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A Junk News Diet

News consumers foregoing the important information that makes democracy work

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October 14, 2013

This article originally appeared in U.S. News & World Report on Oct. 11, 2013.

By Pablo J. Boczkowski and Eugenia Mitchelstein

When balancing what you need to know vs. what you want to know in a news-infused media diet, news consumers most often choose dessert over vegetables, or sports, weather, entertainment and crime over national, international and business topics. Journalists at leading news organizations, however, choose to deliver more "vegetable" news stories over "sugary" offerings.

This crucial news gap between news provider and news consumer threatens the viability of the public service mission of news organizations, and their contributions to the healthy functioning of the democratic process. What results is a potential crisis of news choices.

On Tuesday, September 17, 2013, each of the leading news sites in the United States, Brazil and Germany focused on two main stories: the deadly shootings at the Washington, D.C. Navy Yard and the possibility of a new war in Syria. However, visitors to these sites concentrated their attention mostly on the fate of a shipwreck and a slew of sports stories.

For instance, on the USA Today website, two of the four most viewed stories were about topics irrelevant to the body politic, such as the straightening of the Costa Concordia, the ship wrecked off the Italian coast in 2012. South of the Equator, on the website of Folha de S. Paulo (one of Brazil's leading dailies), three out of the five most read stories dealt with issues such as the resignation of the Santos Football Club president and the Italian shipwreck. Across the Atlantic, on the website of Der Tagesspiegel, one of Germany's top newspapers, the most viewed article was about the resignation of the Hamburger soccer club manager.

Certainly, USA Today, Folha and Tagesspiegel are located in countries with different cultural configurations and industry structures, and address different audiences. However, the pattern is clear: at the three sites, journalists include a strong dose of public-affairs news in the editorial offerings of the day, while readers click most often on stories dealing with such topics as accidents, sports, and entertainment.

A sizable supply-demand gap in news content results from these divergent thematic choices. The divergence in the interests of the media and their public on September 17 would be anecdotal if it didn't point to a common and marked news gap.

So in the conflict of what information users need and what information they want, the audience is at odds with the editors and journalists who deliver the news of the day. After analyzing more than 50,000 stories from 20 leading news sites in seven countries across the Americas and Western Europe, our research shows that the gap is quite large: on average, most of the stories that journalists chose to publish as the top stories of the day – 55 percent – concerned public affairs topics, such as politics, business and international affairs.

In contrast, for the most popular articles among users, on average only 37 percent of the stories were about these topics. That is a nearly 40 percent difference between what the media think the public needs to know and what the public actually wants to read online. This may impact an individual or community in a practical and serious manner.

The gap between what is offered and what is preferred is immune to geographic factors. For instance, the news gap in the six top sites we analyzed from Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom was 41 percent. Similarly, on five sites in Argentina, Brazil and Mexico it was 42 percent, and on nine sites based in the United States it was 40 percent.

The gap is not affected by ideological stance either. At conservative sites in these six European and Latin American countries the news gap was 43 percent on average, while at their liberal counterparts it was 38 percent. That sites located in countries with different media systems, traditions of the press, reading cultures and representing divergent ideological perspectives exhibited comparable patterns reinforces the notion that the news gap is a pervasive feature of the contemporary online environment.

Conventional wisdom has it that this news gap might have existed for a long time. It was perhaps sustainable when these media had a strong market position that allowed them to fulfill a public service mission while advertisers had no choice but to come to them to reach large segments of the public.

However, in the current media environment marked by increased market competition, rising challenges to traditional journalistic roles, splintered niche outlets and a greater ability of consumers to avoid the news they aren't interested in, the gap is critical. It threatens the viability of the public service mission that was the hallmark of high-quality journalism in the 20th century.

So what can we expect in the 21st century? Genuine concerns arise over the outcomes from this news gap trend and how content may drift away from the gravitas of necessary news in a democracy to the lighter side of daily world events in order to please consumers.

The alarming disconnect between news producers and consumers endangers three fundamental roles of news media in democratic societies: suppliers of public-affairs information, watchdogs of public officials and other powerful actors and providers of spaces for civic deliberation.

In years past, the gap signified the power of the leading media to fulfill their role and set a widespread agenda for social participation, oftentimes despite and against the public's interests. Today, the gap signifies the growing weakness of these media to set such an agenda and the potential alienation of the public from matters of political concern.

The public's curiosity may be satiated by stories about shipwrecks and soccer. But the contributions of these symbolic nutrients are not enough for the healthy functioning of the body politic. Just as we are, partly, what we eat, we also are the news that we consume. And when the supply and demand of online news diverge, it is not just media organizations that might lose, but also our shared democratic life.

- Pablo J. Boczkowski is a professor of communication studies at Northwestern University. Eugenia Mitchelstein is a PhD candidate at Northwestern University.