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Unplugging from news or plugging news alternatively? How Australia's news consumption is changing

#Palestine. #Israel. #FreePalestine. These were the top three hashtags trending on TikTok Wednesday 11 October, four days after militant group Hamas attacked a Jewish festival in Gaza. 

Photo by Tracy Le Blanc (Pexels)

The three hashtags had a combined viewing of 129 million views in Australia and 15 billion worldwide in the seven days following the initial Hamas attack, and were posted more than 1.2 million times within this period.

Western Sydney University’s News and Young Australians report showed 52 percent of those surveyed use social media to source news, with print and broadcast dropping to two and 16 percent respectively amongst young people. 

The University of Canberra’s 2022 Digital News Report also found TikTok use increased from seven to 15 percent since 2020, with one third of its users using it as a news source. 

As news becomes predominantly digital, journalists like Ali Colvin are increasingly wondering whether people are disengaging from current affairs or if news is simply being sourced alternatively. 

According to Colvin, social media algorithms have contributed to change in news consumption, which she believes has “changed enormously” during her 35 years in the industry. The digital and broadcast journalist says general news avoidance is embedded within this. 

“I think it’s really multilayered,” Ms Colvin said.

“One, people have steered away from regular bulletins on regular platforms… you have a choice of when to consume something and what to consume,” she said.

“An algorithm then decides these are the sorts of things you want to consume. They [readers] consume what they want to know and not what they need to know.”

But the senior journalist believes there’s more to it than people just switching off from news.

She says the industry taught her “if it bleeds, it leads”, and says the rise in mental health issues amongst young people has challenged this. She says young people “don’t really want doom and gloom all the time” and are more frequently disengaging with confronting, sensationalist content.

And the University of Canberra would agree with 44 percent of those stating they avoid news doing so because it negatively affects their mood. 

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission reported 80 percent of Australians access news once per day, whilst News and Young Australians found 33 percent of Australians consider news unimportant.

University of Tasmania PhD candidate and university lecturer, Dylan Bird, agrees the blend of social media with news has resulted in significant gaps in knowledge, with news often consumed incidentally. 

“What I have noticed particularly with journalism courses I teach…they [students] tend not to read physical newspapers or engage with news sites or mainstream news sites on a regular basis,” Mr Bird said.

“Students get their news incidentally from social media.”

But he doesn’t think it’s fair to categorise all young people as disengaged.

Bird agrees news avoidance “is a problem”, but says a false narrative is being generated suggesting young people are disengaged because news consumption isn’t the same as “ten, 20 years ago”. 

“Students are still really interested, they’re just accessing it differently to how people did in the past.”

Executive Director of the Australian Institute of International Affairs (VIC), Alastair Roff, says whilst news is increasingly consumed digitally, he doesn’t believe people are disengaging from it.

He describes members of the AIIA as already engaged in current affairs through their involvement in the organization.

“Personally, I haven’t seen disengagement,” Mr Roff said. 

“I’m quite impressed in the breadth of knowledge and interest amongst the people coming to us.”

Mr Roff says the delivery of news digitally comes with its own set of challenges, including the “constant fire hose of information…across all facets of news and current affairs” on the back of a 24/7 news cycle.

Mr Bird said modern media consumption may be having an effect in shortening attention spans, but he also says the key is learning to utilise newer technologies to deepen news engagement. 

“Podcasting has actually shown that people are willing to listen to things for a long time…it’s just about harnessing those technologies that we have at our disposal,” Mr Bird said.

He fears there may be consequences for both social media distribution of news and disengagement.

“If news is being delivered via algorithm then it might be that really important news might not be getting told,” said Mr Bird.

RMIT Professional Communications student, Maggie Gilby, says the variety of content on social media means users have access to “more interesting” content aligning with personal interests and “hobbies”, reducing engagement in news.

“The algorithms on social media…segregate people from news and hobby,” she said.

She says her own consumption of news and current affairs significantly decreased when she left home, and her consumption patterns are now largely incidental, depending on social media algorithms.

And it appears in line with the habits of other young people.

 The University of Canberra reported social media is still Gen Z’s largest source of news at 46 percent, and 77 percent of those consuming it via social media are likely to avoid news completely. 

“I think I have a bad habit of not really looking up news in my own time, I often just see it if it comes up,” Ms Gilby said.

She used the conflict taking place in Gaza as an example.

“I personally first saw it on TikTok…I think without social media people wouldn’t know as much,” she said.

She is one of many who has observed significant community interaction with hashtags like #Free Palestine or #Israel on TikTok, and she says she has consumed information about the conflict via social media.

As for increasing young people’s news consumption, Miss Gilby encourages pushing news onto social media.

“Short, sharp things suit the attention span of young people now. Getting journalists to do quick thirty second videos…recaps of what’s going on in the world,” she says.

And for Ms Colvin working as a digital and broadcast journalist, she says the industry’s more aware of the issue of news disengagement and changing consumption than ever.

She says the industry must focus on “not being as sensationalist, being more measured, and more even and fair”.

It has now been six weeks since Hamas’ initial attack on 11 October. In this time these same three hashtags - #Palestine, #Israel, #FreePalestine – have been viewed more than 292 million times in Australia.

As Australians continue to consume news on the conflict via social media, news corporations and journalists are reminded of this digital reality of modern news consumption, secured on social media.


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