Opinion

How can Australian media address news avoidance in 2024?

According to research from the University of Canberra's News and Media Research Centre, Australians have some of the world’s highest rates of news avoidance. Because of this, Stephen Ellis, Director of Growth and Strategy, Lush - The Content Agency, argues that traditional news media need to take a different approach if they want to maintain or reclaim their audiences.

When it comes to news avoidance, Australia is a world leader according to the University of Canberra’s News and Media Research Centre.

News avoidance is exactly what it sounds like – avoiding the news whether intentionally or unintentionally. And the number of women avoiding the news in Australia is particularly high – 72 per cent of women avoid news, compared to 67 per cent of men.

While for some, news avoidance is unintentional and has been overtaken by time spent scrolling through social media feeds, studies show that people more often actively avoid the news because they find it too negative, don’t trust it, or feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of events.

A related theory is that active news avoidance is rising due to crisis fatigue, a physical response to prolonged stress due to unexpected or challenging events. The global pandemic, wars, famine, and natural disasters all fit the description and are more than enough to cause crisis fatigue.

When we add rising interest rates, the cost of living, and the housing crisis, it’s little wonder that many Australians are turning away from the news.

But I worry about what falls through the cracks when we look away for too long. Having worked in and around the not-for-profit sector for 15 years, I’ve witnessed countless examples of media coverage influencing public support and fundraising for a particular cause.

By helping tell the stories of families displaced by war, countries suffering hunger crises, bushfire affected communities or how some of the most marginalised people in Australia are fighting to have their human rights met, the news media helps move people to do what they can to support the causes they care about.

The formula is simple for not-for-profits and charities: more media coverage equals more money given.

A recent example is the public response to help Ukrainian refugees fleeing war. Australia watched on in disbelief as Russia invaded Ukraine and over 5.8 million people fled into neighbouring countries.

Organisations such as the Emergency Action Alliance, a group of 15 leading aid organisations working together when responding to international emergencies, raised millions of dollars to respond directly to the crisis.

Closer to home, in the wake of the catastrophic 2019-20 summer bushfires, an astonishing $640 million was raised through public donations, and it’s likely that the heartbreaking images of communities razed, and stories of lives lost, contributed to this remarkable response, in spite of how difficult it was to watch and witness.

Now think, just for a second, what social issues, or which communities in need, might fall through the cracks if the trend of Australians avoiding the news continues?

Australians are incredibly generous, and we know they respond in times of need, but if traditional media wants to reverse the news avoidance trend, and have Australians turn to the news and not away from it, newsrooms must consider first what’s driving that trend, and second, what can they do to bring viewers, listeners and readers back?

It’s my view that taking a more balanced approach to reporting, which entails all sides of a story in a way that is intended to inform rather than shocks, is a good place to start.

Stephen Ellis

Newsrooms must reconsider the rather crass, overarching and dominant concept that “if it bleeds it leads”. This strategy, which may have been a winner in the past, is clearly no longer working and in fact, it’s now a major turn-off.

I would argue that a more compassionate, nuanced and balanced approach to reporting on the extremities of death and violence, at home and abroad, in a less sensational way, could draw more people back to news media.

Despite challenging headwinds, and difficulties presented by changing the culture of news reporting, charity leaders remain optimistic as they look ahead to 2024. Their optimism is based on the knowledge that Australia is one of the most generous countries in the world when it comes to charitable giving.

In 2024, my wish is that we see a shift in how our news is presented and reported. If there aren’t changes, news avoidance will continue to increase, and given there are so many people in need, we can’t afford to let them fall through the cracks.

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