The Atlantic looked at a 2014 Reuters Institue study asking thousands of people across several different countries what news was most important to them. The US respondents said they most wanted national, local, economic and political news. But when Buzzfeed released a review of traffic on its partners sites including The New York Times, The Atlantic and their own site, what they saw was a very different story.
According to that review, the only news events that made the list of the 20 most viral stories across the sites were the Miss America Pageant, an announcement by Netflix and the Video Music Awards. The rest of the list was dominated by stories like “8 Foods We Eat In The US That Are Banned in Other Countries” and “30 Signs You’re Almost 30.”
Ask audiences what they want, and they’ll tell you vegetables. Watch them quietly, and they’ll mostly eat candy.
Audiences are liars, and the media organizations who listen to them without measuring them are dupes. At the Aspen Ideas Festival last year, Ehab Al Shihabi, executive director of international operations for Al Jazeera America, shared survey data suggesting that 40 to 50 million people were desperate for in-depth and original TV journalism. Nine months later, it averaged 10,000 viewers per hour—1.08 percent of Fox News’ audience and 3.7 percent of CNN. AJAM, built for an audience of vegetarians, is stuck with a broccoli stand in a candy shop.
The culprit isn’t Millennials, or Facebook, or analytics software like Chartbeat. The problem is our brains. The more attention-starved we feel, the more we thirst for stimuli that are familiar. We like ice cream when we’re sad, old songs when we’re tired, and easy listicles when we’re busy and ego-depleted. The Internet shorthand for this fact is “cat pictures.” Psychologists prefer the term fluency. Fluency isn’t how we think: It’s how we feel while we’re thinking. We prefer thoughts that come easily: Faces that are symmetrical, colors that are clear, and sentences with parallelisms. In this light, there are two problems with hard news: It’s hard and it’s new. (Parallelism!)
Fluency also explains one of the truisms of political news: That most liberals prefer to read and watch liberals (because it feels easy), while conservatives prefer to read and watch conservatives (because it feels easy). It’s a not-even-industry-secret that down-the-middle political reporting that doesn’t massage old biases is a hard sell for TV audiences. Fox News has monopolized the market of 60-and-overs watching cable news, predominantly because that group watches the most cable news and naturally skews conservative. Grappling with new information is exhausting, so we prefer to consume it inexplicitly digestible lists or wrapped in old viewpoints we already have.