Analysis: at a time when there's so much media concentration on one topic, many are deliberately avoiding the news

There's a cartoon that sometimes circulates online showing two people idly chatting, captioned: "my desire to be well-informed is currently at odds with my desire to remain sane". Cartoonist David Sipress, whose work appears in the New Yorker, doesn’t remember what triggered it: something during the Clinton administration in the 1990s. Like a good film, it feels timeless, as if designed for this very moment of pure, unprecedented uncertainty. 

In his St Patrick's Day television address, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar offered this advice: "please take regular breaks from watching news and media, and from consuming social media. Constantly scrolling on your phone or obsessively following the latest developments is not good for anyone." He previously tweeted a similar sentiment, echoing World Health Organisation guidelines regarding the Covid-19 situation.

These suggest that we "minimise watching, reading or listening to news that causes you to feel anxious or distressed; seek information only from trusted sources…Seek information updates at specific times during the day, once or twice. The sudden and near-constant stream of news reports about an outbreak can cause anyone to feel worried." It might seem somewhat counter-intuitive. Rather than encouraging people to stay informed and up to date, the advice is for distance, putting a concept called news avoidance into the spotlight. 

Researchers Morten Skovsgaard and Kim Andersen highlight the clear distinctions between types of news avoidance. Firstly, unintentional avoidance which is indicative of a changing, high-choice media landscape in which people have frequent, accessible alternatives to news, such as more entertainment or sports content. Of course, this is important and concerning in the broad scheme of how informed and equipped a population are regarding current affairs.

From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime. The's editor Sinead O'Carroll on the spread of fake news about the coronavirus via social media

But the issues around the coronavirus outbreak instead shine a light on the second type: intentional news avoidance. Why do people deliberately avoid the news? Existing research, and the framework Skovsgaard and Anderson put forward, identify three key reasons to explore here.

The first relates to trust, scepticism and perceptions of bias. But according to 2019 data, we actually have higher trust levels in Ireland than the EU average (and it's 7 percentage points higher than the UK). Furthermore, the coronavirus situation may be illustrating a potential reorientation towards traditional, mainstream brands which provide verified information at odds with material infiltrating WhatsApp groups and other closed networks. Also, Ireland is not particularly polarised in terms of media consumption, and that hopefully contributes to a collective understanding and acceptance of medical evidence and facts.

The second reason relates to the sense of information overload, potentially a factor in the current landscape. Geographically, audiences are combining national and international updates, while also grappling with statistics, advice and analysis. In terms of sources, we have updates from news outlets (whether through push notifications, or just traditional listening/watching/reading), as well as material from social networks and messaging apps. It’s understandably a lot to navigate, and the persistent nature of smartphone connectivity means we must actively, consciously switch off to avoid it all, as the Taoiseach and WHO advise. 

From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland Extra, Jackie Fox speaks to Tanya Lokot from DCU, Sinead O'Carroll from and Orlaith Condon from the My Pod on Paper podcast about the past, present and future of social media

Yet, the third reason is perhaps the most applicable to the current crisis: the often-grim nature of news content. This "negativity bias" is evident from student journalism courses explaining news values through to the often innate, unspoken cultures permeating newsrooms. In 2019, when asked how often they actively avoid the news, 32% of Irish news consumers said they did so often/sometimes, with a further 30% saying "occasionally", figures almost identical to EU averages.

Among UK respondents, "why do you avoid the news?" saw 58% of respondents say the news had "negative impact on my mood", while 40% said "I don’t feel there is anything I can do". These suggest mental burdens with which audiences must contend, and the nature of the pandemic coverage may instil fear, anxiety and a sense of helplessness.

This UK research into reasons for avoidance contributed to Sky News’s launch of a pop-up "Brexit-free" channel last October. One editor said the new channel "simply gives people the option to take a break from Brexit, apply a filter to their headlines and hear about issues away from Westminster and Brussels." The desire to filter or control what content we consume is not new, but technology makes it easier to actively opt out, something similarly evident in tweaking social media feeds, also tied to mental health concerns.

The nature of the pandemic coverage may instil fear, anxiety and a sense of helplessness

While authorities advise us to sometimes tune out from the coronavirus updates, there is some good news for reputable outlets in that people always strive for accurate, up-to-date information. Perhaps being the suppliers of that - even in smaller doses than what 2020 audiences are typically used to - can provide the public with some comfort as they attempt to remain both sane and well-informed.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ