The news? – too complicated…

© istock/ mrPliskin

People are sometimes reluctant to read a newspaper or follow the news on TV. Why should that be? Although negativity is often cited as a reason for avoidance, it’s not the only reason – according to a researcher from Fribourg.

Many people deliberately avoid anything to do with current affairs. According to a recent survey by Reuters, 40 per cent of Americans prefer not to read a newspaper or watch the news on a screen. The anxiety caused by current affairs is often cited to explain this fact. But according to Gwendolin Gurr, a scientist from Fribourg, that doesn't explain it fully. With support from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF), the former researcher – now an analyst with the German-Swiss Broadcasting Corporation – has identified other reasons. Published in the International Journal of Communication, her survey identifies three causes of fatigue from and avoidance of a given topic: repetition, complexity and a political strategy framing.

To isolate these different elements, Gurr has focused on Swiss news reports relating to Brexit. This topic was not chosen at random, she explains. It is a subject that concerns Swiss people, but without generating so much anxiety as to eclipse other causes of news avoidance. And above all, this issue has been reported over a long period – “long enough to engender a kind of fatigue,” she explains.

Gurr has cross-referenced surveys of the Swiss population with an analysis of press coverage of Brexit in Switzerland. The people surveyed were asked about their feelings and the frequency with which they engaged with news about the ongoing issue. The articles or news reports were assessed using various criteria: negativity, intensity, complexity, sensationalism, repetition, political strategy framing...

In total, Gurr conducted three surveys of the general public at different intervals and, at the same time, an analysis of Swiss media coverage of Brexit. This enabled her to see how public feeling developed in concert with changes in the tone and content of the way in which the news was treated.

Context deadens interest

The first factor to emerge from her research was the role of repetition. The public tend to tire of news reports when they convey few new facts and a large amount of old information, often presented to provide context. In other words, people are put off by too much information that they already know; the most attractive news is the newest news.

Second factor: complexity of expression. Gurr applied a system for assessing the level of difficulty of the language used in news articles and reports, for example by measuring the length of sentences and other syntactical elements. Faced with news items presented in a complex way, people are more likely to become fatigued.

Finally, her analysis revealed that political strategy framing was another major cause of news fatigue. Rather than concentrating on facts, this type of journalistic activity focuses on the political manoeuvring associated with them: parliamentary machinations, alliances, electoral strategies. In conclusion, while political machinations may be a source of excitement for MPs and many journalists, they would seem to leave a large part of the general public cold.

The climate – the ugly duckling of current affairs

On the other hand, Gurr’s research did not show that negativity was a factor in news avoidance, despite the fact that this parameter is often cited in other scientific articles as an important reason for news fatigue in general. This does not mean, however, that Gwendolin Gurr’s work contradicted the generally accepted narrative. “In Switzerland, the coverage of Brexit was almost uniformly negative – so much so that we do not really have any way of measuring an effect,” she explains.

Can these results be transferred to other topics, such as the climate crisis? “If one were to attempt the exercise, I would say that the subject of the climate is very repetitive, with a sequence of events that all seem very similar over time,” explains Gurr. “Our work clearly shows that this is a major cause of fatigue from ongoing issues.”

Similarly, as climate-related issues are often technical the reporting tends to be more complex. Thus it is very much subject to political appropriation and exploitation. In other words, it combines the three causes of issue fatigue identified by Gurr. Her conclusion: the journalists concerned have their work cut out in trying to inform the general public about climate issues.

“Even though one can draw some general conclusions, one must bear in mind that our results cannot be transferred wholesale, because each topic is different,” Gurr warns. She cites the example of armed conflicts or humanitarian catastrophes, where a specific kind of weariness tends to develop: “compassion fatigue”.