Is a US news ‘nexit’ underway, and how can we stop it?


If you’re reading this, you’re probably more engaged with the news than many of your friends and neighbors are. You probably understand that there are a lot of things happening that deserve your attention and many sources of good information. But, maybe more than ever, that puts you in the minority, which concerns those of us who study pluralism and depolarization. 

We worry that as Americans withdraw from news due to the amount of polarizing and negative content they’re exposed to, they could become too uninterested and apathetic about the things that affect all of our lives.

Last October, the Pew Research Center reported that Americans follow the news less closely than they used to. In 2016, 51 percent of U.S. adults surveyed indicated that they do so “all or most of the time.” That number dropped to 38 percent in 2022. According to Pew, we’re seeing this decline across gender, age, education, ethnicity and party affiliation. It’s steeper among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (from 57 percent to 37 percent) than for Democrats (49 percent to 42 percent).

Amanda Ripley, journalist and author of “High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out,” confessed in a Washington Post commentary that she stopped watching and following the news a long time ago. A year ago, we had a conversation about polarization and why she changed her level of news consumption. She said at some point, she “felt like the news was getting under my skin, so to speak.” She would “feel lethargic and drained that it was hard for me to be useful in other ways.”

My hunch is that most Americans who are quitting the news feel this way. The fatigue resulting from the negative, overly polarized aspects of the news landscape is drawing people to exit even high-quality sources of information.

One of the reasons is simply how negative and depressing much of the news is. This is partly by necessity. There are, after all, several high-profile wars being fought and divisive politics at home. And then some headlines and stories are simply sensational or alarming. A recent study found that negative words in headlines increased consumption rates. If a headline of average length included an additional negative word, it increased the click-through rate.

As we move towards the presidential election and our political cycle inevitably turns more partisan, negative and polarized, we’ll continue to see negative news. Our politics will probably not change anytime soon, and this may nudge more people toward “nexits.” However, sustained civic engagement in national and local governance issues, community-building efforts and the like are critical. We have to pay attention to them, and the news about them, if we want to sustain a vibrant democratic society.

For some people, that may mean reimagining how we engage with the news. That is on us. After all, most of us do not want to be underinformed or misinformed; we want to be appropriately informed.

To that end, we must continue accessing news that focuses on real, serious issues. In some cases, the benefits of technology and innovation, while imperfect, can help. We now have alternative sources and platforms that seek to offer well-rounded perspectives. Groups like Trusting News help some newsrooms think about engaging and connecting with a society that is increasingly pluralistic and embodies diverse viewpoints.

While these are helpful, some introspection on our part can go a long way to healthier news consumption. When a headline offers a story that piques what Hans Rosling calls our negativity instinct, generalization instinct or urgency instinct (to name a few outlined in “Factfulness” and “Gapminder“), our analytical antennas should go up.

The negativity instinct happens because we get relatively little news about things getting better, even though this tends to be true overall, and our impression of the world can skew negative. Negative news is by nature important and often the most urgent, but we can still place it in the proper personal context. 

Generalization instinct occurs when we assume that something happening within one subset affects an entire group (the police, immigrants, farmers, etc.). The urgency instinct is when a call to action or issue (or political campaign) creates a sense of urgency that feels like an existential threat.

Always take a breath. Most people can’t predict the future, and many things aren’t as urgent as they may seem. Understanding these and other mental traps can help us become better news consumers in these polarized times. 

So, keep reading good news. Save your “nexit” for the questionable stuff. That may not be so bad after all.

Benjamin Klutsey is the director of the Program on Pluralism and Civil Exchange at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University.

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