Interview: “People increasingly and deliberately avoid the news”

ALEXANDER SÄNGERLAUB, Stiftung Neue Verantwortung

More and more people are consciously avoiding the news. In the United States, this phenomenon is described as “news avoidance.” What is the reason for this turn away from the news, and what can journalists do to change it?

In the field of news-value research, “negativism” is generally regarded as a news factor. This means that the “worse” an event is, the higher the likelihood of publication. Now, one could argue that the news is there exactly for this purpose: to uncover what is wrong in the world. But this comes at a price: People avoid the news – and are increasingly doing so. In the Digital News Report 2019 (pg. 25), nearly one-third of respondents indicated that they deliberately avoided the news(in the United Kingdom alone, this was an 11% increase relative to the 2017 study). In Germany, this group constituted 25% of the respondents.

Constructive journalism (of which I am an advocate) calls for drawing a more realistic picture of the world, thus allowing for a broader perspective on the various issues. This means going beyond simply showing the trouble spots, and instead doing more to explain the relevant background, and reporting on whether and how solutions are being developed. This could reach not only those who seek to avoid the news due to its “negative bias,” but also those who feel helpless after reading or watching the news.

Ultimately, this issue also has a democratic-theoretical dimension: Democracy only functions if people take an interest in it. The less that people consume (high-quality) news, the less informed they are, which means that they also make worse political decisions as a result. In this regard, combatting “news avoidance” should be in everyone’s interest. Or, to quote Peer Steinbrück: “If you don’t take care of me, then I’ll leave you … Yours truly, democracy!”

Technology has been the driver of nearly every major change in journalism. Why, then, is it not enough to suppose that technology itself will also provide a way out of this crisis?

If you look too much at just the technologies, you risk underestimating the digitalization-driven social upheaval going on in our public sphere. The whole communications paradigm has radically changed, ushering us from the mass-media age into a new era of communications in which we are all perpetual communicators, sometimes publicly, sometimes privately. It is not without reason that we often bring out our old Habermas and speak of the “digital structural change of the public sphere.” However, this does not mean only that editorial staffs, like citizens, schools and politicians, must engage with these new technologies; it also requires an evolution in social systems in response. Journalism must carve out a new role in which it is just one gatekeeper among many; we as citizens need new skills and abilities, which should be taught as early as primary and secondary school; the framework for such curriculums should in turn be set by policymakers, and so on.

Yet the problem is not simply the technologies, but the fact that we as a society are no longer keeping up quickly enough, for example by establishing the correct frameworks in which the quickly developing platforms should function. While Facebook, Alphabet and Amazon are globally acting corporations, we’re losing ourselves from a media-policy perspective in the national-level minutiae of which state media institution is to be responsible for which part of “the internet.”

At this year’s M100, we want to set the course for a modern media policy. Currently, where do you see the greatest need for action that will ensure we still have a pluralistic, independent and resilient fourth estate in 10 years’ time?

There is presently considerable upheaval, which in turn means that a concurrent, holistic approach is needed. A modern media policy would be one that succeeds in reuniting the various individual threads. It is a question of thinking about how we want to shape this media-policy era. There are a large number of areas undergoing change, so a good compass is needed – for instance, the commitment to a media regulatory system dedicated to the public interest, on the basis of which appropriate media policies can be constructed. These would in turn take a number of forms: Strong public-media institutions, but please, ones that are also adapted to the needs of the digital society. Free access to knowledge and information instead of debates over ancillary copyright rules. Responsible platforms for democratic debate instead of disinformation and hate speech. Strong democratic information architectures – including at the local level. A journalism that comes closer to the research community, and recognizes the potential of the digital knowledge society instead of being trapped in the attention economy. In this regard, we must think in new ways and be creative in many places, rather than simply saving the institutions of the previous media era.

The interview was conducted by Frederik Fischer