You Probably Aren’t Going To Read Anything Beyond This Headline

Politics, media, and the attention span of the average American haven't really changed as much as we think.


A new study from the American Press Institute shows that most Americans don’t read very far beyond the headlines when they “read” news:

 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.

The majority of the study, which is well worth reading if you actually want to get beyond the headline, is about the changing ways in which Americans consume news today. Not surprisingly, the past several years have seen a substantial increase in the number of people who follow news not just online, but via social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. Thanks to the ubiquitousness of smartphones today, these types of sites can easily be accessed throughout the course of a day so, arguably, it could be said that people are “following the news” more than they have in the past simply because it’s easier to do so than it was, say, twenty years ago. This increase in the ability to follow the news, however, also seems to have made news consumption both broader and more shallow at the same time. At least, that’s the conclusion many will draw.

In reality, I suspect that the way that people consume news hasn’t changed all that much. I tend to suspect that, whether we’re talking about today or 100 years ago, the average American has not followed the news in depth the way that those of us who are interested in politics or related matters do. Certainly, a lot of people read newspapers or listened to the radio when those were the predominant sources of information, but I suspect that people paid more attention to the sports pages and the entertainment programs than they did to the news. And while the Internet has certainly made it easier to follow the news, it’s also made it a lot easier to do anything but follow the news. So, I’m not sure that this “headline scanning” level of news consumption is really all that new.

From the political side, Chris Cillizza makes this point:

The lesson for politicians and those who cover them? The more complex an issue, the less likely it is to break through with a public that really consumes news via headlines and not much else. It’s also a reminder that simple messaging is almost always the most effective.  ”Hope and Change”. “Compassionate Conservative”.  Easy to remember. Fits on a bumper sticker. Or a headline.

Hasn’t this always been true, though? As much as we’d like to think otherwise, American elections have seldom been about deep philosophical musings conducted by a voting public that followed the news in depth on a regular basis. Slogans and messaging have been a part of winning elections ever since contested elections have been a part of American politics, which arguably started roughly around the Election of 1800 when Thomas Jefferson and John Adams faced off against each other for the second time. It continued through much of the early 19th Century when phrases like “Tippecanoe And Tyler too!” helped win Presidential campaigns.  With the rise of the first generation of mass media via newspapers that were able to send and receive reports via telegraph, the media’s role in politics, and the importance of “messaging” only increased. The same can be said of the rise of radio, television, and now the various forms of online media and communication.

Today, the media plays a bigger, and far more immediate role in politics than it may have 214 years ago, but are things really all that different than they were back then? I’d submit that they aren’t.

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Media, , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. LAgraves says:

    I have always been a news junkie, and recently have enjoyed reading books on history, but I suspect that I am unusual in my interest.

  2. JWH says:

    Is there an article here? I didn’t really read anything beyond the headline.

  3. Tillman says:

    Politicians are rarely the source of change. More often, they are the midwives. They birth the babe, they spank it, they swaddle it in clothing, but it’s up to actual movements and organizations and institutions to keep the damn thing alive.

    So politics is shallow, because its involvement is ultimately shallow. A politician does not dictate what goes on on the ground, he follows it to sustain his career.

    Also, I rarely read TPM aside from the Editor’s blog. Mostly it’s just headlines. I don’t conflate it with “news” so much as “what is TPM talking about today?”

  4. @JWH:

    Is that very common? Someone should do a study to see if a lot of people do that. It might have major rammifications on how politicians communicate with the public.

  5. Pinky says:

    Cillizza’s argument is terrible. The existence of a slogan doesn’t prove that the slogan was effective. The fact that we remember a slogan doesn’t mean that we only made our decision based on the slogan.

    Also, he makes this comment: “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 opposite could just as well be true. Plenty of people don’t think of themselves as down-drillers but looked up a few things on Wikipedia or clicked on a few hyperlinks about recent stories that interested them.

  6. john personna says:

    I have always been a reader, and was one of those who feared the loss of Googe Reader. We discussed that in these pages, and I remember saying then that I thought the trend might be toward Twitter, and people who dip lightly in when they want some news.

    Now, the interesting thing for me is that now that I’ve tuned my Twitter follows, I have a great source for each morning’s long reads. All really need is a pointer.

    An interesting one, and related to other old discussions here, data is in, and Kahn Academy both teaches students more math, and gives them more confidence. You might recall that I was pro-Kahn, in one of my many unpopular OTB positions.

    Great to see studies around the impact of #innovation on education!— Udacity (@udacity) March 19, 2014

  7. john personna says:

    BTW, shouldn’t every news media or industry story be a hit on today?

    It’s, like, a rule.

  8. ernieyeball says:

    There is news and there is news and then there is…

    Fox News host Bill Hemmer on Wednesday suggested that Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 may never be found because “it took us 2,000 years to find Noah’s Ark.”

    Fox News…We Report and you laugh and laugh and laugh…until you cry…

  9. michael reynolds says:

    I’ve long maintained that politics in the US is about underlying emotions, prejudices and group identity. I have a sort of running snark in comments over at Dave Schuler’s place suggesting that his scholarly concern with policy is sadly irrelevant to politics. People vote “for guns” and “against hippies.” Or “for the children” and against “the Man.”

    So, I’m not surprised. And unlike @Pinky (who I would not have pegged as a giddy optimist) I suspect people know far less than they pretend to. This is a country that believes in ghosts and angels and Sean Hannity, are we really shocked that they would have no idea what’s going on in politics?

    Our system of government used to be about people in a given Congressional district of 30,000. Their information rarely extended beyond personal experience – crop prices, water, tax rates, the prevalence of witches*. Now we have 700,000 people in a district and they are expected to care about events in countries they couldn’t even find on a map. The amount of information a well-informed voter should know about has increased massively, even as la vie quotidienne has become infinitely more complicated.

    So do they know anything about Ukraine, or the Euro, or Fed policy or the environmental impact of Beijing smog? No, of course not. They know family, faith, tribe, their own emotional needs, their ingrained prejudices. Politics is the art of playing on prejudice with slogans and fear.

    *Yes, that’s a joke.

  10. Neil Hudelson says:


  11. john personna says:
  12. michael reynolds says:

    @john personna:

    I absolutely agree, but if we’re going that way it has to start in high school, not after. It’s not being done. I know, I’ve been looking. 99% of the schools in this country are obsessing over classes that will be of zero value to at least half the kids. Kids who might be happier and more productive learning to handle power tools or a spatula. The remaining 1% are special needs schools which likewise teach nothing useful, but do it more slowly.

  13. john personna says:

    @michael reynolds:

    I think there is a connection between what we are getting out of high school, what Americans are reading past headlines, and what FiveThirtyEight, Vox, and The Upshot hope to achieve.

    How wide the market is for long-readers might be a question of optimism.

  14. john personna says:
  15. michael reynolds says:

    @john personna:

    Did they control for the fact that we have more non-native speakers?

  16. john personna says:

    @michael reynolds:

    Much more data here: Adult Literacy in America, Third Edition (PDF), including some discussion on native speakers vs immigrants.

    Again, related to the top topic:

    Individuals in Levels 1 and 2 were much less likely to respond correctly to
    the more challenging literacy tasks in the assessment — those requiring
    higher level reading and problem-solving skills. In particular, they were apt
    to experience considerable difficulty in performing tasks that required them
    to integrate or synthesize information from complex or lengthy texts or to
    perform quantitative tasks that involved two or more sequential operations
    and in which the individual had to set up the problem.

    48 percent of the adult population in the US are in Levels 1 and 2 (“prose”)

  17. Tyrell says:

    Newspapers have changed to meet the changing lifestyles. Think back, long ago if you will. It was read the paper with your breakfast toast and coffee. Then you dashed off to work. Come home and many people took the evening newspaper, so they settled down on the couch reading the paper again while waiting on supper to be prepared. After supper it was the CBS Evening News with Walter Conkrite: a basic staple for decades. Contrast to today. Breakfast at home has largely given way to grabbing something at the local fast food place (bacon, egg biscuit or McMuffin) or a breakfast bar, and eat on the way to work. Newspapers have tried to adjust to this life style by going to an online version and reducing the size of the paper. It used to be four sections. Now our local paper is just two sections and one of those is the classified ads. US and world news is somewhere on the inside, about half a page. What we get around here is the news about the newest store going up and the spelling bee winners. Sports is the local schools and rec dept. They will not even carry the hockey scores. People here complain about the price: 25 cents ! Network news is in decline too. Most of it is not news, but opinions, sensationalism, and attention grabbing stunts (“Breaking News” on everything ). So we will see the end of most major print news in the next five years.

  18. C. Clavin says:

    Of course the basic structure of a news story, an inverted pyramid, is designed to allow for this very thing.
    But I mean, really…in these days when stenographers are posing as journalists, and Mike Allen is selling inches in his columns…who cares.
    If we had a valid Fifth Estate we never would have heard of Death Panels, never would have invaded Iraq, never would hear another word about Climate Change controversy, never would have kids learning Creationism in science classes.
    Journalism has big problems…and people reading headlines just like they always have probably is far down the list.

  19. KansasMom says:

    Is it just me or is Tyrell Tsar Nick? I.e. what he thinks everyone else thinks a simple fella in the south sounds like.

  20. bill says:

    when i was a kid i had a paper route- made a few bucks a week but i always read the paper before i delivered them. not the obits and such- just the news from all over. i kind of miss getting print delivered but deemed it to be anti-environmental long ago. plus, with the web we can get multiple sides of a story in a matter of minutes. just the facts ma’am!

  21. Grewgills says:

    @john personna:

    48 percent of the adult population in the US are in Levels 1 and 2 (“prose”)

    That is both depressing and heartening.

  22. Tyrell says:

    @bill: But the comics – the comic pages ! Certainly you miss them! Sunday papers and the whole comic section – in color ! We couldn’t wait.

  23. Pinky says:

    @Tyrell: I don’t know exactly when it happened, if it was because of a change in comics or a change in me, but they just stopped being funny. I want to say it was around the mid-1980’s.

  24. john personna says:


    The National Adult Literacy Survey found that 21 percent of American adults had Level 1 literacy skills, and 27 percent of American adults had Level 2 literacy skills. While there are no exact grade equivalents, Level 1 literacy is generally defined as less than fifth-grade reading and comprehension skills, and Level 2 is generally defined as fifth through seventh grades reading and comprehension skills. Although many Level 1 adults could perform tasks involving simple texts and documents, all adults scoring at Level 1 displayed difficulty using certain reading, writing, and computational skills considered necessary for functioning in everyday life. Almost all Level 1 adults could read a little, but not well enough to fill out an application, read a food label, or read a simple story to a child. While most of these adults are not considered “illiterate,” they do not have the full range of economic, social, and personal options that are open to Americans with higher levels of literacy skills.

  25. Woody says:

    @michael reynolds:

    A public-school administrator would lose her job if she were to suggest that some children were not destined for college. This is because there is a very powerful iron triangle between private interests (Pearson, College Board, “charter” schools), state legislators, and state departments of education. To suggest a child should not go on to college is increasingly heresy.

    To be fair, of course, non-university kids have always existed, but then, decent-paying jobs for these potentially solid Americans have disappeared for a variety of reasons.


    Um, when’s the last time you watched Network?

  26. john personna says:


    The trades still pay, esp. for instance a licensed electrician.

  27. john personna says:

    (Also, the Mike Rowe projects, which don’t seem to get much love from intellectuals OR anti-intellectuals.)

  28. john personna says:
  29. Tyrell says:

    @john personna: One of the problems is that for the last several years the public schools have reduced learning to a b c d. multiple choice formats. The whole school year is geared around the test. All materials are geared toward the test. This testing has created a whole new industry (with lucrative state contracts): books, score sheets, scoring machines, practice books, special pencils. Many of these companies are probably owned by state school board members or state legislators or the governor’s brother. Tests used to be used to diagnose teaching practices and to plan. Now they are used for political reasons. Now it’s “just test” . No analysis, debate, research, or original thought. Not much thought for that matter. Teachers have to spend their time mainly on supervising lunchrooms, traffic duties, bureaucratic paperwork, and testing workshops.
    A few years ago I put some flyers up about an event our church was having. A guy working in a drug store told me that most of the customers would not be able to read it, that it should have a lot of pictures before they would understand.
    And, of course the infamous “ebonics” fiasco. Now “Common Core”. The education bureaucrats love fads.

  30. Pinky says:

    @john personna: I’m not reading an article that’s a response to someone’s response to an article. Apropos to this discussion, a lot of time we think we spend researching an issue is really spent watching self-styled experts playing Ping-Pong.

  31. john personna says:


    Possibly, but some warned of a post post-literacy society 20 years ago. That would be pretty sad, because … no one has time to “listen deep” to a lot of speakers. Instead, it is TED highlights.

    Reading Study Shows Remarkable Decline in U.S.

    I love the YouTube, but it can’t be the only thing.


    It is a pretty good summary and integration though, pro-number in the first part, but also reminding that numbers are not all.

  32. Liberal Capitalist says:

    You Probably Aren’t Going To Read Anything Beyond Th…

    Oh look! an instagram of a fuzzy puppy.

    What does gawker think.. and wonkette… I just got a tweet…

    Wait… what was I doing?

    Oh yeah: Bengahhhzziii!

    (…those illegal Messicans there will never get the Ruskies to stop invading the Malaysians, for their planes donchaknow.)

  33. john personna says:

    Here is a nice, science based, upbeat video for those who don’t feel like reading:

  34. Paludicola says:

    You’re right, I didn’t. That’s largely because irritation and disappointment… and Slate have trained me to regard such transparently provocative headlines with disdain as dishonest and usually harbingers of articles nowhere near as clear or definitive as the title suggests that might not even have much to do with the title.

    I’m not even kidding. I didn’t read this post. What’s it about? Mr. Mataconis discussing changes to WMATA bus scheduling?

  35. ernieyeball says:

    @Paludicola: and Slate have trained me to regard such transparently provocative headlines with disdain as dishonest and usually harbingers of articles nowhere near as clear or definitive as the title suggests that might not even have much to do with the title.

    Don’t know how U could B confused about these notices…
    “Clinton Licks Beaver” “Republicans turned off by size of Obama’s package” and 25 more…

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