Recognising “outsiders” begins to break the news avoidance cycle

By Agnes Stenbom

Schibsted/Tinius Trust

Stockholm, Sweden

Editor’s note: Agnes Stenbom will join INMA Product Initiative Lead Jodie Hopperton in a members-only Webinar on Wednesday, September 14, where they will discuss prototyping inclusive news features. INMA members can register for this free Webinar here.

Do you find yourself actively trying to avoid news these days?

This question was asked to news consumers across the world by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in its 2022 edition of the celebrated Digital News Report (DNR). The survey yielded an all-country average of 38% “news avoiders,” up from 29% in 2019. In Schibsted’s news media markets — Sweden and Norway — these numbers are 32% and 28% respectively.

Selective news avoidance (i.e., audiences choosing to ration or limit their exposure to news) is on the rise globally, and the DNR has fuelled many interesting industry conversations on the topic.

Agnes Stenbom (head of lab) and Belenn Bekele (community researcher) of IN/LAB. Photo by Banfa Jawla
Agnes Stenbom (head of lab) and Belenn Bekele (community researcher) of IN/LAB. Photo by Banfa Jawla

While highlighting a critical issue, I argue that the discourse on news avoidance could be detrimental to the industry if it focuses our innovation abilities too narrowly on the churn of consumers whose needs we previously successfully served. A pressing challenge for journalism is not about certain groups opting out, but about whether we understand and cater to the information needs and wants of diverse groups of possible future consumers.

It seems easy to frame issues of low news consumption as one for news media companies rather than the audiences in question. That is unfortunate, because not getting the facts about what is going on in the world around you is a true user problem.

On a larger scale, it is a threat to the liberal democracies we have come to appreciate in large parts of the world. As Maria Ressa put it in her Nobel Prize acceptance speech in December 2021: “Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality, no democracy, and it becomes impossible to deal with our world’s existential problems [...].”

The new(er) media companies that have enabled a non-stop, hard-to-factcheck flow of information are often connected to contemporary media issues relating to reliability and reach. But there are no winners in a blame game. Instead, we need to recognise the plurality of the challenge and the roles different stakeholders play in it.

Young Stockholmers discussing the future of news with Schibsted.
Young Stockholmers discussing the future of news with Schibsted.

So, how might we frame the challenge of low-to-no consumption of news using words that assign agency to the actors best positioned to contribute to a systems-level change?

We use the term news outsiders to highlight various groups that, for many different reasons and in many different ways, are not consuming fact-based news today. We use the term “outsider” rather than “avoider” because we believe there are many groups whose information needs and desires we — the news media — have not paid enough attention to in the past.

The media sector is a seriously insular group, and by not including diverse perspectives in our product development, we, albeit passively, contribute to keeping some consumers on the outside. This can have serious democratic consequences, including a threatened democratic conversation and a climate where anti-democratic actors thrive.

It’s not all the news media’s fault, of course. The media does not decide what happens in the world. But we are in control of the way we report on it, and whose needs we take into account when doing so. As Mark Coddington and Seth Lewis put it in their recent edition of RQ1: There are inequalities in news provision that need attention.

At Schibsted, we founded IN/LAB with an ambition to enable bold news experiences for current news outsiders. We are a small experimental team operating as a joint venture between Schibsted and the Tinius Trust. We run research projects and experiment with emerging technologies to prototype new(s) futures, always starting our projects by empathising with the target group in mind.

By using design thinking, we aim to turn insights about the lived realities of current news outsiders into future opportunities for Schibsted, our brands, and our users.

Our focus — news outsiders — is impossibly broad. Hence, we scope niche target groups for specific experiments. This summer, a key focus group for us has been people aged 15-25 years living in outer city areas of Stockholm. The multi-cultural areas in question have significantly lower socio-economic status and educational levels (and higher crime rates) than the national average. Trust in and consumption of editorial news media is generally lower, too.

How might we cater to this group today and in the future? By hosting workshops with the target group and snowballing our way through social networks for interviews, we are narrowing in on specific, actionable issues to focus on. Talking with, and not about, people is proving very rewarding.

News outsiders are not always free of flaws, and people can behave in irrational (or even straight out harmful) ways. But the news media cannot afford to shy away from groups that disagree with us.

In The Washington Post opinion piece I stopped reading the news. Is the problem me — or the product?, published this summer, journalist Amanda Ripley wrote that “today’s news, even high-quality print news, is not designed for humans.”

We believe emerging technologies can help us create news experiences that are more human-friendly than ever — but it’s all contingent on how well we understand the jobs to be done. This is not the time for industry panic, but for strategic efforts to include and retain.

As Axel Springer’s Bente Zerrahn wrote in a recent INMA blog post, news avoidance may be understood as coming from “a place of deep caring” for one’s own well-being. It’s time we channel that type of care for our (potential) audiences!

About Agnes Stenbom

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