The great ‘unnewsed’ struggle to participate fully in democracy

Polly Curtis in the Financial Times: “…We once believed in utopian dreams about how a digital world would challenge power structures, democratise information and put power into the hands of the audience. Twenty years ago, I even wrote a university dissertation on how the internet was going to re-democratise society.

Two decades on, power structures have certainly been disrupted, but that utopianism has now crashed into a different reality: a growing and largely unrecognised crisis of the “unnewsed” population. The idea of the unnewsed stems from the concept of the “unbanked”, people who are dispossessed of the structures of society that depend on having a bank account.

Not having news does the same for you in a democratic system. It is a global problem. In parts of the developing world the digital divide is defined by the cost of data, often splitting between rural and urban, and in some places male control of mobile phones exacerbates the disenfranchisement of women. Even in the affluent west, where data is cheap and there are more sim cards than people, that digital divide exists. In the US the concept of “news deserts”, communities with no daily local news outlet, is well established.

Last week, the Reuters Digital News Report, an annual survey of the digital news habits of 75,000 people in 38 countries, reported that 32 per cent now actively avoid the news — avoidance is up 6 percentage points overall and 11 points in the UK. When I dug into other data on news consumption, from the UK communications regulator Ofcom, I found that those who claim not to follow any news are younger, less educated, have lower incomes and are less likely to be in work than those who do. We don’t like to talk about it, but news habits are closely aligned to something that looks very like class. How people get their news explains some of this — and demonstrates the class divide in access to information.

Research by Oxford university’s Reuters Institute last year found that there is greater social inequality in news consumption online than offline. Whereas on average we all use the same number of news sources offline, those on the lower end of the socio-economic scale use significantly fewer sources online. Even the popular tabloids, with their tradition of campaigning news for mass audiences, now have higher social class readers online than in print. Instead of democratising information, there is a risk that the digital revolution is exacerbating gaps in news habits….(More)”.