Americans Turning Off The News

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By Reed Anfinson
Publisher, Swift County Monitor-News

“Who will govern the governors? There is only one force in the nation that can be depended upon to keep the government pure and the governors honest, and that is the people themselves. They alone, if well informed, are capable of preventing the corruption of power, and of restoring the nation to its rightful course if it should go astray. They alone are the safest depository of the ultimate powers of government.

Thomas Jefferson
Third U.S. President

Thomas Jefferson, along with his co-author of the U.S. Constitution James Madison, would be dismayed if they saw the state of citizen participation and interest in their government today. They would be fearful for the future of the Founders’ experiment in self-government.

Americans are checking out in growing numbers. Checking out of the fundamental necessity for a Republic dependent on an electorate made up of its citizens to survive – being informed.

Our government is based on elected leaders who serve with the consent of the governed. But more precisely, and necessarily, the informed consent of the governed. Citizens need the information provided to them that provides the knowledge to a make wide array of decisions about issues and leaders.

People want escape. They want fantasy. They prefer Wheel of Fortune to the evening news. They prefer playing the online game Fortnite to reading about real world conflicts. They prefer socializing with friends on Facebook, or watching YouTube videos, to the stress of nightly assault of opinionated TV talk shows. They prefer Game of Thrones to the story about the next mass shooting knowing that no matter how horrific it was, nothing, absolutely nothing will be done by Congress to prevent yet another one.

Staying informed should be easy in an internet age when we are awash in news options; where information is provided every second of the day. But in the vast market place of ideas and news we find on our computers and phones, there is competition.

With the evolution of the internet we have created what some call the Attention Economy. While the information available to us today has increased exponentially in the last couple decades our capacity to absorb it, our time to pay attention, hasn’t changed. We make choices. Those choices often favor the pleasurable, the distracting, and the connections with friends and family, to news.

Competition for attention does not favor sources the depress us, make us feel helpless, frustrate us, and for which we feel animosity.

Writing for the Nieman Lab, Joshua Benton asks, “Why do some people avoid news?

“The modern digitally connected human … has access to more news and information than any other human in history, whenever they want it, most of it free, all of it in their pocket,” he writes.

“But it’s not only news that they have more access to — it’s everything, from Clash of Clans to Keanu memes to old friends’ photos to Ariana Grande songs to TikTok. Those things, if administered correctly, serve as entertainment and tend to make their consumers happy.”

News, on the other hand, fails miserably in the satisfaction and reward business.

Benton goes on to point to an unscientific survey of people’s thoughts about the news and why they are checking out conducted LinkedIn’s Isabelle Roughol. Her many responses can be lumped into a few distinct categories.

News is overwhelming negative. It is “salacious and draining,”  and focuses on “grotesque pictures or reading depressing draining news.” “I stopped watching local news about accidents, shootings, etc. a long time ago.” “I just don’t have the time or mental capacity for the negativity that the news spoon-feeds everyone.”

All this negative news depresses people. “It had a major negative impact on my general mood and overall mental health.” It is a source of “unneeded stress.” One person suffering from “burnout” was told by the doctor to “Stop looking at news and current affairs.” “Let the world worry about itself. Worrying about yourself is of better value.”
More people are relying on others they know for information when they have checked out of the news. “I leave it to others to update me.” “The big news usually has a way of finding me.” “I never listen to the news. If there’s something important you tend to hear it.”

Trump’s incessant attacks on the press are also having an impact, though the television and radio press with all its opinion programming also contributes to the current state of affairs.  “Facts don’t matter anymore. Pressing a political or commercial interest is all they’re good for, and that isn’t healthy.” It’s all “toxicity and untrue BS.” “It’s impossible to know what is the truth.” “News is no longer informative.”

Finally, it leaves people feeling helpless. “I have no control and there is nothing I can do except vote next year.” I am “helpless to change events.” “There is no clear way of doing anything about it.” “I prefer to focus on things that I can do something about.” Why worry about things that are “impossible to change.”

This last group of people have a recommendation for the nation’s press: “If bad news is reported, tell us what’s being done to change it. What can we do to help?”

While we acknowledge the press bears a substantial responsibility for the current state of citizen withdrawal from the news, those citizens can’t escape their share of the blame. “It’s more about being strategic with your exposure,” one respondent on LinkedIn said.

Turn off the highly opinionated shows. Don’t seek out the extremely partisan websites. Read news that is fair and balanced, provided by journalists who check facts, admit errors, and strive to produce news that informs critical decisions.

Those of us in the small town community newspaper business may be a good template for the bigger news outlets. We strive to report fairly, we carry many stories that are uplifting, and we report what is being done to address the problems we report on. Maybe these attributes reflect how close we are to the people we write about, who hold us accountable, and how our well being is tied to theirs.

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