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Americans are avoiding the news. What can journalists do?

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 25: A man reads a newspaper at a table outside White Castle in Sunnyside, Queens during the coronavirus pandemic on May 25, 2020 in New York City. Government guidelines encourage wearing a mask in public with strong social distancing in effect as all 50 states in the USA have begun a gradual process to slowly reopen after weeks of stay-at-home measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 25: A man reads a newspaper at a table outside White Castle in Sunnyside, Queens during the coronavirus pandemic on May 25, 2020 in New York City. Government guidelines encourage wearing a mask in public with strong social distancing in effect as all 50 states in the USA have begun a gradual process to slowly reopen after weeks of stay-at-home measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. (Cindy Ord/Getty Images)

About 40% of Americans actively avoid the news, according to a Reuters Institute study. Among them is journalist Amanda Ripley.

So what needs to change? Ripley has an answer, and it begins with giving people hope:

“There is some overlap between what journalism does and how humans actually process information, but not a huge amount,” Ripley says. “There’s a lot you would do differently if you were going to design news for human consumption.”

Today, On Point: Americans are avoiding the news. What can journalists do?


Joe Segal, On Point listener.

Amanda Ripley, investigative journalist and the host of Slate’s “How To!” podcast. Author of “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out.” (@amandaripley)

David Bornstein, co-founder and CEO of the Solutions Journalism Network. (@dnbornstein)

Interview Highlights

The United States has among the most highly polarized news audiences when compared to, say, Japan, Germany or the U.K., for example. Does polarization make it easier to avoid news that people don’t like or agree with?

Amanda Ripley: “It definitely is kind of a diabolical feedback loop that we’re in. And there’s a lot of different factors there, but we are a country that is truly stuck in conflict right now, in dysfunctional conflict. So it is interacting with the hopelessness and the despair. And it’s very hard to separate what’s what. But I think that’s an important point. And when I look at the Reuters data from around the world, you definitely do start to see a correlation between distrust and avoidance.

“So the U.S. has a higher avoidance rate than about 30 other countries. And the countries that have low avoidance rates have more trust. Like Germany, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland, Japan. But it is important to just point out, speaking of hope, agency and dignity, that Germany has increased trust in its institutions over the past couple of decades. So that’s a good example to think about. Like, wouldn’t that be an interesting story? You know, how did they do that, and what can we learn from that? So the despair and the distrust are interacting, but that doesn’t mean that they will never change, or that there’s nothing that can be done about them.”

On hope being a necessity in the news cycle 

Amanda Ripley: “It took me a while to come to the realization that it’s not just me. There’s not just something wrong with me. There are things wrong with me. But it’s not just me. And so I started realizing that it’s also in the way we are framing the news, and how we think about the news, and that it doesn’t have to be this way. So I spent the past year trying to figure out what news designed for 21st century humans might look like. And talking to people, behavioral scientists who understand how humans process risk and information, psychologists who’ve been treating patients for headline stress disorder, which is a thing.

“And so I learned a bunch of things, but one of the things that really stuck with me was that we now know that humans actually need hope to get up in the morning. It is a biological need, and hope is associated in the research with lower levels of depression, chronic pain, sleeplessness and cancer. Whereas hopelessness is linked to anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and death. So, you know, it is a need.

“And I don’t think as a journalist, I ever thought about it that way. I thought you needed to know, most of all, I want the story to be interesting. I think that’s the thing we want most of all. And that’s still true. But I thought you needed to know about threats to your safety. … But I didn’t really think about hope as being a need to know ingredient of the news.”

On evolving the approach to journalism

Amanda Ripley: “We have to acknowledge that journalists are captured by the conflict we’re in. Like we are human too. … I’m old school, right? I still consume a lot of print media and I notice it there as well. So it’s not just in in social media, but I think journalists, after Trump was elected, especially sort of mainstream national journalists, I think there was a sense of powerlessness that a lot of journalists felt. That people weren’t listening to them the way they wanted them to.

“And it’s incredibly destabilizing to your identity to feel like all this hard work doesn’t amount to a hill of beans when it comes to a major national election. Now, I know that’s an exaggeration, but that’s, I think, how it felt for myself and a lot of my colleagues. So when that happens, you have a couple of choices. And one thing is to fundamentally revisit and reimagine what you’re doing, and try to rebuild your relationship with the audience. Another way to do it is to get more and more convicted and louder and louder, right? Because you want to be heard. And I feel like that’s part of what I’m seeing. It’s hard to generalize, but, you know, I think there is this belief that if we can just get people’s attention about how terrible things are, then things will change.

“And that’s not working. Because people are tuning out. So for me, this isn’t about fundamentally changing my norms as a journalist. Because every story I’ve ever reported, and by the way, I’ve covered a lot of horrible stories. That’s kind of like my beat, like I cover disasters, terrorism, crime, political violence. Every story I’ve ever covered in 20 years, there have been flickers of hope, agency and dignity. But I don’t always include them in the story. Because I have a certain idea in my head about what makes a good story. And I think that’s the piece that I want to evolve.”

On the founding of the Solutions Journalism Network

David Bornstein: “We started this about nine years ago. It grew out of a column that I was writing with Tina Rosenberg at the New York Times that was called Fixes, that was looking at solutions to social problems. And we just saw through the response that we got from readers … that there’s really a yearning for news. But rigorous news. Not advocacy, not feel good news, but rigorously reported stories that help people understand how people are responding to problems, and what we could learn from success or failure. There’s rarely perfect successes in any response. And so we saw that this was really a big opportunity for news.

“And, you know, we could see all of the trends that have been talked about here, declining trust in institutions, news that makes people feel depressed and hopeless. These were apparent, you know, eight or nine years ago as well. They’ve just gotten worse. So we just thought that there was an opportunity, you know, to help legitimize the idea that it’s actually okay for journalists to interrogate solutions as part of the news mix. It’s not advocacy or puffery or any of the things that journalists often imagined it would fall into.”

On how providing hope, agency and dignity can help solve a lack of trust in the news industry

Amanda Ripley: “I’ve been sort of scouring the planet, trying to find new sources that are systematically trying to do what I’m talking about here, like deliver news for humans. … And one that I admire is called the Christian Science Monitor, which I had never paid a huge amount of attention to. It sounds religious, but it’s not. And the print edition, each issue which comes out weekly, has reporting from around the globe. Vivid photos, brutal realities, you know, hard stories about real life war.

” … But you have this sense as you’re reading that this outlet has your back, that they want good things for you. Because there are these little glimmers of hope, agency and dignity, and it’s actually built in to the structure. So every story has a little blurb that says why we wrote this, and explains why they decided to do it. So you don’t feel quite as manipulated as you might on some news sites.

“And every story, there’s a regular feature called Points of Progress that does what David Bornstein and his colleagues at the Solutions Journalism Network have trained so many reporters to do. To rigorously report out small points of progress, things that humans are doing that is actually making things a little bit better. And so that feeling, I think, does make me trust them more. It does make me feel like, okay. They actually do not want me to be paralyzed in despair.”

Americans are avoiding the news. What can we do?

Amanda Ripley: “The question is, how do we hold our institutions accountable without leading to hopelessness and disengagement? That’s a big question. How do we do it? We want to maintain that watchdog thing and keep the teeth of the watchdog sharp. And what we’ve actually found is that solutions journalism actually increases accountability. It shows what’s possible. It shows levels, it benchmarks success for a community in a way that it makes a current level of performance unacceptable. So it’s actually an accountability mechanism.

“So that’s the way it aligns with the journalists’ incentives. When it comes to the actual institutional incentives, news increasingly is having to stand on its own two economic feet around the country. More and more news organizations have to try to get funding directly from the communities in the form of subscriptions, or memberships or local foundation grants from the community foundations in many cases, or sponsorships.

“So the community has a real interest saying, What’s the value of this news product? Can you genuinely show me that this news is helping our community to become the community that we aspire to become? And it’s hard to argue if you’re only pointing out the problems for the 50th time that you’re doing that. But if you are bringing in information that helps people understand what their options are, and doing it in a rigorous way, you can make the case that this is a feedback system that’s telling … [the whole story]. We’re doing the diagnosis, and we’re also looking at what are potential treatment options. And we don’t have a horse in this game. We’re not advocating, we’re not trying to pick winners. We’re sampling some of the ideas that are out there in the world. There’s many others.”

Voicemail Highlights: Listener Feedback

Carol from Philadelphia

My name is Carol. I’m calling from Philadelphia. … If there’s a criticism, it would be that you change the subject abruptly. For instance, today’s conversation, I haven’t heard it yet, but I’m aware of it, has to do with stop and frisk and an incident that occurred in Philadelphia. All very important. But how wonderful it would have been had you continued the dialogue, the conversations from yesterday.

Everything that On Point addressed is extremely important, but then it stops and you pick up something else. I think that adds to the frustration of the listener. We’re constantly getting information. And I hope that a lot of people responded to yesterday’s program, and I hope that you will pick it up. Pick up any comments you’ve got and pick the subject up again because it is very, very important.

Bruce from D.C.

If you’re looking for a reason why I, and a lot of other …  reasonably informed, and caring and compassionately democratic … Americans don’t take mainstream media seriously is that you really turn your cheek to the obvious … dragon in the room. Which is that the society is just ruthlessly trampling on the basic principles of democracy, and it’s because of corporate money. And you don’t cover it that way.

Highlights From Listeners on Social Media

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

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