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View from the Street: read it and don’t weep – why public relations must respond to the challenge of news avoidance

AI-generated image with people reading the news and listening to the news. Simultaneously their hands are covering their ears and they look sad and afraid.

Frank O’Donnell

Senior partner 

“Librarians can be passionate – and tattooed”

“Swedish septuagenarians could help us get real about inner change”

“Making people cry with your singing can be a good thing”

How are you reacting to these headlines? Would you click on them? My singing is so tortured that I probably would.

They all come from the website Positive News, which has carved out a niche in identifying and reporting what’s going right in the world. “Good journalism about good things,” is its raison d’etre. Positive News announced a unique partnership with advertising company Clear Channel this month, which will see some of its upbeat headlines displayed on high streets across the UK. Clearly shoppers need cheering up too.

This is interesting and important because a recent Reuters Institute report found that more than a third of the public say they sometimes, or often, actively avoid print or broadcast news because it is depressing and impacts their mental health.

The wars in Ukraine and the Middle East, the cost-of-living crisis, crime and political failure are the type of stories readers are eschewing. It can make some of us feel helpless – despondent, even – so we simply switch off. This phenomenon, which has been termed “news avoidance”, even featured in an episode of The Archers this week.

The question for businesses and other organisations which want their stories told in the media is: how do we react to the avoidance challenge?

If editors and desk heads are being told by media bosses (and they are) that news avoidance is a growing issue then what are communications professionals collectively doing about it? Awareness and acknowledgement of this trend is the minimum requirement. The next step is that we are fluent in the language of the newsroom.

Journalists and editors are judged these days on digital performance, not print. The goal is stories that will not only attract readers to the website but drive subscriptions. Those stories need to be exclusive, unique, rich in context and analysis, and – if possible – something that does not make the reader turn away. Not easy.

Secondly, stories that give readers the information to act, or agency, are more likely to land.

The phrase often heard in newsrooms is solutions journalism, or constructive journalism. Or simply “news you can use”. Can the reader do anything with this, or will they just shrug their shoulders?

Relevancy is key too. Content that is personally relatable and has a potential impact on your family or community is less likely to be avoided by readers. That often means local news for local people.

Finally, positive human stories have always been attractive to editors and with news avoidance on the rise, are even more so today.

Legacy media, too, is reacting. Serious journalism will never be replaced but data is driving decision making in newsrooms and providing deep insight into what readers will subscribe for. The prominence of features and niche content areas have now become greater because of this insight.

A final thought. Businesses are typically focused on stories that meet their own corporate goals: a new product launch, financial results, a milestone achievement, organic or acquisitive growth. All of which can be valid and interesting, but we often risk overlooking the human and positive stories within our own organisations that tell the world what kind of people we are and what kind of culture we support.

It is no accident that the three headlines from Positive News are all about people. Some of us may want to turn away from the news at times, but strong human stories will always draw us back.