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More than ‘just the facts’: How news audiences think about 'user needs'

More than ‘just the facts’: How news audiences think about 'user needs'

17th June 2024

It is sometimes assumed that the public neither wants nor needs anything more than ‘just the facts’ from the news media. The perceived value of pure facts – uncontaminated by bias, free of unnecessary subjectivity, not weighed down by context and nuance – has a powerful hold on the public imagination, and extends into many areas of cultural life beyond the news media.  

However, a long history of academic media research has shown that people find value in news consumption in ways that go well beyond the factual information it provides. Back in the 1940s, Bernard Berelson (1949) described how people living in New York felt a sense of companionship and connectedness from reading the newspaper, and from the 1970s onwards, researchers have detailed a wide range of ‘uses and gratifications’ – such as entertainment and escapism – that people can find through news or other forms of media use.  

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Today, many news organisations increasingly think carefully about the needs of their audience, grounding their understanding using tools like the ‘user needs model’, originally developed at the BBC and later evolved by Dmitry Shishkin and others, structuring and classifying content in terms of how well it satisfies people’s basic needs like knowledge and understanding, through specific user needs such as ‘inform me’, ‘divert me’, and ‘give me perspective’. This model differs from uses and gratifications theory in many ways, but what they both share is the core idea that people want a variety of things from the news media, and they might want different things at different times. 

The user needs model is just one way for news organisations to better understand their audience, but it has been widely adopted in many different newsrooms around the world to guide their thinking and structure their output. In this year’s survey we asked a series of questions about what people want from the news media, and how well they think they do at providing it, informed by different needs identified by the model. User Needs 2.0 has identified eight needs people have from news (e.g., ‘update me’, ‘keep me engaged’), which sit in four categories of more basic need (see the following table), which we might think of as fundamental drivers or motivations.1 We therefore asked respondents about the importance of each user need to them (‘Thinking about the role that news plays in your life, how important or unimportant are each of the following?’) and how well the news media do in providing it (‘Thinking about the role that news plays in your life, in your opinion how good or bad is the news media at providing you with each of the following?’). The analysis for this chapter will discuss both basic needs and specific user needs.2

A podcast episode on the findings

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What is the most important user need? 

If we look across all 47 markets included in the survey, we see that news that satisfies the basic needs of knowledge and understanding is deemed very or somewhat important by two-thirds (65%) of the population. News designed to help people with doing something is seen as important by 55%, and news designed to help people feel something is the least important driver (50%) – but still deemed important by half of all respondents.  

At the more granular level of specific user needs, ‘update me’ (72%), ‘educate me’ (67%), and ‘give me perspective’ (63%) emerge as the most important. ‘Divert me’ is the only user need seen as important by less than half of respondents (47%), perhaps in part because diversion is so abundantly available from many kinds of media. 

As we can see from the following map, in around two-thirds of the markets we surveyed, the knowledge need is the most important, with understanding ahead in the remaining one-third of cases. The only exception is Taiwan, where doing is slightly ahead.  

In Western Europe (e.g., France and Germany), Southern Europe (e.g., Spain and Italy), and Eastern Europe (e.g., Poland and Czech Republic), as well as parts of Latin America (e.g., Mexico and Colombia), news that helps people understand things is typically seen as more important – though the differences between knowledge and understanding are usually very small and not statistically significant. Elsewhere, such as in Northern Europe (e.g., UK and Norway), Asia-Pacific (e.g., India and Japan), North America (e.g., USA and Canada), parts of Africa (e.g., Nigeria and Kenya), and the rest of Latin America (e.g., Brazil and Argentina), knowledge emerges slightly ahead of understanding. But, again, the differences are small. The key point is that in most cases, news that helps with knowledge and understanding is deemed more important than news that helps with feeling and doing. 

It is important to keep in mind that the questions in the survey specifically ask about what people want from the news media, and not the information environment more broadly. Information that is diverting or that helps people solve problems may be more important overall to their lives, but may not be something that they expect the news media to provide. Also, the clustering of the same basic needs in geographic regions is unlikely to be caused by geography per se, but because, as comparative media research has consistently shown, countries in the same parts of the world often have similar political and media systems due to shared culture and history.

The importance of needs varies only slightly between different demographic groups. As we might expect, for younger people and regular news avoiders, needs like ‘inspire me’ and ‘divert me’ become slightly more important relative to needs like ‘update me’, but the basic hierarchy of user needs described above stays the same. 

What user needs are being best served? 

In terms of how well people think the news media satisfy different user needs, on average across 47 markets people are more likely to think that they do a good job on knowledge needs (58%), especially ‘update me’ (64%) – perhaps not surprising given that many people would say this is the core function of the news media. Just over half think that the news media do a good job on understanding (55%), followed by doing needs (49%) – with under half (45%) saying the news does a good job of needs to do with how people feel, especially ‘inspire me’ (42%). 

In most countries surveyed, people are more likely to think that their knowledge-based user needs are being best served. However, this also means that in many of the countries where people rate understanding as being more important – such as in parts of Western Europe (France and Germany) – this is not the area in which people think the news media excels.  

What do audiences think is the biggest priority for the news media? 

This begins to point to types of news coverage that the public thinks are important, but where many think the news media is falling short of their needs. We can explore this more formally using a technique called gap analysis. If we look at the percentage point gap between the proportion that think a particular need is important, and the proportion that think the news media do a good job of providing it, we can identify the needs with the biggest gap between importance and performance. But we can go a step further, and weight that gap by the overall importance of the user need, which gives us a sense which gaps are more important than others in the eyes of the public. We call this the User Need Priority Index, because it highlights those user needs where the public thinks it is important for the news media to perform better (and possibly the area where there is most potential for improvement).3

As we showed in the Executive Summary, when we compute this index, we see that the top priority for the news media across all 47 markets is providing news that helps people with understanding (6.5) – more specifically, news that gives people different perspectives (7.6). Doing more to address knowledge-based needs (4.6), particularly ‘update me’ (5.8), also emerges as a priority. Even though this is the area that many people rate most positively in terms of performance, it is so fundamental to what the news media do in the eyes of the public that even small gaps between importance and performance matter. News that helps people with doing things is less of a priority (3.3), and although feeling-based needs are the least important (2.5), this masks the fact that the ‘inspire me’ need is the second highest priority individual user need (6.5). This need scores higher among news avoiders and younger people, making it an even greater priority for news organisations aiming to bring back these audiences. 

If we look at the top priority by country, we see that in most markets in the survey understanding-based needs are the priority for the public. Generalising somewhat, this is mostly true of countries in the Global North, including Europe, Australia, and North America. In much of the Global South, including Latin America and Asia-Pacific, news that satisfies people’s need for knowledge is top.

This clear pattern maps onto different levels of press freedom. As the next chart shows, in countries where press freedom (as measured by Reporters without Borders) is lower, knowledge-based needs are more of a priority. This is probably because the public recognises that it may be difficult to find out basic information about what is happening due to restrictions on what the press can and cannot say. However, in countries where press freedom is higher, this is less of an issue, and the public instead is looking for ways of better understanding what is happening. This all highlights how user needs are not only shaped by what individuals want at a given time, but also the broader context in which they find themselves. 


In this chapter, we have explored what the public wants from the news media using the lens of the User Needs Model 2.0. While it is clear that people want the news media to provide facts that keep them knowledgeable about current events (‘update me’), there is also a strong need for the news to ‘educate me’ and ‘give me perspective’. And even though these needs are on average considered more important than news that helps people do or feel things, a substantial minority of at least 40% of the public consider these important too. In other words, while providing news that keeps people up to date with what is going on is a defining part of what the public wants and expects, many people want the news media to satisfy a range of needs, and few want ‘just the facts’. 

Although young people and news avoiders are slightly more likely to want news that inspires or diverts them than older people or non-avoiders, the importance of knowledge and understanding remains. The news media may be able to appeal to hard-to-reach groups by providing diverting or inspiring content, but the data suggest that this should not come at the expense of coverage that explains and informs.  

By looking at the gap between what needs people think are important and what they think about what the news media provide, we can learn about their priorities through the User Need Priority Index. In countries with high levels of press freedom, people’s knowledge-based needs are more likely to be met, and people want to learn more about issues and hear different perspectives. In countries with lower levels of press freedom, the public to some extent seems to recognise that their more basic knowledge needs are not being met by the media – and this is their priority. 



2 Very/somewhat important and very/somewhat good responses are recoded as 1 with all other responses recoded as 0. Percentages for user needs are the mean of the recoded responses. Percentages for basic needs are the mean of the mean of the two user needs for each respondent.

3 The User Need Priority Index for basic needs is based on the same computation using the percentages at the basic need level. It is not the mean of the User Need Priority Index for each pair of user needs.

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