Why Do We Read News? Anxiety? Entertainment?


Why do people read the news?

To journalists, that may sound like a stupid question. We read news because it’s critical to democracy! Because it’s the fascinating narrative of human existence! Because it’s a daily heroic tale of reporters uncovering corruption, malfeasance, and grift!

But to normies, it’s sometimes a real puzzle. News is an endless slog of depressing stuff — murders and international crises and social ills without easy solutions. Most of it has no direct impact on your life, and even when it does, it’s rare that you can take any action to do much about it. People have an infinite set of alternative distractions in their pocket; there are plenty of ways to fill everyone’s personal content hole without the words “Alito,” “Biden,” or “Trump.”

And how do the reasons we read the news line up with the reasons we say we read news? Do we claim dedication to noble civic virtues when all we really want is true crime podcasts? Do we read high-brow journalism on its merits or just so we can look smart to our peers? This last question was well explored in Armisen, Brownstein, et al. (2011):

It’s also addressed in a new paper from Chiara Valli, Ernesto de León, and Mykola Makhortykha, researchers at the universities of Bern and Amsterdam. It looks at how the ways we consume news doesn’t always line up with the ways we say we consume news. The title is “Personality and political news consumption online: A comparison between self-reports and webtracking data” and it’s in the journal Personality and Individual Difference. Here’s the abstract, emphases mine.

Research has explored the links between personality and political news consumption, resulting in mixed results that vary across platforms. One potential reason for these inconclusive patterns might be that previous work has exclusively relied on self-reported measures of political news consumption. Considering that personality has been linked to biased response behavior in the past, we investigate to what extent the relationship is affected by potential measurement errors associated with different capturing methods.

To do so, we introduce an innovative measurement technique capturing actual internet use through webtracking. While we do not find strong evidence that personality is systematically related to over- or underestimating one’s political news consumption, the comparison between the behavioral webtracking measure and self-reported news consumption nevertheless reveals significant differences: notably, openness is positively associated with self-reported online news consumption, but this relationship does not hold in the webtracking data. Instead, when using behavioral measures, neuroticism is a better predictor of political news consumption — an association not observed in the self-reported data.

Our insights refine our understanding of the interplay between personality and online political news consumption and enhance the broader discourse on survey response behaviors linked to personality.

Let’s take a step back. There are lots of ways to measure and measure personality traits. One of the most used among academics is called the Big Five, also called the Five-Factor Model. (Think of it as a Myers-Briggs that can hold up to peer review.) The model measures five traits that can be summarized thusly:

In terms of news and journalism, the most interesting for me has always been openness to experience. After all, journalism is a profession based on openness to experience. Reporters set out to learn new things every day; they dig in places no one else has thought to look; they talk to people with specific expert knowledge; and they try to then share all the new stuff they’ve learned with an audience.

(If you want to read more about the how openness to experience and other Big Five values relate to our current political state of affairs, I’d recommend Prius Or Pickup? How the Answers to Four Simple Questions Explain America’s Great Divide, a 2018 book by the UNC political scientists Marc Hetherington and Jonathan Weiler.)

People who score high on “openness to experience” are among the best news consumers imaginable. As the authors write, they “tend to embrace new ideas and perspectives…are more attentive to politics, spend more time consuming news, and have diverse news environments.” When New York Times CEO Meredith Kopit Levien describes their overarching strategy as becoming “the essential subscription for every curious person seeking to understand and engage with the world,” she means people who are open to experience. (And who want to open their wallets.) The evidence of effects of the other Big Four on news consumption is more muddled, so Valli, de León, and Makhortykha begin with a single hypothesis: “Openness is positively associated with political news consumption online.”

The authors looked at a sample of 378 Germans, around the time of federal elections there. Each was given a survey instrument designed to measure the Big Five. They were also all asked about their consumption of political news online as well as their levels of political interest and political knowledge.

But they were also all asked to install a temporary browser plugin that would note every website they visited and send the URLs back to researchers. In other words, there would now be two interesting data points for each person: how much political news they said they consumed and how much they actually consumed.

What did they find? Well, first they repeated a finding familiar to anyone who looks at self-reported news consumption data: People lie. Or, to be more generous, people consistently overestimate how much they consume just about every kind of “hard” news. When asked on how many days a week they consume political news online, the average answer in the sample was 3.45 days. The average measured in the web browser sample was just 1.09 days. In all, 70% of people overestimated their consumption. Here’s a chart comparing people’s self-reported estimate (the left bar in each pair) versus the browser data (right bars):

And here’s another one showing how many individual political news stories each subject visited. Note the usual extreme power-law distribution: The majority of people consumed zero political news stories, but there are also a few news-junkie outliers in the long tail. (The authors note this chart, “for better visibility,” omits one person who consumed 1,169 political news stories. I hope that person is doing well.)

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But what about the Big Five? When looking at the self-reported numbers, people with high openness to experience really do consume more political news, as predicted: “Those scoring highest on openness consume political news on approximately 2.6 more days a week than those scoring lowest on this trait.” Openness was an even better predictor of consumption than higher educational levels, which are a well-established influence on news habits.

But these are self-reported numbers, remember. How often people say they consume news. What happens when you look at the real data taken from people’s browsers?

In contrast to the previous model, openness is no longer associated with political news consumption…Yet, neuroticism seems negatively related to webtracked news consumption. While this effect slightly fails to reach the significance level in the full period, it is more pronounced in the post-election period. For this latter period, the average news consumption in the webtracked data decreases by approximately one day per week for individuals with high versus low neuroticism.

In other words, people who have high levels of openness say they consume a lot more news — but when you look at their online history, they actually don’t.

Meanwhile, people high on neuroticism — people who score as more “sensitive/nervous” than “resilient/confident” — say they consume a roughly average amount of political news. But in reality, they consume less — especially in a period just after a big election.

Here’s a chart showing the self-reported consumption (the top line for each Big Five trait) and the actual browser-derived consumption (the second line in each).

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Caveats: This is only one study, and Germans might just be weird. But I find this fascinating — especially since we Americans have been going through a much larger ad hoc experiment on news consumption patterns the past few years. Was the boom in digital news audiences (and subscriptions) during Donald Trump’s presidency driven by people desperate for new intel on a confusing world? Has the concurrent boom in news avoidance been driven by rising anxiety about politics? Why do some people respond to the same situation by hyperconsuming news, while others look for a blanket to hide under? Here are the authors:

First, in line with expectations, we find that openness is positively associated with self-reported political news consumption online. This effect disappears in the webtracking data, however.

One plausible explanation for this discrepancy is that the consumption of political news satisfies people’s self-image as it signals intellectual curiosity, even if their actual behavior does not fully reflect this claim. While we do not have a definite answer to this conundrum, our findings challenge the notion that openness is the primary personality driver of online political news consumption.

At the same time, we find a negative association between neuroticism and online political news consumption in the webtracking data. This aligns with the idea that neurotics circumvent political information to alleviate psychological distress. Similar to openness, however, this trend lacks consistency between the measures.

As neurotics tend to be more anxious about negative evaluations of others, one could argue that neurotic individuals are hesitant to accurately report their (low) consumption of political news due to a social desirability bias. An alternative explanation could be that neurotic individuals are simply not aware of their avoidance tendencies and that their aversion to political news could be driven by an unconscious desire to protect themselves from potential distress. When asked about their political news consumption in self-reports, neurotic individuals may, thus, not accurately recall their avoidance behaviors.

The effects of personality on hard news consumption are, as I said, pretty muddled. (Do the extraverted consume more news as fuel for discussing it with other people? Or do introverts consume more news because it’s typically a solitary activity? Do people high in conscientiousness feel a civic duty to know more about their community — or are they turned off by news stories that focus on what’s broken?)

The one relationship that’s been the most confirmed has been about openness to experience being tied to more news consumption. But this paper raises the possibility that’s just what they say, not what they do. These psychographics are important to news companies selling subscriptions, politicians seeking votes, and communities sustaining democracies — we need more research to help figure it out.

The discrepancies identified between the self-reported and the behavioral measures highlight the critical importance of rethinking how we examine personality effects.

Although our investigation is limited to online political news consumption, the implications of our findings could extend to a variety of other behaviors. The demand for more comprehensive methods extends far beyond the boundaries of personality research. In the field of political psychology, there is a widespread search for innovative methodological approaches including neurological, psychophysiological, and behavioral measures to capture the psychological underpinning of political behavior.

Following this call, we encourage future research to go beyond self-reported measures to get more objective insights into how psychological processes influence how citizens interact with the political world.



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