Caught in the News Jungle: A look at information needs of Philadelphia residents

This post is a companion to a new report from the The Lenfest Institute for Journalism and The Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, “Being Informed: A Study of the Information Needs and Habits of Philadelphia residents.” The report outlines the findings from a series of focus group discussions to better understand the information needs of Philadelphians. The full report is available here.

It’s a news jungle out there.

To learn more about the information needs of city residents, the Lenfest Institute for Journalism and the Annenberg School for Communication at University of Pennsylvania embarked on a research study in our hometown of Philadelphia. We talked to regular people about how they got their news, asking a broad cross-section of people about their information diet, walking them through a typical day to figure out what news sources mattered to them and why.

Much of the crisis in local journalism has focused on the decline in reporting firepower, the so-called “news deserts” or gaps where there is no watchdog over politicians and businesses. However, many of the Philadelphians we spoke with said they felt overwhelmed by too many sources of information. They felt lost in lost in the wilds of a “news jungle” tangled with many sources. They said they did not know who to trust, and they said they needed help cutting their way through the thicket to the sunlight of useful information.

This, added with frustration over the ongoing national political discourse, resulted in increasing levels of cynicism about information and information providers.

Our group of residents — 64 people from diverse backgrounds that we spoke to in eight focus groups in February 2018 — overwhelmingly expressed frustration that they had to opt out, sort through and hunt for the information they were actually interested in. They said they were most overwhelmed on their mobile phones, where they spent a lot of time on Facebook, Instagram, news apps, and where they were constantly pinged with emails and push notifications. And it was definitely mobile phones, as expected, where most people got their information, regardless of their age, race or socioeconomic background.

An important exception to the news jungle phenomenon was participants of color mentioning information gaps or misrepresentation in the media about specific issues affecting Latino and Black communities. They said information was hard to find on mainstream media, and when they did find it, the coverage often lacked the perspective of the minority group being covered.

Across all of our focus groups, participants said there were too many things happening domestically and globally that demanded their immediate attention. Many avoided the news and ignored headlines, push notifications and articles that popped up in news feeds. One middle-aged woman said:

“I just find that the news these days produces me anxiety, so I don’t want to listen to it. So, I just want to pick and choose the articles and sometimes I just want to read the headline, which may — sometimes headlines offer untruth. You really have to read the articles to see what the truth is. So, sometimes just stopping at the headline isn’t a good thing, but then there are times that you just want to go and look but then you can cut it off and go back.”

While a majority of participants said they avoided news as a coping mechanism, a smaller group said they checked the news constantly — only to feel overwhelmed by the news cycle leaving them with a sense of anxiety about the future. A young woman we interviewed said:

“Well, to be honest, I mean with the times the way that they are, I don’t feel very secure and very safe. And so, I feel like what underlies most of me checking is do I have to worry that I’m endangered in some way.”

Many people said they were “flooded with news.” In their view, news and information often had a negative tone. That said, they mostly blamed that on the state of the country and national politics, not local news.

A recent study by The Pew Research Center shows Philadelphians are hardly alone in this: seven in 10 Americans are experiencing news fatigue. For our participants, news fatigue was driven not only by the constant breaking news cycle and increasingly negative perception of national politics, but also by a sense of hopelessness about political outcomes and the country’s future.

As pronounced as the trends of news fatigue and hopelessness about politics were across all focus groups, some participants — only three in our group of 64 — were happy with the amount of information they received. For these three participants, all the information at their disposal allowed them to compare and contrast the news, or further dig into facts in real-time.

While most participants agreed it was a benefit to engage in comparisons and personal fact-checking that many referred to as “doing your own research,” the majority saw it as a forced necessity that underscored mistrust of most news sources. In contrast to the three satisfied participants, most people in our sample did their “own research” but wished they didn’t need to.

Based on the study, it became evident that people need information curators as much as they need information providers. Moving forward, the most successful information providers will likely be those that are able to assist in curating information in a way that helps people navigate the “news jungle” and more easily identify the most relevant and reliable information they need to go about their daily lives.

Doing so requires creative thinking about the information that’s being provided, the format, and the design and technology used to deliver it.

Another question for information providers is how to produce information relevant to residents’ lives in an environment of news saturation and fatigue. We suggest that information providers give people what they need by tying it to what they want.

A particular dilemma for news organizations that emerges from our study is that much of the information arguably necessary for people to meet their civic responsibilities feels distant and irrelevant to their daily lives. The irony, of course, is that their lives are deeply affected by the actions of elected officials, governments and corporations that are the fodder of “hard news.”

This is especially true for local news organizations. If news organizations are to be seen as relevant, they need to do more to explicitly show how government and corporate actions affect the things people care about: school quality, neighborhood safety, health, getting good food at affordable prices and other life issues. And they need to present this information in accessible and actionable ways.

While we recognize all local information ecosystems are unique, we found significant overlap in Philadelphia between our findings and studies elsewhere. The news fatigue in Philadelphia and across the United States — at a time when many news organizations are downsizing or even disappearing — speaks to the sheer amount of information people are exposed to on a daily basis. As news organizations revamp coverage and business models, they should think about how they can help their communities navigate the news jungle.

For more on the above findings, please read the full report at lenfestinstitute.org/being-informed