More and more of the public no longer keeps up with current affairs.
DO YOU pay close attention to the news? You're reading this column, so there's a good chance that you do — but if so, you belong to a dwindling minority. According to a new survey from the Pew Research Center, just 38 percent of American adults keep up with the news "all or of most of the time," a sharp decline from the 51 percent who were doing so as recently as seven years ago. By contrast, 28 percent of respondents say they follow the news only "now and then" or "hardly ever" — up from 17 percent in 2016.
Loss of interest in the news spans every age group. Among those under 30, Pew found that a mere 19 percent follow the news regularly. Among respondents over 65, traditionally the most news-focused segment of the population, the percentage was 64 percent — but that was down from a high of 81 percent a few years ago. The biggest falloff was among adults in their 30s and 40s — only 27 percent said they follow the news all or most of the time, far less than the 46 percent of respondents in that age group who were close followers of news in 2016.
Pew's numbers reinforce other researchers' findings. An analysis in February 2022 by the Knight Foundation and Gallup was headlined: "Americans' Attention to National News Lowest in Four Years." Around the same time, Axios reported that public engagement with news content "fell off a cliff in 2021" and noted an "ongoing decline in interest in news about COVID-19 and politics."
Why have so many of Americans lost interest in the news? Perhaps because they don't trust what the news media tell them.
In its survey, Pew asked respondents: "How much, if at all, do you trust the information you get from national news organizations?" Only 15 percent answered "a lot," whereas 26 percent said "not too much" and 13 percent replied "not at all." Local news organizations fared a little better — the comparable numbers were 17 percent ("a lot" of trust), 21 percent ("not too much"), and 7 percent ("not at all").
The collapse of trust in the news industry has been underway for decades. In the 1970s, when Gallup started tabulating attitudes about the media, a hefty majority of respondents said they trusted journalists to report the news "fully, accurately, and fairly." In 1976, the year of "All the President's Men," public trust in the integrity of the media stood at a towering 72 percent. Not any more. Last October, just 34 percent of the public expressed confidence in the media.
Politicians have accelerated the public's lack of faith in the news business. From Vice President Spiro Agnew's attacks on the press corps as a "tiny and closed fraternity of privileged men" to Barack Obama's high-profile war on Fox News to, above all, Donald Trump's relentless maligning of the "fake news" produced by journalists who were "the enemy of the American people," political leaders have sown contempt for the media. Often the media have responded in kind, fueling a vicious circle that has soured a vast swath of the public on both politics and the news. It cannot be a coincidence that tens of millions of Americans don't vote, don't follow the news, and don't trust the government. A more likely explanation is that Joseph Pulitzer, the pioneering journalist and publisher, was right when he warned in 1903: "Our republic and its press will rise or fall together."
Another reason Americans are increasingly shutting out the news is that there is simply too much news — and so much of it is bad. Pew doesn't say so explicitly, but it notes the "high levels of news fatigue" among all demographic groups. We live today in a world of ubiquitous computer and smartphone screens, of news websites and push notifications, of 24/7 cable channels and social media posts. Show me someone who follows the news "all or most of the time" and I'll show you someone who is subjected to a constant deluge of breaking news, updates, and opinion.
Some people find that exciting, but for most it's exhausting. And until recently it was unheard of. For much of the nation's history, to closely follow the news meant to read a newspaper once a day and maybe a news magazine once a week. In the 1950s, Americans got into the habit of watching a nightly TV news program. That was about it. Keeping up with the news didn't require the endless scrolling and streaming of today's news junkies; no one spent hours being blared at by talking heads on CNN, Fox, or MSNBC.
Add to all that the human tendency to focus on negative information and is it any wonder that more and more Americans simply tune out the news altogether? To keep tabs on current affairs has grown depressing and wearying. You and I may follow the news diligently. But legions of our fellow citizens have decided they can't be bothered.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
-- ## --
Follow Jeff Jacoby on X (aka Twitter).
Want to read more? Sign up for "Arguable," Jeff Jacoby's free weekly email newsletter.