Social media mostly makes me feel profoundly alone. But, at its best it gives a glimmer of recognition. A few weeks ago, I threw a question out to Twitter, expecting maybe a few bites and a sense of having exposed myself for no return. Instead, the response was overwhelming. Hundreds of people wrote back with eye-rolls and exclamations.
“I know twitter is not a representative sample but I’m curious if you’re reading less more or less news since the election?” I asked. “I’m getting a general sense from readers/friends that people are over it?”
Despite the numbers, there was an alarming consistency to the replies and the gist of it was “no, I’m done, I’m out”.
Even people who wouldn’t be caught saying it publicly pulled me aside afterwards to say they were too heartbroken to tune in anymore. The response confirmed a hunch that had been brewing for some time: many readers have hit a ceiling.
People who previously lived and breathed politics and news reported a dramatic change. In the last few months, it seems progressives especially (though not exclusively) have been feeling helpless and lied to, and are taking a break for their own mental health. It was a good reminder that one of the best uses of social media is to grapple with the power of mainstream media.
But it’s not just Twitter reacts that have given me pause. The reason I sent the tweet had a commercial interest. As an editor of Crikey, I had watched the audience numbers plummet on political content after May 19. All news outlets experience ups and downs, but suddenly it seemed nobody wanted to read hot takes on Scott Morrison’s latest announcement or an explainer on what tax cuts really mean.
Research from Pew this year about American audiences found that in every major demographic group, there is more exhaustion than excitement over seeing political content on social media. Given our political discourse often feels like America Lite plus dingoes, I imagine we are not far behind. Not exactly heartening.
Every time I spoke to people about politics after the election there was a sense of frustration. Why had the polls been so wrong? It was Labor’s unlosable election wasn’t it? What did Clive Palmer’s huge yellow death tax ads have to do with it?
Workers in public interest fields from environment to the arts to immigration told me they had started to feel hope in the lead-up to the election — maybe their clients would get into the country, maybe they would get a pay raise for the first time in a decade, maybe climate change policy would shift beyond lumps of coal in parliament.
They weren’t all progressives. Many of the people who responded to me were swinging voters frustrated with single issues they thought would be addressed in the election — most often environmental management and climate change.
These people I’m speaking about haven’t suddenly been lobotimised. They will want to read regularly and use their minds. They still want to feel connected to the world. They’re just looking for something beyond the empty theatre of parliament to feel grounded by.
So what are people reading instead?
Some of them had stopped entirely. This might look like deleting Twitter, cancelling subscriptions to news outlets or switching from reading the ABC to looking at photos of food and babies on Instagram.
Another group were looking internationally. Fed up with our federal politics, they were seeking spectator sport elsewhere, perhaps where the stakes felt different.
The last group I think hold the most hope: they were turning to their communities. They were picking up the local free weekly paper for the first time in ages or joining neighbourhood Facebook groups. They were seeking a modicum of control and familiarity in a world they didn’t recognise.
A couple of weeks ago I was on a Melbourne Writers Festival panel about heartbreak and resolve in journalism. One of the panelists, and one this colony’s finest journalists Jack Latimore, talked about how much community informed his practice and newsroom policy at NITV. It makes their journalism slower and less sensational, he recognised, but the work was done with integrity and left people intact. We settlers have so much to learn from Indigenous writers and journalists.
We keep hearing that things are tough for the media. That may be true, but much much much more importantly, things are tough for readers. Where do they go with their burden of helplessness and dread? Who do they feel understands them?
At Crikey, for example, we’ve found when we write about climate change from an emotional perspective it’s really resonated. Reports on the constant threat of climate change? Not so much.
Perhaps there are more opportunities like that: to switch from hard to soft, abstract to personal, macro to micro. These are not gear shifts that are easy or achievable for all outlets or all stories, but they might be necessary ones if we are to survive and thrive.
Have you been reading less politics news since the election? Send your comments to [email protected]. Please include your full name for publication.