Al Jazeera Journalism Review

News Junkies outside
A man in Prague, Czech Republic, reads a copy of a newspaper paying tribute to Prince Philip, Duke Of Edinburgh, who died aged 99, on April 10, 2021 [Gabriel Kuchta/Getty Images]

Why healthy democracies need news junkies

Studies show that news junkies are more likely to register to vote and be politically engaged, but they are not better at predicting future events 

 

Could you be a “news junkie”? Since you’re reading this, you might well be. Perhaps you’ve even used that word to describe yourself or someone you know. Maybe you or they can’t get enough news about the World Cup in Qatar, the 2022 US midterm elections or the war in Ukraine.  

Sometimes we use news junkie to describe a person’s behaviour - their chronic news consumption and headline refreshing - while other times we use it to assess someone’s political knowledge or love of politics, as the word leaves the tongue easier than “politics junkie”. 

In 2020, we published the first in a series of papers examining the news junkie characteristic, the “intrinsic need for orientation” (or INFO), a scale of items asking if checking news is among the first things one does each day, if they feel discomfort when they can’t access news, if they consume news in their downtime, and if keeping up with news makes them feel more connected to other people.

Media research in the 1970s studied a “need for orientation”, but it was measured in a strange way: someone was said to have a strong need for orientation if they were interested in an upcoming election and if they had a weak attachment to a political party, because they didn’t know who to vote for and needed more clarity. Of course, someone can be a news junkie and not care about one specific election, and, more of a problem, media research has found that political partisans consume more news than non-partisans, not less.  

What are news junkies like? 

A number of our recent studies are filling out a profile of news junkies; in a study surveying 2,059 adults in the US, which will be published in the journal Political Psychology, we found that news junkies are more likely than less attentive citizens to be registered to vote, to intend to vote in the 2020 US presidential election, and to feel guilty if an election passes and they didn’t vote, even after controlling for frequency of news consumption, interest in politics, political partisanship, and other variables. Our data were collected in September 2020 by The Harris Poll. 

Being a news junkie, though, has some limitations. We wanted to see if news junkies are better at political and economic forecasting than persons with a weak INFO, so in late 2019, we measured the news junkie trait and five then-unknown political and economic outcomes, including whether a woman would be the 2020 Democratic nominee for president, who would win the 2020 Super Bowl, and whether the UK would depart the EU before a specific date, in a study we presented to the International Association for Media and Communication Research. News junkies were not more accurate forecasters than non-news junkies. 

News junkies are more likely to be registered to vote and to feel guilty if an election passes and they didn’t vote

 

In an article published in Journalism Studies, we hypothesised that news junkies, being sophisticated news monitors, would report that they see less fake news online than non-news junkies. Our thinking was that more serious news consumers would have tightly curated news diets and social media feeds, and they wouldn't come across news they believed was fake, but this wasn't necessarily the case.

Also, being a news junkie might be stressful; “doom scrolling” is following negative news on social platforms. Future research can examine if the news junkie trait is associated with anxiety, neuroticism, and elevated blood pressure.  

Am I, or is someone I love, a news junkie?

At the population level, INFO appears to be a stable characteristic over time. We compared news junkie scores, which ranges from 4 to 20, among two national surveys in the U.S., the first of which was collected in December 2019, and the second in September 2020 about eight weeks before the presidential election. The means of both (about 14.5) were no different, statistically speaking, so someone’s intrinsic need for orientation may not change in the run up to an election.  

Are you a news junkie? You can answer the following items, where 1=strongly disagree and 5=strongly agree…

  • One of the first things I do each day is check the news. 
  • When I have downtime, I check news or news headlines.
  • I feel discomfort when I don’t know what’s going on in the world.
  • Keeping up with the news makes me feel more connected to other people.

…and compute your score.

In our US-based surveys, the average news junkie score is 14.5. Score a 15 or higher, and your news junkie characteristic is above average. If you're in the 16, 17, or 18, range, you just may be a news junkie.

There’s more work to be done to understand the attitudes and behaviours of the news addicts among us. We’re currently writing up results of a study examining whether news junkies possess more factual political knowledge, and are more confident in their knowledge, than non-news junkies. And a study of ours underway will see if news junkies are more factually knowledgeable about vaccine science than are marginally attentive citizens. We're now able to not just talk about news junkies and their behaviour, but to measure and better understand them.

Justin D Martin, PhD, is an associate professor of journalism at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies 

Krishna Sharma is a senior in journalism at Northwestern University 

 

The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera Journalism Review’s editorial stance

 

 

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