According to data from the research agency GWI, there has been a 13% decline in the amount of time people spend online, the agency stated after record-high usage during Covid-19 lockdowns. It suggests the internet may have reached its peak and that a decline in internet use reflects the anxiety people feel when online and using social media.

The Reuters Institute released its annual report that found that fewer people are watching the news and are actively avoiding it, “around 58% of publishers say traffic to their websites has been static or falling, despite a succession of important news stories from the Ukraine invasion, to rising energy prices and climate change”.

But how are newsrooms responding to people actively avoiding the news? Mark Oloo, editor at Standard Kenya says that “news avoidance is a real phenomenon. The situation here as it were is mostly intentional and has to do with what many people perceive to be negative news or which do not conform to their belief systems or political positions.” Oloo says that in a bid to address news avoidance, “we try to diversify voices and sources in stories so that in the end we have both what you would call positive and negative sides alike. This helps to address fears that a story is too negative”.

According to the Reuters report, people are actively avoiding news they find depressing or negative. Oloo says that the negativity or positivity of a story is dependent on the background or current disposition of an audience, what one viewer may find negative may be perceived as positive by another viewer. At the Standard, Oloo says that they focus on the facts, “there is a way truth sells even if it’s bitter. But there’s a rider: it must be well put into context even if it means getting an expert opinion. Experts usually inject perspectives that help an audience feel comfortable with an otherwise dull story”.

“Truth is, negative news makes better news journalistically speaking. However, as an editor, I care to intentionally publish positive stories, what you would call success stories so that even when some news depresses the audience, there are other stories that bring hope amid gloom,” says Oloo.

Athandiwe Saba, deputy editor at the Mail and Guardian says that “bad news doesn’t sell, however, research tells a different story. People say they want more positive news but when you give them this they do not consume it as they would the less positive news”. Saba explains that the Mail and Guardian have weekly statements on their front page, which help viewers navigate the news cycle. She says that the publication strikes a balance between negative and positive news, “there is a middle ground and we are looking for that sweet spot.”

“People want help navigating this world and all the depressing information and news. That is what we try to do, especially with complex and overwhelming concepts such as load-shedding, climate change, food security, and the pandemic,” says Saba.

According to the Reuters Institute 2022 report, on average 38% of people avoid or select news. Oloo says to attract and gain the attention of viewers who are actively avoiding the news, the Standard has participated in strategic audience studies to understand their audience’s preferences and concerns. He further explains that audiences selecting news are understandable as audiences’ preferences towards particular stories or topics are dependent on their belief systems. “As an editor, I always insist on a wide diversity of content to make sure that at least every segment of our readership has something that excites them and meets their expectations. It is something I call carrying everyone along,” says Oloo.

Saba says that “one of the most important lessons the media industry has had to learn in the past decade is to innovate. Putting news in front of readers and expecting them to want to read it no longer works. The model is broken. We engage with the readers by watching their habits and talking to them through surveys and actual conversations. It’s not that people are avoiding news entirely, but they are looking for niches where the news events are explained in a non-scary way. The “everything is burning all the time” presentation of news has people avoiding the news”. Saba says the Mail & Guardian have begun to focus on what content their readers are most engaging with, where and how. Explaining that this helps in story decisions, production and delivery to ensure that the Mail & Guardian is not only one of the most trusted publications on the continent but also reproduce relevant content for an informed and engaged society.

One of the other reasons, people avoid the news, is that they do not trust the media, but how are publications addressing this? “Trust in the media has waned over the years partly because of online disruptions and primarily the fake news phenomenon. We deal with it by ensuring our stories are always credible and beyond reproach. We have a radar desk that does fact-checking and churns out data that we use to enrich our presentation of stories,” says Oloo.

Saba says “South Africa is becoming much more polarised and people are leaning towards news outlets that affirm their beliefs and views. And this will lead to two things; some people will say they don’t trust certain publications because it does not agree with their views and not because of the quality of the content. For any newsroom, the most important aspect of our vocation is truthfulness, fairness and balance. If we continue to shine the light in dark places such as state capture, we continue to hold the powerful accountable and speak up for justice and our democracy, we will win back the trust of even those readers who do not believe in a publication’s stance. This is precisely what the Mail & Guardian is doing and that’s why we are one of the most trusted media by those who agree with our ideology and those who do not.”

“People selecting news or avoiding will certainly continue into the future. It is because the audience has an avalanche of news sources, and the result of this is that they will cherry-pick content and consequently, will avoid some news and pick others, which is also dependent on their individual beliefs and preferences,” says Oloo.

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