came up in January for the institute with five suggestions for the news industry to tackle the trend towards deliberate avoidance of the news.

They include bringing news coverage closer to “the lived experience” of those who consume the news.

Since news was invented, and probably long before, there has been the paradox that news highlights the unusual, the unexpected and the tragic, almost inevitably giving a false impression of what is normal.

News organisations should pay more attention, the authors believe, to the importance of a sense of community, provide more brief, accessible forms of journalism and launch PR campaigns to explain the vital work that journalists do and the importance of trustworthy, verifiable information.

And in this year of elections all over the world, political journalists should explain more about the workings of democracy and not assume everyone knows or cares about the details of the arcane world they inhabit.

What has been learned?

There is one morsel of hope for news from the Reuter’s survey. In a presidential year in the US, interest in the news is rising there.

The fieldwork for the survey was conducted in January and February, long before prime minister Rishi Sunak took the world and most of his own staff and MPs by surprise by announcing a 4 July election.

It’s a safe guess that interest in news has risen here, too, although a daily dose of politics may seem equally relentless for some.

As the UK general election campaign enters what football commentators would call the business end of the season, what have we learned about how the news and news organisations have performed on the whole?

Overall, they have done a good job or have been forced into it by the unfortunate facts for the Conservative-supporting press.

Even those which have already endorsed the fifth Conservative prime minister in a row — only three of whom were actually elected — have had to acknowledge the grim reality from their point of view, in the opinion polls, many of which they have paid for.

In reality, little has changed for the past two years with Labour averaging a 20 percentage point lead whatever the Conservative opposition have done.

If anything, the situation has recently got worse than that for the Conservatives with the arrival of a Nigel Farage-led Reform party and the apparent growing enthusiasm for the use of tactical voting to increase the chance of change.

Journalists have intensified their interrogations of the claims of government and opposition. BBC Verify has eviscerated many of the Farage claims on immigration and it was the Conservative-supporting Spectator that took down Sunak’s claim that Labour’ s proposed policies would cost everyone an extra £2,000 a year.

The clearest indication of what is actually happening on the ground can be easily divined from the most enthusiastic of the Tory cheerleaders in the national press.

A few editions of the Daily Mail last week said it all.

First, there was the warning from Sunak not to “give Labour a blank cheque”, followed by warnings that a Tory wipeout “risk a one-party state”.

Then there was an attack on former Tory voters threatening to defect to Reform as a protest vote that, according to the Daily Mail, “could haunt you for many years to come”.

By Sunday, the paper was pointing out that there might be so many Labour MPs that they could not all fit on to the government benches. They would have to sit with a rope separating them from the new, depleted opposition.

With only three weeks to go, seemingly the only unresolved question is how long it will take before Rupert Murdoch’s Sun and Times get off the political fence and realise it is time to support winners — something they have always done in the past.

And, for some, at least the news in July will be good news.

Raymond Snoddy is a media consultant, national newspaper columnist and former presenter of NewsWatch on BBC News. He writes for The Media Leader on Wednesdays — read his column here.

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