The structures that shape news consumption: Evidence from the early period of the COVID-19 pandemic

Jacob L. Nelson, Seth C. Lewis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Researchers and practitioners increasingly believe that journalism must improve its relationship with audiences to increase the likelihood that people will consume and support news. In this paper, we argue that this assumption overlooks the importance of structural- and individual-level factors in shaping news audience behavior. Drawing on Giddens’ theory of structuration, we suggest that, when it comes to the amount of time that people devote to news, consumers’ choices are guided more by life circumstances than by news preferences. To illustrate this point, we draw on a combination of interview and audience analytics data collected when so many people’s life circumstances changed: the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. We find that people consumed more news during the early months of the pandemic than normal because (1) they had more time on their hands due to things like shelter-in-place orders, layoffs, and shifts to working from home and (2) they were more interested in understanding the coronavirus’ spread and risks as well as the preventative measures being pursued. We conclude that journalists should embrace “journalistic humility,” thereby acknowledging and accepting that they have much less control over the reception of their work than they would like to believe.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2495-2512
Number of pages18
Issue number12
StatePublished - Dec 2022


  • Audience studies
  • journalism
  • mass media
  • mixed methods
  • news
  • online/digital journalism

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Communication
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)


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