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Perceptions of fair news coverage among different groups

Perceptions of fair news coverage among different groups

23rd June 2021

Diversity is now a key priority for many newsrooms across the world. Although improving diversity has been a decades-long process for some news organisations, political shocks like the election of Donald Trump in the US and Brexit in the UK prompted some to ask whether newsrooms primarily staffed by relatively wealthy, urban, liberal-minded journalists could ever really understand people who think, vote, and live differently to them. More recently, the #MeToo movement has raised questions about journalism’s ability to report on women fairly, and although deeply concerning to many for some time, the Black Lives Matter protests – in the UK in addition to claims made by Meghan Markle in a high-profile interview with Oprah Winfrey, and how the Society of Editors initially responded – have reignited critical examination of how the news media handles race and ethnicity.

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To better understand how audiences think about how the news media cover people like them, we asked our respondents whether they think the news media cover people their age fairly or unfairly, and repeated this with respect to their gender, ethnicity, social and economic class, and where they live. We then analysed the responses for different groups (e.g. men and women, younger and older, etc.) to see which groups, on average, think they are being covered fairly by the news media. Of course, some people will have views on how the media cover groups to which they do not belong – but we cannot say anything about those views here because it is difficult to capture these views in a survey without asking about each category within a group separately, and this can quickly become impractical.

It is also important to highlight two further points. First, although many journalists and media industry observers have strong views on some of these issues, a substantial minority of respondents will always select ‘Don’t know’ when asked about their views on specific aspects of media coverage – either because they don’t pay enough attention to news to have a view, or because they think it depends. (‘Don’t know’ responses are more common among those with low news interest levels, suggesting they are mainly a result of disengagement.) Second, it should be kept in mind that people’s perceptions of fairness in news coverage may not accurately reflect the true nature of that coverage. Research has shown that people can evaluate the same news content very differently, with some perceiving coverage as fair when it demonstrably is not, and others perceiving unfairness where there is none. But people’s perceptions of fairness or lack thereof are real and important in themselves, regardless of whether we think they are empirically grounded, rational or irrational, justified or unjustified – as are the consequences they might have for, for example, trust. We believe they are critically important for journalists and news organisations to understand, even if knowing how to respond may also require a clear-eyed assessment of news content and newsroom practices, as well as newsrooms’ staffing and organisational structures.

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Partisans more likely to think coverage is unfair

In the Executive Summary we saw that political partisans in Germany, the UK, and the USA think that the media cover their political views unfairly. Because a slightly different interpretation is possible if one focuses on the proportion that thinks they are covered fairly instead of unfairly, the data in this chapter will combine these two alternative figures into one: the net perceived fairness rating. This is simply the percentage that said they are covered fairly minus the percentage that said they are covered unfairly (‘Don’t know’ responses are excluded).

The next chart shows the net fairness rating for the coverage of different political views. In the US, 75% of those on the right think they are covered unfairly, versus 16% that think they are covered fairly. Thus, for those on the right in the US there is a -59 percentage point (pp) net fairness rating. However, because more people on the left think that their political views are covered fairly rather than unfairly (51% versus 34%), for this group the net fairness rating is +17pp.

If we look at a small sample of six countries covering a range of different geographic regions and media systems – Brazil, Germany, Japan, Spain, the UK, and the US – we see that most politically partisan groups think that their political views are covered unfairly on the whole. The data from Japan, Brazil, and Spain fit particularly well with research on the ‘hostile media’ phenomenon, a long tradition of research showing that opposing political partisans both have a tendency to see media coverage as biased against them (Vallone et al. 1985). But at the same time, in most countries those on the right are more likely to think they are covered unfairly – perhaps influenced by a long-running narrative from right-wing politicians about media bias (the UK is relatively unusual in that this perception is more common among those on the left). That being said, although partisans do seem more sensitive about coverage of their views, we should be careful not to dismiss these perceptions entirely, as they may also be highlighting genuine concerns. Journalists and editors themselves often recognise a lack of political diversity within their organisations (Cherubini et al. 2020) – something that is also evident in surveys of working journalists (Thurman et al. 2016).

Women less likely to think they are covered fairly, particularly GenZ

Turning to audience perceptions among men and women, in the six countries that are our focus here, we can see that both women and men are more likely to say that the media covers them fairly rather than unfairly – a pattern that is repeated across most of the markets in our sample. In Germany, and in many of the other countries, very few men and very few women think that they are covered unfairly, leading to high net positive fairness ratings. Although the difference between men and women is small in the six countries we focus on here, across all markets women (+23) are less likely to think they are covered fairly than men (+31).

However, this pattern breaks down when we focus on younger age groups. Looking at 18–24s only, we see that younger women are more likely to say that the news media covers them unfairly rather than fairly in Brazil, Spain, and the US. However, for men the generational differences are much smaller, with men of all age groups saying they are covered fairly on average. Clearly, there are large generational differences in how women think they are covered by the news media, with younger women offering a much less favourable assessment. This shows how different sociodemographic factors can intersect, with consequences for people’s attitudes.

Net fairness lower among Black and Hispanic Americans

As already mentioned, many news media have a problematic record in terms of how they have covered certain racial and ethnic groups, and are facing growing critical scrutiny over this issue. This is reflected in our survey data from the US. Here, although White Americans are more likely to think the news media cover them fairly, Black and Hispanic Americans are more likely to say people like them are covered unfairly. For both groups there is a -13pp gap between those that think people like them are covered fairly and those that think they are covered unfairly.

Similar important patterns may exist in many of the other markets included in our survey. However, these are often challenging to identify because – depending on the demographic make-up of the population – many minority ethnic groups are too small to analyse even with relatively large nationally representative survey samples. Although researchers sometimes group together different minority racial and ethnic populations so that they can be analysed, this can produce misleading findings if those populations have very different views.

Regions that perceive coverage as less fair

Some criticisms of the news media are rooted in how they cover life in particular parts of the country. In the UK, some see the media as too London-centric or perceive a North/South divide in how different regions are represented – criticisms that have prompted both the BBC and Channel 4 to move some of their operations out of London in recent years. Although most parts of the UK think where they live is covered fairly on average, this is clearly felt less strongly in the Midlands, the North of England, Wales, and Scotland than in London and the South. And most strikingly, more people in the North East say that where they live is covered unfairly as opposed to fairly – an area of the country that has seen little in the way of investment from media companies, and where life is portrayed in a way that many residents clearly don’t recognise.

Although the specific underlying causes are likely to be very different, we can see a broadly similar pattern in Germany. Here, people who reside in states that were formerly part of East Germany, like Saxony and Thuringia, think that the news media cover where they live less fairly than those in much of the rest of the country – though only a relatively small minority say the coverage is unfair. In the US, those on the East and West Coasts think that where they live is covered fairly on average, though attitudes cool somewhat as we look further inland. In Southern states like Mississippi and Alabama, while 42% say where they live is covered fairly, 33% say the opposite. Although the question specifically asked people about the coverage of where they live, in all three countries it is possible that people’s assessments are influenced by more general views about journalists and the news media as elitist, out of touch with people like them, or as opposed to their political views (Kreiss 2019).

Unfairness perceptions related to lack of coverage

People will likely have very different reasons for thinking that people their age, gender, political views, and so on, are covered fairly or not. One possible factor influencing perceptions of fairness is the amount of coverage devoted to particular topics. This is also a perception – and likely a perception of prominence rather than volume, since no one can consume all available news coverage.

Nonetheless, there is evidence that a lack of coverage of an issue is strongly related to perceptions of unfairness. Taking people’s social and economic class as an example, three-quarters in the UK (78%) of those that think their social and economic class does not receive enough coverage will also perceive that coverage as unfair. But among those that think there is enough coverage of their social and economic class, just 15% think that the coverage is unfair. There are also large gaps in the other five countries. Interestingly, the data also suggest that if people think their social and economic class receives too much coverage – possibly because they think the focus should be on less privileged parts of society, or because the way they are being covered is inaccurate – this can also be associated with perceptions of unfairness. The hard part for news organisations is finding the right balance.

Link between fairness and trust

Lastly, we see a clear link between perceptions of fairness and trust in the news. Returning to where we began the chapter – with people’s political views – we see that people who think their politics are covered fairly will tend to have particularly high levels of trust in the news. If we look instead at coverage of some of the other topics touched upon in this chapter, we tend to see similar patterns. Of course, this could be because people who already have high levels of trust in the news are predisposed to see coverage as fair – but either way it is clear that trust and perceptions of fairness go hand in hand.

For those news organisations looking to increase their audience trust, it therefore may make sense to reflect on how they cover certain groups. The data here can reveal the fault lines in public attitudes, but the challenge for journalists and news organisations is deciding where to focus their efforts, what to do in practice, and how to speed up processes that often feel painfully slow.

When it comes to the question of where to focus, the sharpest divides in views on fairness are around the coverage of politics. But for many news organisations – particularly those already trying to uphold a commitment to impartiality and/or maintain a broad subscriber base – this will be the hardest area to make real progress in, especially if partisans are inclined to see unfairness in coverage no matter what. It therefore may make more sense to focus on areas – such as race, gender, and socioeconomic class – where researchers in some countries have sometimes found clear evidence that coverage often falls short of ideals or exacerbates problems. Even here, it remains the case that news media cannot necessarily please everybody. In the United States, some steps that might help build trust among those on the political right (primarily older and white) are unlikely to achieve the same with other groups unhappy with how they are covered (Black Americans, Hispanic Americans, and younger women).

The question of what practical steps to take is much tougher. Some news organisations have focused on representation. BBC journalist Ros Atkins’s 50:50 project has shown how self-monitoring who is included in programming output can improve the representation of women, setting a template that has since been applied more widely across the BBC and in other news organisations. Some outlets have prioritised doing more to represent the views of those that live outside of big cities, and here, the trend towards more remote working that has been accelerated by the Coronavirus pandemic may provide an opportunity to employ journalists with a genuine connection to under-represented areas. Then, finally, there is newsroom diversity. For some news organisations this has been a priority for many years, and as a recent survey of newsroom leaders showed, many believe that while they are making some progress on gender diversity, there is much more to be done when it comes to ethnic and socioeconomic diversity (Cherubini et al. 2020). The data we present here suggest that much of the audience is in agreement.

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