Paul Sakuma, AP
A new poll commissioned by the digital publication Axios finds that Americans are more likely to click on news stories that don’t represent the topics they actually want to learn about.

Americans love a good drama. Fortunately for them, there is no end to theatrics in Washington, and the country has an endless news stream of political squabbles to show for it. That may be the problem.

American news consumers aren’t as discerning as they profess to be, and recent data highlights why passive news consumption is slanting our national discussions.

A new poll commissioned by the digital publication Axios finds that Americans are more likely to click on news stories that don’t represent the topics they actually want to learn about. Health care tops the list for issues readers want covered, but it’s only the seventh most read topic. Climate change, economics and education are also priority issues for news readers, but those too fall lower on the reading list.

That ordering aligns with other surveys that capture the priorities Americans have for Congress. Pew Research Center data from 2019 lists the economy, health care costs and education as the top three issues the public wants lawmakers to address.

But those ideals don’t fit the public’s behavior — a sort of information hypocrisy, if you will. Actual demand for news — what consumers read — is highest for national politics and government and sports, according to the Axios poll.

Any casual observer of the country’s daily conversations with family and co-workers would be hard-pressed to disagree with that analysis. From talking impeachment at the watercooler to reliving the NBA Finals over dinner, the country prioritizes more emotionally charged news stories over the ones that would bring them closer to understanding the topics they want to learn.

This makes sense. These are the stories that capture the zeitgeist of a moment, the ones that most easily elicit opinions from a nation full of amateur — and professional — commentators and analysts. There is little inherent harm in consuming these stories. Their function largely adheres to the principles of supply and demand. But without a more intentional approach to reading news, the public risks missing the information that will fuel deliberate debates and move good policy forward.

No doubt the trend is aided by the changing landscape of digital news consumption. Social media feeds turn the reader into a passive observer without much incentive to seek out anything beyond the offerings of Twitter. Echo chambers or more sensational content ensue.

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But solutions exist. The first is simple: Deliberately curate your news feed. Intentionally like or follow sources that offer smart takes on the topics you’re interested in. Throw in personalities or organizations with whom you disagree and seek a balance of opinion. Digital newsletters can filter the morass and offer insights on salient topics.

News media, including the Deseret News, also have a role to play by balancing entertainment with hard news and in-depth coverage of national issues. Readers can only read what they want covered if it actually gets covered, and we call on all outlets to prioritize what the public is searching to know.

Perhaps reaching for the lucid over the lurid isn’t as compulsive an instinct for readers, but if that’s what it will take to spurn the country’s hypocritical news habits, it will be worth it.