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What Factors Influence Experiences of News Overload?

The next speaker at ECREA 2016 is Miriam Steiner, whose focus is on news overload amongst the well-educated elite. This is an increasingly important issue as it appears to be in the process of becoming a serious condition in contemporary society. Well-informed citizens are a fundamental precondition for a functioning democracy, but there is now a high-choice news environment that provides an immense volume of news which is at the same time also easier to ignore. This generates a widening news consumption gap, especially between populations of various levels of education, and may result in a growing polarisation between news seekers and news avoiders.

Information overload describes an environment in which the available supply of information exceeds our processing capacity; we simply can no longer deal with all the incoming information in the time available to us. But the picture is ambivalent: some say that information overload is now a widespread phenomenon, while others claim that only a few news users are overloaded and most others are comfortable with the volume of information they receive.

News characteristics, news consumption processes, and news consumer characteristics all influence this picture: age, gender, education, and news interest or enjoyment may affect experiences of news overload; multitasking and information retrieval strategies and other news processing approaches may also affect such experiences.

The present study conducted an online survey as well as group discussions, measuring concepts such as news overload, news avoidance, interest in politics, and similar factors. Participants were generally well-educated frequent Internet users with an interest in politics.

Only about one quarter of participants agreed with at least one statement indicating news overload. Nobody disagreed with all news overload statements, however. This means news overload is a well-known phenomenon but mostly perceived at a low level; there is a strong view that others are affected, but news overload is not so often seen as a personal problem for participants themselves.

The amount, complexity, homogeneity (too many stories on the same issue), a lack of novelty (too much repetition of the same information), a lack of relevance (too many soft rather than hard news stories), and the tabloidisation (and personalisation) of the news all influence perceptions of news overload. Such news overload is correlated with news avoidance; this may lead to increased selectivity, reduced news attention, an avoidance of articles on particular topics, and an avoidance of news in general.

News overload is perceived only as a low-level phenomenon so far, then, but it is well-known even amongst well-educated news users. It can be situational, and some news characteristics strongly increase feelings of news overload; this may require changes in how journalism provides information to the citizenry. There may need to be a greater focus on equality journalism, journalistic education for working in specific environments, and a greater embrace of 'slow journalism' models.