A series of two longitudinal studies published in Digital Journalism revealed that while online and offline news consumption increased during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, so did news avoidance – including news about the pandemic.
The researchers explored two theories. Uncertainty reduction theory would argue that in times of crisis, people attempt to reduce their uncertainty and negative emotions by seeking information in an attempt to learn more about the presenting issue; consulting news media would likely be the first course of action. Media dependency theory would suggest that in complex societies, people heavily rely on mass media over interpersonal relationships when searching for information – which may be particularly likely during times of societal lockdown. However, with an oversaturation of news outlets in the media landscape, people may opt for alternative channels to stay informed and tune out of mass media.
A total of 2,257 participants were recruited from the Netherlands, a country that adopted more lenient COVID-19 policies at the beginning of the pandemic, and where trust in news was relatively high in 2020.
Kiki de Bruin and colleagues conducted the two studies in multiple waves, asking participants the same questions relating to news consumption habits and mental health at each time point. Among other questions, participants were asked to report whether they took breaks from COVID-19 news once in a while, the extent to which COVID-19 news had a negative impact on their mental health, their frequency of news consumption since the pandemic began, and their general well-being (e.g., overall nervousness, peacefulness).
The results were consistent with the uncertainty reduction and media dependency theories. At the start of the pandemic, news consumption increased for most participants. Complimenting this increase, participants also turned to a greater variety of news sources. However, after the first few months of the pandemic, news avoidance began to increase. Younger adults were more likely to avoid the news. Feeling emotionally charged, losing trust in news media, feeling overloaded and a need to ignore the news greatly contributed to news avoidance.
While people’s general mental well-being did not influence their news consumption habits, those who engaged in more news avoidance had slightly better general mental health. Participants who did not avoid the news experienced greater declines in mental well-being.
The authors note a few limitations. First, the study provides a snapshot of April to June 2020, and thus, cannot speak to how news behavior evolved as the pandemic developed. Second, the study only focused on the Netherlands. While the researchers observed news behavior trends comparable to that of the United Kingdom, they note these findings may not extend to all countries. Lastly, number of deaths and preventive measures greatly varied between countries, which could potentially influence the news consumption behavior of a given national population.
The study, “News Avoidance during the Covid-19 Crisis: Understanding Information Overload”, was authored by Kiki de Bruin, Yael de Haan, Rens Vliegenthart, Sanne Kruikemeier and Mark Boukes.