Audio, the least stressful medium for news? yes and no

Credit: Photo by Kuo-Chiao Lin on Unsplash

Cristina Puerta is a freelance journalist who works in online print – but has recently found herself reading less content and listening to more audio. Covering Brexit, the pandemic and other intense subjects brought about the change.

“Before I was listening just to music but since the pandemic I have developed an interest in podcasts which tackle a topic in-depth,” she says. “I’m usually the person who knows everything that is going on. Friends would continuously ask me to explain one thing or another in the news – but recently I have been answering ‘no’.

“I was really exhausted and tired of reading. So, right now, I don’t know the last time I opened the Guardian. I think unconsciously I have put up a boundary to protect myself, because I have been lacking in energy.”

Listening vs. Reading

is listening to news content less taxing, and therefore more rewarding, than reading it? Well… yes and no.

For journalists stuck at the grindstone skim-reading stories on their phone, the thought of being able to lean back and let a silken voice wash over them has an obvious appeal. On the other hand, the visceral nature of audio can make podcasts and the radio more intimate, immediate and possibly traumatic.

Weighing up the benefits of one medium over the other might feel like comparing apples and oranges. Journalists variously read or listen to content for business or pleasure – and at different times of the day – so choosing between both is (of course) a false dichotomy.

Audio is very much in vogue; so much so that I, a hardened print journalist by training, co-launched a podcast in February with my colleague Hannah Storm. Behind the Headlines aims to shape and normalize conversations around wellbeing in journalism and we have been lucky to interview Clive Myrie, Sian Williams, Bryony Gordon and others who have shared their own personal stories.

Recording the series has made me think about how different formats deliver incredibly contrasting experiences. News avoidance is on the rise, but audio consumption is also rapidly growing with 41 per cent of UK residents aged over 16 – some 23 million people – listening to at least one podcast in the last month.

The majority of this audio covers sports, entertainment and culture rather than just straight news. But for an industry that is notoriously slow to react to trends, it makes sense to reflect on the public’s, as well as our own, changing news consumption habits.

Activating the mind’s eye

In a completely unscientific study, I spoke to five journalism colleagues – with feet variously in print and audio – for their thoughts on this conundrum.

Anil Dawar is a newspaper editor on a national news desk at Reach PLC. He has found himself “listening and watching” a lot more news in recent months as he finds “it easier to pick up fine detail that way rather than reading”.

“With such huge and long-running events as the pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, there is a lot of information to take on. I read so much sometimes that the words just don’t stick.”

Dawar, who describes himself as very much an “audio person”, listens to all his podcasts in the evening. “It’s a way of winding down and allows me to do other tasks such as cooking and exercising.

“I find that my mind’s eye is richer than my ‘real world’ eye. If audio is added to the broadcast – such as sound of tanks moving, gun fire, hospital trollies in a corridor – that does bring it to life for me. Also, when a trusted correspondent is speaking about what they have seen, it adds authenticity to the story as you know that it is a first-hand report.”

Isabelle Roughol, an independent journalist and creator of the Borderline podcast, believes you “voluntarily recede” as an audio reporter.

“In writing, it’s mostly your words and a few good quotes. In the best audio stories, I find the ratio is reversed. You’re painting a picture with other people’s words and setting the scene with sound.”

For Roughol, the radio was “always on” as a teenager growing up in France. “I switched to podcasts as soon as they became available. I now read mostly by happenstance, things I come across on Twitter or the many newsletters I receive and mostly skim, until something grabs and holds me. But my daily routine from the moment I get up, and the news products I never miss, are all audio.”

Wielding the power of audio responsibly

Asked whether listening to audio is less stressful, both Roughol and Dawar demur. “One of my pet peeves is how little podcast editors seem to think about the traumatic potential of sound,” says Roughol.

“My personal hell is stories of 9/11. I was a terrified teenager then, with a view of the World Trade Center from my bedroom window. Sound designers are super cavalier about using sounds of the second plane hitting the South Tower, people screaming as they run, sirens, and so forth.

“Those sounds put me right back there in a way that no writing, not even pictures, can. That’s the power of audio and we have to wield it responsibly.”

Dawar agrees. “A lot of coverage in papers [of Ukraine] is relatively neutral in tone so I can take it in in a very factual way.

“Hearing a correspondent on the ground has a human voice attached and a lot of the time there is sound or visuals attached to bring the story more to life, which is good – but it can add to the stress of listening to distressing events.”

Roughol says she felt she could paint a “more thorough and nuanced picture of immigration and identity” through the medium of audio, even if it takes more of a lift to publish a single broadcast. (While the podcast is Borderline’s primary vehicle, Roughol also thought a newsletter to her members of her too).

“I wanted time, depth and an intimate connection with the audience, and I wanted people heard in their own voices and words,” Roughol declares.

Different formats, different approaches

Suchandrika Chakrabarti is more than aware of the potential of new formats, as a freelance writer, podcaster and comedian – plus a media strategist and trainer. She is currently previewing her first stand-up tour for her, I Miss Amy Winehouse.

“Increasingly, we listen to audio media on our phones rather than the radio, and that’s a much more intimate experience,” she explains. “Think about how you avoid picking up calls with No Caller ID. You’re selective about which voices you allow to travel through your phone and directly into your head. That gives the broadcaster so much power.”

When she worked in newsrooms, it was mostly in print and online. Chakrabarti says old habits die hard although she is consuming less news since the start of the Ukraine war.

“I read my news, and I listen for my analysis, or to escape from the news,” she says. “I’m used to taking my news written and cross-referencing different publications and writers. When I’m listening, it’s often to comedy podcasts and audiobooks.”

Eleni Stefanou is a former editor and producer at the Guardian. She is now editorial lead at the short-form audio app, Beams.

Like Dawar, Stefanou also listens to podcasts later in the day and wonders if there is a “bedtime story effect” going on.

Asked what different approaches are needed in order to tell an audio story, she responds: “A lot of the advice I give journalists is informed by the shift social media has brought about. While written news still adopts a particular formality and structure, audio has been influenced by social media in a similar way to video.

“People engage with audio content that feels real and intimate. They can tell when a speaker is performing and are turned off by inauthenticity. To this end, I would say, ‘Don’t feel you have to adopt a broadcast voice or tone down your voice’s unique traits’. You can still retain journalistic integrity while adopting a more conversational style of speaking.”

Antidote to the overwhelm

Stefanou’s news consumption changed drastically during the pandemic. Working then as the guardian’s social platforms editor, she found herself “overwhelmed with the pace and nature of daily developments”.

“I would pour over story after news story and not just in my working hours – in the evenings and on weekends as well.”

Stefanou began listening to podcasts and radio more frequently. “Looking back, I think listening to someone’s voice made me feel more connected to the world and less alone. I continue to work remotely so that aspect is still important to me post-pandemic.”

Asked if it is tougher to listen to the news rather than read it, she replies: “If I had to rank the major news formats from most to least stressful I would put television first, then the written word and then audio.

“With audio, my senses are less stimulated (in a good way). It feels like I’m expending less energy and can process information with ease.”

The ways we consume written news can vary too. We are all fed up of the hate and the so-called ‘hot takes’ on Twitter but many of us remain engaged with the social media app for the breaking news and the camaraderie with like-minded colleagues.

There is also something wonderful about a tweet that skillfully deconstructs a subject – or is simply amusing, life-affirming or pithy. Likewise, a memorable headline or a carefully-constructed long read can make a deep and lasting impression.

For many, it’s the easiest way to elegantly and thoughtfully communicate about complex topics: Hand on heart, who of us can speak unprompted with the same elegance as many public speakers, broadcasters and experts like Brené Brown, Peter Ustinov or Celeste Headlee?

Text then is not about to be supplanted – but within the field of journalism it is being forced to make room for fresh storytelling techniques, and in a way return us to an almost nostalgic way of communing with news.

The last word is given to Roughol: “Audio is a way of experiencing the news together again. When I was a kid, my parents always had public radio on in the morning… We always had the day’s paper on the coffee table too; I grabbed it for the cartoon on the front page.

“Now it’s all on our devices, reading is a solo experience. You might share it on social media, but you don’t physically experience it with the people around you. With a podcast you can, around the breakfast table or on a road trip. Just like when we all sat down in front of the 8 pm news as a family. I think that matters.”

John Crowley is an editor, trainer and consultant with 25 years of journalistic experience in digital and leadership roles for The Daily Telegraph, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek and The Irish Post among others. John is a trustee of the Journalists’ Charity, a co-founder of the Society of Freelance Journalists, and co-founded Headlines Network, a wellbeing program for journalists, with Hannah Storm.

John is also speaking at our upcoming digital journalism conference Newsrewired, on 24 May in London at News UK HQ. he is on to panel which discusses how media managers can build resilient newsrooms fit for today’s digital media landscape. Check out our full diary and book your ticket today.

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