The Real Problem: At Least 6 In 10 Americans Read Headlines … and NOTHING ELSE

Slate pointed out in 2013:

I asked Josh Schwartz, a data scientist at the traffic analysis firm Chartbeat, to look at how people scroll through Slate articles. Schwartz also did a similar analysis for other sites that use Chartbeat and have allowed the firm to include their traffic in its aggregate analyses.

Schwartz’s data shows that readers can’t stay focused. The more I type, the more of you tune out. And it’s not just me. It’s not just Slate. It’s everywhere online. When people land on a story, they very rarely make it all the way down the page. A lot of people don’t even make it halfway. Even more dispiriting is the relationship between scrolling and sharing. Schwartz’s data suggest that lots of people are tweeting out links to articles they haven’t fully read. If you see someone recommending a story online, you shouldn’t assume that he has read the thing he’s sharing.


About 5 percent of people who land on Slate pages and are engaged with the page in some way—that is, the page is in a foreground tab on their browser and they’re doing something on it, like perhaps moving the mouse pointer—never scroll at all. Now, do you know what you get on a typical Slate page if you never scroll? Bupkis. Depending on the size of the picture at the top of the page and the height of your browser window, you’ll get, at most, the first sentence or two. There’s a good chance you’ll see none of the article at all.

The Washington Post reported in 2014:

A new study by the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the American Press Institute — the entire thing is enlightening about how we consume (and don’t consume) news — affirms this fact.

Here are the key sentences from the study:

Fewer Americans invest additional time into following the news more in-depth. The survey asked people about going in-depth for news two different ways. It asked whether people generally tried to get news in-depth on any subject in the last week. It also asked, when they recalled a breaking news story they followed in the last week, whether they had tried to find out more about it after initially learning of it.

Overall, 41 percent of Americans report that they watched, read, or heard any in-depth news stories, beyond the headlines, in the last week. Slightly more people, 49 percent, report that they invested additional time to delve deeper and follow up on the last breaking news story they followed.

So, roughly six in 10 people acknowledge that they have done nothing more than read news headlines in the past week. And, in truth, that number is almost certainly higher than that, since plenty of people won’t want to admit to just being headline-gazers but, in fact, are.

The popular content management site Copy Blogger puts the number at eight in 10.

In June, the Post noted:

According to a new study by computer scientists at Columbia University and the French National Institute, 59 percent of links shared on social media have never actually been clicked: In other words, most people appear to retweet news without ever reading it.

Worse, the study finds that these sort of blind peer-to-peer shares are really important in determining what news gets circulated and what just fades off the public radar. So your thoughtless retweets, and those of your friends, are actually shaping our shared political and cultural agendas.

“People are more willing to share an article than read it,” study co-author Arnaud Legout said in a statement. “This is typical of modern information consumption. People form an opinion based on a summary, or a summary of summaries, without making the effort to go deeper.

Postscript:  Political apathy may play a part.  For example, the New Yorker noted in 2014:

If analysts at Microsoft Research are correct, a startling number of American Web users are no longer paying attention to the news as it is traditionally defined. In a recent study of “filter bubbles,” Sharad Goel, Seth Flaxman, and Justin Rao asked how many Web users actually read the news online. Out of a sample of 1.2 million American users, just over fifty thousand, or four per cent, were “active news customers” of “front section” news. The other ninety-six per cent found other things to read.

The authors defined an active news customer as someone who read at least ten substantive news articles and two opinion pieces in a three-month period—if you remove the requirement of reading opinion pieces, the number of news readers climbs to fourteen per cent. The authors studied U.S.-based Web users who, between March and May of 2013, accumulated a total of 2.3 billion page views.

News can be a vague category; the authors defined by collecting news sites with appreciable traffic (the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and Fox News), blogs (Daily Kos and Breitbart), and regional dailies (the Seattle Times and the Denver Post). Using “machine learning” algorithms, the authors separated what, based on word usage, they considered front-section news from the other content on news sites, like sports, weather, life style, and entertainment. What’s left is the narrow, classical news article, about, say, the State of the Union, as opposed to one about the latest adventures of Justin Bieber or Farrah Abraham.


Assuming that Microsoft’s numbers show a real phenomenon, though, they do introduce some perspective. Journalists and political junkies often presume that everyone cares about politics all of the time. But the fourteen-per-cent number makes it seem more like a hobby or a subculture, something like the N.H.L. or Nascar—a deep obsession for some of members of the population but of limited interest to anyone else, unless something extreme happens.

To be sure, twelve to forty-two million potential readers is a respectable audience; it’s more than that of mixed martial arts, say, even if it’s not at the level of N.F.L. football. But, mainly, it suggests that attention to politics, once a basic mandate of citizenship, is now an entertainment option, in fierce competition with other forms of entertainment.


The number may also help us understand why a relatively small number of motivated people can have such a significant effect on American politics and policy. For better or worse, the number of people in this game is pretty small. Bottom line: if you can get one per cent of the population vaguely interested in something nowadays, that’s huge.

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  • kimyo

    typo alert: ‘slateD’ and ‘eightH in 10’

    • WashingtonsBlog

      Thanks, Kimyo! I need to get more sleep!

  • Silverado

    It’s because the mainstream media has turned the news into entertainment. And while I don’t mind being entertained occasionally, that’s not what I’m looking for when I’m reading or listening to what passes as the news these days. And the so called mainstream left wing media are among the worst offenders. So any more when I want real news or opinion when I want it, I look to the non-traditional websites that have a much better selection of both articles and opinion (like Washington’s Blog here) that unlike the mainstream media doesn’t appear in a mixed form on almost every page and in every article.

  • Cletus Rothschild

    tl;dr !

    Seriously though: is this really all that different from years past? Before the internet, x amount of people subscribed to newspapers for any number of reasons: coupons, tv guides, sports, classifieds, comics, or any combination. How many people read past the headlines? The difference now is in the sharing aspect of it and how that shared experience animates people. The same dolts who never really read the news years ago are now getting incensed about headlines and headline writers are writing outlandish headlines to agitate them.

  • artguerrilla

    TB:DR (too boring, didn’t read)
    1. duh, there is a lot of ‘news’ that is ONLY the headline: alan thicke dead, no votes win on amendment 1, crash on I-75 stops traffic, hurricane headed this way, etc, etc, etc… for a LOT of stuff, the headline pretty much says it all, don’t need to read no steeenkin story…
    2. NOT that I don’t agree with the underlying premise that we are ill-informed and misinformed, BUT that is not necessarily totally on the stupid, fat, lazy ‘merikans… the korporatocracy’s ‘journalism’ SUX on so many levels it is not even funny, WHY am I going to slog through bullshit, lies and propaganda when the headline just told me the gist of what is what ? ? ? i KNOW they are going to lie and mislead, why do i want to fall into that trap…
    3. geez, about the ONLY thing which gives me hope these days, is the overwhelming pushback from posters who refuse to concede the idiotic premises writers proffer… Rothschild and Silverado both make salient and telling points that SHOULD have occurred to the author (maybe they did, but i simply refuse to waste my time slogging through their -ultimately- pointless blathering)…
    4. i would only say another point which is not repeated enough, because it DOES have a significant effect on our social climate and the level of discourse: people working 2-3 jobs (IF they are lucky enough to scrape up a shitty mcjob), got kids to run around after, got a ton of chores they are behind on, constantly worried about how to stretch a 5# paycheck to fit a 10# budget, STILL have to get that stupid muffler fixed, AND they are going to spend -what?- 10-20-30 hours a week on TOP OF THAT to become a media private eye to investigate who is/isn’t pushing ‘fake news’ ? ? ?
    *of course*, that is EXACTLY how Empire wants it: people too busy and anxious just surviving to pay attention to what the puppetmasters are doing behind the curtain…
    works, too…

  • David S

    And the lies in the headlines now say “Russia hacked election.” And while there is likely not one shred of evidence to even support the belief that Russia hacked the DNC (plenty of evidence to support a Bernie supporter who wanted to expose the DNC’s collusion and conspiracy against him) or the Clinton server (plenty of mounting evidence that it was an intelligence operative, possibly from the NSA or the CIA who was finally sick of the potential harm Hillary was doing by illegally running all her messages through her private unsecure server), there has NEVER been the suggestion or evidence that Russia hacked the voting machines – which the headline clearly implies. The sheeple have been dumbed down by 12 years of indoctrination, propaganda, and pathetic curricula at the government monopoly schools. Add to that an endless barrage of lies and more propaganda from the mainstream media (can you say WMD?), and it is little wonder they can’t be bothered to read beyond the headlines (not that most can read anyway).

  • This explains the reason why. Nov 9, 2010 Public “Education” has become indoctrination and distraction

    People are not being educated they’re being tested for levels of obedience. School is about memorizing what you are told short term and repeating it. The bulk of how you are graded is by completely daily busy work. This is for the work force the most important quality in a worker bee actually is obedience.

    • wendybandurskimiller

      You are absolutely correct.