Toff, Benjamin and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. (2022). “How News Feels: Anticipated Anxiety as a Factor in News Avoidance and a Barrier to Political Engagement.” Political Communication 39(6): 697-714.
Covered by Nieman Journalism Lab, North Carolina Public Radio, Minnesota Public Radio, Sojourners, Reddit r/science
This study uses an inductive, qualitative approach to examine the perspectives of lower- and middle-class people in the United Kingdom who regularly access little or no professionally-produced news. Findings suggest that people’s preexisting perspectives about what news is (anxiety-inducing) and offers for them (little practical value) play an important role in shaping attitudes toward news and subsequent behavior. These perspectives highlight the importance of emotional dimensions of news use beyond its presumed value as a source of information. While political communication scholarship has often treated news consumption as the cornerstone of good citizenship, we find avoiders hold uneven, weakly internalized norms about a perceived duty to stay informed, in part because they anticipate news will make them anxious without being relevant to their lives, resulting in limited engagement with news, and by extension, civic and political affairs. Promoting more informed societies requires grappling with these entrenched perspectives.
Kalogeropoulos, Antonis, Benjamin Toff, and Richard Fletcher. (2022). “The Watchdog Press in the Doghouse: A Comparative Study of Attitudes about Accountability Journalism, Trust in News, and News Avoidance.” International Journal of Press/Politics.
The watchdog role has been one of the most widely discussed normative functions of the press. In this study, we examine the public’s attitudes toward the news media’s watchdog performance and how they correlate with trust in news and news avoidance, two important phenomena for democracy and the health of the public sphere. We further examine how individual predispositions (e.g. political interest, ideology) and contextual variables (e.g. press freedom) moderate these relationships. Based on data from the 2019 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, and controlling for a range of factors, we find that across 38 countries, watchdog performance evaluations are positively associated with trust in news but that they are also positively associated with higher levels of news avoidance. Last, we find that evaluations of media in other functions like helping citizens understand the most important topics of the day and choosing relevant topics were more strongly associated with trust in news and lower news avoidance levels than watchdog performance evaluations.
Palmer, Ruth, and Benjamin Toff. (2022). “Neither Absent nor Ambient: Incidental News Exposure From the Perspective of News Avoiders in the UK, United States, and Spain.” International Journal of Press/Politics.
Scholars have long argued that incidental news exposure (INE) is a potentially valuable way citizens gain political information and learn about current affairs. Yet growing scholarship on news avoidance suggests many people still manage to consume little news, and algorithmic curation may decrease the likelihood that they will be exposed to it incidentally. In this article, we put the literatures on INE, news avoidance, and political talk into dialogue with one another. Then, by inductively analyzing over a hundred in-depth interviews conducted from 2016 to 2020 with news avoiders in the UK, Spain, and the United States, we explore how they encounter news incidentally and to what extent they feel the news is accessible and available to them. Our audience-centric approach highlights that interviewees often did not make a clear distinction between direct encounters with professional news (“firsthand news”) and discussions of news (“secondhand news”), especially online. When they did make a distinction, the latter was often more salient for them. We also find that just as news consumers have repertoires of news sources on which they habitually rely, news avoiders have repertoires of sources for incidental exposure to news to stay informed about major events and anything that might affect them directly. And yet, those repertoires catch only the biggest and most sensational stories of the day and do little to help them contextualize or understand the news they encounter, contributing to their sense that news is neither entirely absent nor ambient in the way scholars have theorized.
Juarez Miro, Clara, and Benjamin Toff. (2022). “How Right-Wing Populists Engage with Cross-Cutting News on Online Message Boards: The Case of ForoCoches and Vox in Spain.” International Journal of Press/Politics.
Anecdotal evidence suggests a link between online message boards and the rise of far-right movements, which have achieved growing electoral success globally. Press accounts and scholarship have suggested these message boards help to radicalize like-minded users through exposure to shared media insulated from cross-cutting viewpoints (e.g., Hine et al. 2017; Palmer 2019). To better understand what role online message boards might play for supporters of right-wing populist movements, we focus on the Spanish political party Vox and its supporters’ use of the message board ForoCoches, a fan site for car enthusiasts, which became an important platform for the party. Using more than 120,000 messages collected from threads mentioning the party between 2013–2019, we examine the URLs shared to show how mainstream news media events shape the conversation online and how users not only were exposed but deeply engaged with cross-cutting news sources. We argue that the use of sites such as ForoCoches should be viewed in the context of a broader increasingly hybrid political and media landscape where activity online and offline cannot be understood separate from one another. Moreover, our findings suggest that the online political discussions that take place in Vox-related threads on ForoCoches resemble normatively positive deliberative spaces—albeit in this case in support of illiberal political positions. In other words, our findings complicate conventional notions about the benefits of political talk, especially online, as a democratically desirable end in and of itself.
Toff, Benjamin. (2021). “The Social Function of News and (Mis) Information Use.” In The Politics of Truth in Polarized America (David C. Barker and Elizabeth Suhay, eds.). Oxford University Press.
The public’s reliance on faulty information while making political decisions has long alarmed political scientists, but two factors in particular have heightened concerns:(1) the growing influence of digital intermediaries, namely social media platform companies, which have become the primary mechanism through which many people discover and attend to news and political information, and (2) efforts by nefarious actors who deliberately use these technologies to amplify and disseminate false stories to sow division and influence the public’s attitudes and behaviors. This chapter synthesizes scholarship from across political psychology, journalism studies, and communications research to propose a new framework for thinking about research on misinformation while arguing that an exclusive focus on these factors obscures a more fundamental dynamic at the heart of the misinformation problem. Underlying most of these discussions are unrealistic assumptions about how information-seeking and news acquisition occur that may not generally reflect the motivations behind people’s behaviors. This chapter argues that the role and function of news in society is largely social, rather than informational. This has been true since well before the advent of social media. What has changed is that these dynamics are more visible and more susceptible to manipulation.
Palmer, Ruth, Benjamin Toff, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. (2020). “‘The Media Covers Up a Lot of Things’: Watchdog Ideals Meet Folk Theories of Journalism.” Journalism Studies 21(14): 1973-1989.
Covered by Nieman Journalism Lab
The idealized view of the press as an institution that operates independently from private and political interests and tries to hold power to account is central to many journalists’ self-conception and extensive academic scholarship on news. Yet surveys find significant numbers of citizens reject such views about the role of news in society. This article draws on in-depth interviews with a strategic sample of 83 news avoiders in Spain and the UK to investigate “folk theories” about the relationship between news and politics. Instead of believing in the watchdog ideal, many saw the news media as, at best, irrelevant and, at worst, actively complicit with a distant and self-serving political and economic establishment. Instead of bringing important subjects to light, many saw the news as actively covering them up. The difference between professional and scholarly theories that stress the watchdog role on the one hand, and folk theories where this notion is completely absent on the other, highlights the specific cultural challenge journalism faces today. Cynicism about the role of news in society poses a problem that transcends the specific economic, political, and technological challenges that currently preoccupy many journalism professionals and institutions.
Toff, Benjamin, and Antonis Kalogeropoulos. (2020). “All the News that’s Fit to Ignore: How the Information Environment Does and Does Not Shape News Avoidance.” Public Opinion Quarterly 84(S1): 366-390.
Recipient of the Kaid-Sanders Best Political Communication Article of the Year Award (2020) from the International Communication Association. Covered by Nieman Journalism Lab, Columbia Journalism Review
In a fragmented digital media environment where news is increasingly encountered passively in social media feeds and via automated mobile alerts, active avoidance of news, rather than deliberate consumption, takes on outsized importance in shaping what it means to be an informed citizen. This article systematically evaluates the factors that predict news avoidance behaviors, considering both individual- and country-level explanations. Using a large-scale quantitative, comparative approach, we examine more than 67,000 survey respondents across 35 countries worldwide and find consistent evidence for how factors including demographics, political attitudes, and news genre preferences shape avoidance consistently across information environments. But we also show how country-level contextual factors, what we call “cultures of news consumption,” influence behaviors beyond that which is explained by respondent-level differences. Specifically, levels of press freedom and political freedom and stability are shown to negatively predict rates of news avoidance. These findings suggest that many people’s news use practices depend not only on personal characteristics and preferences but quite sensibly on the news available to them, which they may have good reason to view as deficient or untrustworthy, as well as culturally specific norms around its value and utility.
Toff, Benjamin, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. (2018). “‘I Just Google It’: Folk Theories of Distributed Discovery.” Journal of Communication 68(3): 636–657.
Covered in Nieman Journalism Lab, Journalism Research News
A significant minority of people do not follow news regularly, and a growing number rely on distributed discovery (especially social media and search engines) to stay informed. Here, we analyze folk theories of news consumption. On the basis of an inductive analysis of 43 in-depth interviews with infrequent users of conventional news, we identify three complementary folk theories (“news finds me,” “the information is out there,” and “I don’t know what to believe”) that consumers draw on when making sense of their information environment. We show that the notion of folk theories help unpack the different, complementary, sometimes contradictory cultural resources people rely on as they navigate digital media and public affairs, and we argue that studying those who rarely engage directly with news media but do access information via social media and search provides a critical case study of the dynamics of an environment increasingly defined by platforms.
Palmer, Ruth and Benjamin Toff. (2020). “What Does It Take to Sustain a News Habit? The Role of Civic Duty Norms and a Connection to a ‘News Community’ Among News Avoiders in the UK and Spain.” International Journal of Communication 14: 1634–1653.
Why do some people maintain a news habit while others avoid news altogether? To explore that question, we put findings from an interview-based study of news avoiders in the UK and Spain into dialogue with past research on factors found to shape news consumption. We found that news avoiders saw news as having limited informational benefits and high costs in terms of time, emotional energy, and mental effort. They also did not see consuming news as a civic duty to be pursued despite the costs, nor did they have strong ties to communities that highly valued news consumption. This meant they had few social incentives to return to news habitually and that connections between distant-seeming topics in the news and immediate concerns were rarely reinforced. We conclude that group-level social factors play an understudied but important role in shaping news avoidance.
Toff, Benjamin, and Ruth A. Palmer. (2019). “Explaining the Gender Gap in News Avoidance: ‘News-is-for-Men’ Perceptions and the Burdens of Caretaking.” Journalism Studies 20(11): 1563-1579.
Covered in Nieman Journalism Lab
Even in wealthy post-industrial countries where equity between men and women has improved in recent years, women are still significantly more likely than men to say they avoid the news, a gender gap that has important implications for political participation. This article employs a qualitative, inductive approach to examine the how and why behind the gender gap in news consumption. Using in-depth interviews with 43 working- and middle-class individuals in the United Kingdom who say they rarely or never access conventional news sources, we find that decisions around when and whether to engage with news are (1) often viewed through a gendered lens, which we call “news-is-for-men” perceptions, and (2) subject to structural inequalities that shape people’s everyday media consumption habits. These include both gender-based divisions of labor in the consumption of news within households and the physical and emotional burdens of caretaking responsibilities, which fall predominantly on women and can interfere with staying up-to-date with news. We argue that efforts to close the gender gap that fail to address both of these entrenched underlying causes are unlikely to succeed.