It’s a crushing statistic for a journalist to have to acknowledge. A new survey of our news habits indicates more than half the country is avoiding the news, some or all of the time, mainly because it makes us depressed.
The saddest thing is I completely get it. I used to consume every piece of news material I could lay my hands on, like a voracious vacuum cleaner of current affairs. But these days I would count myself as one of the avoiders. I actively avoid the news I don’t have to consume.
I don’t avoid news content because it makes me depressed. My avoidance stems from a conscious effort to avoid overstimulation and burnout—which is a more diffuse mood-management exercise. The only way I can endure being fully plugged in to the content cacophony of Australian politics five or six days a week, and still be sentient, is to have defined periods when I’m fully disconnected.
Pulling out the plug holds no anxiety for me, because my own live social experiment has taught me I’m no worse off as a consequence, in fact, my wellbeing improves. I can always go back and read anything important I’ve missed, and if I’m worried about looking the other way when the world ends, I need only peer over the shoulder of anyone around me with their face buried in their smart phone, swiping away at their news apps.
The latest news avoidance figure for Australia is contained in the annual digital news report for 2017 produced by the University of Canberra’s News and Media Research Centre. In addition to reporting that the news is bad for your mood, serial news avoiders say they switch off because of concerns the journalism is not accurate, and because of a general feeling of powerlessness.
In the international survey accompanying the University of Canberra’s research, the data suggests a big spread between different countries in noise-cancelling habits. Two countries where there is considerable political and economic turmoil—Greece and Turkey—have comparatively high levels of news avoidance. But if we switch our gaze to Scandinavia, the levels are much lower. While 57 per cent of Greeks and Turks are spurning the news, the level in Denmark is 14 per cent.
If you are switching off the news in Poland, it’s most likely because you don’t believe what you are reading or watching. If you are switching off in the United States or Britain, it’s because the news depresses you. ‘This may be because a significant proportion of the population in each country feels deeply disenchanted by the Trump victory and Brexit vote respectively,’ the research notes. There are also some interesting left–right differences:
Looking at political orientation in the US, we can see that the people on the left are more likely than people on the right to avoid news because it has a negative effect on their mood or because they feel that there is not anything they can do about it.
However, people on the right in the US are more likely to avoid news because they find it not reliable: 62% of news avoiders on the right cited this as a reason, while only 18% of people on the left did so. This could be connected to the narrative that the mainstream media have a ‘liberal agenda’.
Obviously the big switch-off from news consumption is a much broader phenomenon than people trying to avoid having to watch the dispiriting political travails in their own countries. The world is a dangerous place. The breaking news alerts that insinuate themselves into your smart phone generally herald disasters. Another terror attack. A natural disaster. Some horrible event in Syria.
The alert generally links you to rolling coverage of the disaster, and sometimes people lack the emotional energy to sign on for human misery dished up in ten-minute increments. So shunning the public square is not all politics avoidance, obviously. But it doesn’t take too much insight to see that mass opting out around the world is a difficult phenomenon for contemporary political leaders to manage. You can’t reach people who are taking active steps to avoid listening to you. Which brings us neatly to one of the most interesting political speeches delivered in Australia this year.
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Scott Morrison is a tribal politician. He’s a binary, ‘are you with me or against me?’ sort of character. As immigration minister he snarled doggedly at opponents across the dispatch box. By his own telling, Morrison was strong and resolute, and his political opponents weak. Early in 2017 the treasurer was sufficiently inspired by his compare-and-contrast politics to wave a lump of coal around in question time to make a cheap partisan political point. In other words he’s a cartoonish sort of figure. In the run-up to the May budget, colleagues in the government, and some external market economists, had very little positive to say about him.
The well-known independent economist Saul Eslake told me just before the budget that Australian treasurers need to be good at three things. They need to make good decisions, then have the skills to communicate them, and have the gumption and the policy drive to get smacked down periodically by the prime minister of the day. ‘It’s not clear that Morrison is good at any of those things yet,’ Eslake said, crisply.
But around budget time we started to see the emergence of a different sort of political figure. The treasurer attempted to turn his swagger right down. Morrison was suddenly talking the language of compromise. He was in the market for consensus, particularly on revenue measures to fund the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Flanked by his brother-in-law, Garry Warren, at the National Press Club (Warren suffers from multiple sclerosis) Morrison found some new language.
The Australian Parliament, he said, had to learn to ‘meet in the middle. That means many of us have to move from positions we’ve been holding previously. We have to, otherwise we run around the building making excuses as to why nothing has happened, and that won’t cut it in this new reality of Australian politics.’
The federal government used that May budget to shift to the political centre. It did this to try to lift the political dead weight of Tony Abbott’s 2014 budget. So it was not only a Morrison pivot, but also a government one. The government pivot—the ideological reformation—got a lot of attention. Morrison’s personal one got nearly no attention at all.
We were all focused on the annual festival of snakes and ladders that the budget kicks off—so many new measures, what will pass, what will be blocked—there is so much to chase, and so journalists chase, like cats darting after small prey. Perhaps, also, a post-partisan Morrison was just too much cognitive dissonance—it was simply too strange to wrap one’s head around this new parliamentary coalitionist of convenience.
In any case, the treasurer would return to his transition a month or so later, but with further and better particulars. The Liberal Party’s Federal Council is usually an event to rally the troops. They are generally not gatherings prompting moments of deep introspection. But Morrison used his speech to the council in late June to say something quite important. The feedback he offered felt true. He told his colleagues Australian voters were not listening to them. ‘They are giving up on politics holding any value for them because, too often, it is simply not relevant for them,’ he said:
After 10 years of political brawling, Australians are fed up with the politics-as-usual approach. This means that, outside the bubble of Canberra, it is increasingly not about the conflict of partisanship. These are old political fights and battle lines that hold little if no interest to everyday Australians.
Australians have their own tribes, which usually have nothing to do with politics. And their views do not always fit neatly into our partisan boxes, and nor do they care.
Morrison said politicians had to look at what was happening in the everyday lives of ordinary people. A lack of income growth post global financial crisis was making ‘people feel more vulnerable to the many forces beyond their control’.
He said that, when incomes rose, voters were more inclined to ‘feel more in control of our own futures. The fall in earnings post the GFC has made people feel more vulnerable to the many forces beyond their control. It has also made them more acutely aware of the essential services they rely on, like Medicare, the PBS, schools funding and income support.’
Morrison’s comments to the council put the budget pivot in a slightly different light. Shifting to the centre was about redefining the government in an ideological sense, and drawing a line over the Abbott era, but it was also about something practical—trying to switch the voters back on by engaging with issues they care about.
Implicit in the speech was an acknowledgement that the lethal coup culture in Canberra, and the atmosphere of conflict and culture war, is a barrier between Australian politicians and the people they are supposed to serve. Morrison’s speech was about empathy in politics: try to have some, then people might listen to us again.
This insight might seem blindingly obvious to any inhabitant of the world outside politics, but it is quite a tough sell to the current crop. The Coalition party room lives to roil. This generation of parliamentarians has subsisted through a decade of internal war, and through the Abbott era, which engineered a sense of permanent crisis and normalised the rhetorical knock-out blow.
Morrison wasn’t speaking to an abstract group of colleagues, he was addressing a very specific cadre of parliamentarians who seem to have forgotten how to live in peace. Moderates and conservatives in the government continue to face off on a range of preoccupations, from climate policy to marriage equality. David Crowe, one of Australia’s most measured and level-headed political writers, noted earlier this year that the government party room functioned more like a rambunctious think tank than a governing party possessed by a common purpose.
Telling these folks to turn the volume down and find the art of compromise is like speaking a different language, and predictably Morrison got a touch-up from the right-wing commentariat for exhibiting dangerous kum ba yah tendencies. Sadly, Morrison’s speech provided no compelling structural answer to the problem of the great switch-off—probably because there is no single answer.
But if we look around the world, polite incrementalism really doesn’t seem to be the answer. Voters are looking for something quantifiably outside business-as-usual, and they are looking up and listening when they see a public figure articulating clarity of purpose. In an era of political disruption, the politicians who have managed to cut through, and bridge the gap between themselves and the people they govern, are a wildly different bunch. Some are populists, some are not.
Donald Trump is no Emmanuel Macron, but both played the outsider to great effect. Trump launched a hostile takeover of an existing political movement, the Republican Party, while Macron created an entirely new one by galvanising the political centre in France. Jeremy Corbyn, who, like Trump, launched a reverse takeover of British Labour, fell short of an upset victory in Britain, but he managed to fire up young people, just as Bernie Sanders—the independent-turned-Democrat—did before him in the United States.
So the switch-off isn’t absolute and rigid.
Voters are engaging, and plugging back in, and taking themselves off to the polling booth, when they encounter political leaders capable of self-reflection, or capable of seeing that the status quo doesn’t work for everyone.
People are engaging with politics when they think political leaders have something to say, and they are engaging from the ground up.
In some countries, the mood is revolutionary. In this country, I suspect voters are craving a genuinely transformational figure—someone able to shrug off the dead weight of a political system that has drifted like a ghost ship into dysfunction.
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By focusing on the challenge for politics of the big switch-off, I by no means want to divert attention from my own profession, and the message for us from the latest digital media survey. Journalists can’t do anything about news content being intrinsically depressing. Obviously news organisations can’t make decisions about what is newsworthy on the basis that content may trigger negative feelings in some readers and viewers. Sadly, a lot of odious, tedious and disappointing things are tremendously newsworthy.
Nor can we control the rise of ‘fake news’—entrepreneurs who see an opportunity to make money from deliberate deception—we can only persist, doggedly, and be a structural counter to it, which means stowing the breathlessness, and putting a premium on accuracy.
We can, however, address questions of trust. The media study I referred to at the opening of this essay is instructive. Right-wingers in America have a big problem with the mainstream media, thinking it unreliable, presumably because a lot of US broadcasters and major newspapers have overt liberal values. By contrast, only 18 per cent of progressive people in the United States think the mainstream media is unreliable.
A poll published by the US media outlet Axios in early July plotted the partisan trust divide in even more stark terms. 89 per cent of Republicans said Donald Trump was more trustworthy than CNN, and 91 per cent of Democrats thought the opposite. Among all adults, CNN was viewed as more trustworthy than Donald Trump, but only just. CNN triumphed by 7 points. The same poll found that 33 per cent of Republicans got their news from only one outlet—Fox News.
You hear similar sentiments expressed in this country, with right-wing critiques of the ABC, and Fairfax Media and Guardian Australia: these outlets are criticised for having a cultural monotone, or they are too Sydney-centric, or too progressive. Arguments about the left-wing bias of Australian news outlets have persisted for years; some days you do wonder what the Australian would write about if it wasn’t for pervasive media leftism.
Some of the progressive groupthink critiques are valid. Some coverage on some issues is entirely predictable, distinctly incurious. But some of the pushback is tribal, shallow and self-interested: faux everymen and women railing cartoonishly against faux liberal elites, cluttering the zeitgeist with their B-grade ponderousness.