News fatigue is a real thing

by David M. Shribman

The conviction of the Democrats: The tawdry details of Donald Trump’s private life that are emerging from his New York trial involving $130,000 in hush money to the porn star Stormy Daniels finally will sink the former president’s reelection campaign. The chaos in the House of Representatives will turn the Republicans out of control of the chamber. Republican reluctance to support armaments for Ukraine will soil the party’s reputation for a generation.

The devout belief of the Republicans: The upheaval on the nation’s campuses will doom Joe Biden’s reelection effort. The anti-Israel rhetoric of the Democrats’ progressive wing will undermine confidence in the party’s ability to represent ordinary Americans. The courtroom ordeal of Trump will persuade Americans that the legal actions against him are purely political.

Both are probably wrong.

That’s because a good deal of the country isn’t paying attention.

Much as I wish it were otherwise, the readership of this column and others like it may be enviable in quality but is minuscule in quantity. The New York Times has a little more than 10 million digital and print readers; that means 0.3% of the country is reading its dispatches — more if reprints in other media are counted — enough to shape elite opinion but not enough to reach a mass audience. Fox News does a little better (0.4% of the country), but the figure still is only about the population of Dallas.

Bottom line: For all the attention on the liberal-oriented Times and the conservative-oriented Fox, their combined stories and commentary don’t even reach 1% of the country. Even if they did, most people wouldn’t pay attention.

For the first time since the Pittsburgh-based public-opinion data company CivicScience began tracking Americans’ attention to politics a decade ago, more people are following politics “not at all closely” than those who are following it “very closely” — an astonishing finding considering that the country is in an election year that both parties believe will provide a test of the durability of American democratic values. (The survey found that 45% are following politics “somewhat closely.”)

The CivicScience data show that the practice of posting about politics on social media has been dropping steadily in the past five months. Plus this: There’s a similar drop in readership in political websites and blogs.

This is not to say that Americans are brain-dead. Since the first quarter of 2021 — that is when a mob stormed the Capitol in the hope of overturning Biden’s election — the percentage of American adults who say they “follow trends and current events” in music has increased from 33% to 48%, the percentage who say they do so in fashion has jumped from 27% to 39%, and the percentage who say they are following food and cooking has grown from 37% to 53%.

Introducing the cocooning of America.

“People are just shifting their attention to what would be considered ‘lifestyle’ topics,” says John Dick, the CEO of CivicScience. “The intensity of attention on politics is waning. You’d expect that in a nonelection year, but not in a year like this. It’s declining when you would think interest would be ramping up.”

But it’s not only happening in this election year. It’s so prevalent that there is an emerging area of academic study known as “news avoidance” — a phenomenon that can warp an election. “People could have preferences that don’t match up with their interests and would be different if they had consumed the news,” says Natalie Jomini Stroud, director of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas.

Trump may be charged with falsifying 34 business records to hide the hush money paid to Daniels, but people are more interested in what’s for dinner. The New York Times apparently noticed. Last Sunday it produced a gorgeous eight-page food section that included 13 recipes. (While I was writing this column about the state of American politics, I did linger over the olive oil baked salmon. The shrimp prepared with sweet paprika with a dash of ground cayenne looked pretty good, too. Forgive me my sins.)

It may be that Americans are simply bone-tired of politics. Or of politicians. (Biden has been in office for 47 of the last 51 years. When Biden joined the Senate in 1973, Trump appeared on the front page of The New York Times for the first time. The headline on the story: “Major Landlord Accused of Antiblack Bias in City.”)

In short, familiarity has bred contempt. Listen to Dick: “People are saying to themselves: ‘If I can’t learn anything about two people we know very well, what’s the point of tuning in?’ ”

And then there is the disgust dynamic. A Pew Research Center poll taken last year found that only 4% of the public believes that the political system is working “extremely” or “very” well.

“A lot of people are actively avoiding news because they want nothing to do with the political system, which they feel doesn’t respond to the things they care most about in their everyday lives,” says Benjamin Toff of the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota and coauthor of “Avoiding the News: Reluctant Audiences for Journalism.” “They find political news irrelevant to their lives and hard to make sense of. What they see is mostly bickering and self-serving behavior on the part of powerful people. And they see the people producing the news as part of that.”

The annual Harvard Kennedy School poll of people 19 to 29 years old found that only 10% said they follow news about national politics closely, with 56% saying they followed such news not very closely or not at all closely.

What about all those students in pro-Palestinian protests? An infinitesimal group of young people. When asked about what issue concerns them the most, the highest percentage (27%) said economic issues. In 13th place: the Israel/Palestine conflict (2%).

In an interview in The New York Times last week, the Democratic consultant Lis Smith characterized those who are supporting Robert F. Kennedy Jr. for president: “These are people who do not live and breathe politics. They’re not reading The New York Times or watching MSNBC every day.”

They’re certainly not reading this, either. Pass on this column. And while you’re at it, pass the salmon.

David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.