Rarely, in the three decades since the fall of Communism, have Romanians been so hungry for up-to-date information to help them take the right decisions, and journalists so ill equipped to provide accurate information, with the necessary context and explanation. Yet, during this COVID-19 ravaged year, trust in media has actually increased slightly.
The level of interest in news was so high during the pandemic that our 2021 data reveal the first important change in the last five years in the top brands online. Digi24, the online version of the Digi24 continuous news channel, became the most used brand, thus overtaking the news site of ProTV, the linear TV channel that leads our offline brand list. Digi24’s success appears to be due to the public’s thirst for immediate updates on COVID-19 news. According to data from the Joint Industry Committee for Print and Internet (BRAT) Digi24’s traffic spiked at times of increased concern about COVID-19 or the announcement of new measures.
While ProTV and Digi24 lead in terms of both consumption and trust, public service radio and TV are also among the top five most trusted media brands. All five – including the radio news channel Europa FM – generally tried to maintain a moderate tone and balanced coverage of the crisis, even at times of breaking news.
Nevertheless, much Romanian news coverage is sensationalist, with outrage the stock in trade for many commentators. By 14 March 2020, when President Klaus Iohannis announced the state of emergency and lockdown, reports of the ‘killer virus’ had been leading daily news bulletins for weeks. The level of anxiety and the public pressure were so great that members of Parliament voted for a government they had dismissed through a censure motion some five weeks earlier. Politicians from all parties accepted the medical arguments for restrictions to fight Coronavirus, allowing for an easier early implementation of lockdown rules.
By spring 2021, even as cases rose, the mood changed and demonstrations against government measures started. But in January–February 2021, when the Digital News Report survey took place, there was an extraordinarily high degree of consensus around COVID-19 containment measures. This may help explain the increased level of trust seen for most media brands surveyed.
Journalists, whether stuck at home or in their newsrooms, were wholly reliant on information about the pandemic released by a mysterious Group of Strategic Communication, whose membership was kept secret for over a year. During the two months allowed by law for the initial state of emergency, the Group was empowered to block media outlets spreading conspiracy theories or obvious untruths. The closure of several sites met with protests from the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) and of the People’s Advocate (a Romanian Ombudsman), asking the government to produce clear criteria for limitations on freedom of speech during the lockdown, particularly since there was no right of appeal or redress. Later, when the state of emergency was lifted, closed sites were allowed to reopen. The actions of the Group of Strategic Communication appear to have had a signalling effect – suggesting unsanctioned newsrooms were telling the truth and should be trusted.
The government also helped with the creation in May 2020 of a €40m fund intended to make up for the lockdown losses incurred by commercial media. Funds were disbursed as payments for advertising the state-run COVID-19 prevention campaign. Payments were based on audience size, which meant that some worried about rewarding sensational and click-bait-based journalism. With local and parliamentary elections scheduled for the second half of 2020, the government was also accused of trying to buy support from news organisations.1 Several local media organisations say, however, that as the pandemic developed, public money was the only source of income for many newsrooms.
Limited access to information, closed sites and newsrooms dependent on government subsidies – all these would provide cause for concern in any democracy. Fortunately, the public showed a lively interest in data visualisation and investigative pieces. Whistle-blowers inside the medical system, trusted local and national newsrooms, and breaking news journalists and civic activists pressured national and local administrations for correct, in-depth data and explanations. The very first investigative piece broke on Facebook,2 one week into the lockdown, and was shared more than 5,000 times. All these factors kept institutions in power accountable.
University of Bucharest
Romanian audiences rely primarily on TV and online as news sources. Our survey, conducted in January–February 2021, captures this well and coincided with the second phase of vaccination involving large numbers and a consequent intense period for news consumption.
Pay for online news
Share news via social, messaging or email
Trust in news overall
(+4) = 22/46
Trust in news I use
Trust in news in search
Trust in news on social media
Trust in media increased slightly, while trust in social media decreased. The most trusted brands try to offer a balanced picture while many other brands have a reputation for sensationalist or partisan coverage. Seven out of ten respondents declare they used more than seven different sources per week, online and offline (a constant in the last five years).
1 Tăpălagă, D. 20 June 2020, ‘What you are Never Going to Find Out from the Media Financed by the Orban Cabinet’, https://www.g4media.ro/ce-nu-veti-auzi-niciodata-de-la-presa-finantata-de-guvernul-orban-cum-au-capitalizat-liberalii-moguli-care-nu-aveau-nevoie-sau-nu-merita-ajutor.html.