News media broadly trusted, views of UK government response to COVID-19 highly polarised

Woman with mask looks at cellphone

A woman wearing a protective face mask uses a phone while walking, as the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) continues, in Newcastle, Britain, April 25, 2020. REUTERS/Lee Smith

Dr Richard Fletcher
Dr Antonis Kalogeropoulos
Professor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

This is the first factsheet of the UK COVID-19 news and information project. More information on the project here

Key findings

In this RISJ Factsheet we examine people’s attitudes towards how news organisations, government and other institutions are responding to the coronavirus pandemic in the UK based on a survey fielded from 10 April to 14 April.

We find that:

  • More than one-third (37%) think that the news media is doing a good job of responding to coronavirus. This is higher than the equivalent figure for technology companies (15%) but lower than the figure for the NHS (92%) and the UK government (54%).
  • Approval for the government response is very polarised, with 82% of those on the political right saying they think the government has done a good job, compared to just 14% of those on the left.
  • Most people (60%) think that the BBC is doing a good job, and TV outlets like ITV (36%) Channel 4 (32%), and Sky (28%) get a higher proportion of positive evaluations than many newspapers. Most, but not all, major UK news outlets have net positive ratings.
  • More people are worried about the threat of coronavirus to the wider society (the economy, the health of the population, and life in their community) than to their own health or their own finances.
  • 39% think that the coronavirus situation in the UK is heading in the right direction, and 10% think the UK is on the wrong track. Just under half (45%) think the picture is mixed.

Overview

This is the first in a series of ten factsheets based on an ongoing online panel survey of a representative sample of the UK population. The survey was designed by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford to collect data on how people navigate news and information during the coronavirus pandemic and was fielded by YouGov. Ten waves will be fielded at two-week intervals, top-line findings from each will be published soon after in a factsheet, with more in-depth analysis to follow. More details about the project and the methodology can be found on the project website. The factsheet appendix provides more detailed data on responses to some of the main questions in this wave.

Findings

Most people in the UK rely heavily on news organisations for information about the coronavirus, and while only a minority (38%) feel they can trust most news most of the time, a majority (57%) rate news organisations as trustworthy sources of information specifically on coronavirus.

This is significantly more than say the same about politicians (38%), or about technology platforms like messaging applications (9%), search engines (31%), social media (13%), and video sites (12%). These findings are broadly in line with what we found in an earlier survey conducted from 31 March to 2 April (Nielsen et al., 2020).

Overall, more than a third (37%) of respondents feel news organisations are doing a good job responding to the coronavirus pandemic, and the net picture is positive, though one in six feel (15%) news media are doing a bad job (see Figure 1).

Compared to other institutions, news organisations fare relatively well, far from the near universal sentiment that the NHS is doing a good job (92%) and the majority that says the UK government is doing a good job (54%), but better than technology companies (15%) and the Labour Party (15%) – both of which may not be front-of-mind for most people when it comes to coronavirus.

Figure 1. Proportion that think each has done a good job of responding to coronavirus

UK_Political. Do you think each of the following is doing a good job or a bad job in responding to the coronavirus pandemic? Base: Total sample: 2,823. Note: Don’t knows not shown.

However, the figures for attitudes towards the government’s response to coronavirus hide an astonishing degree of political polarisation between those on the left and those on the right. The vast majority of those that place themselves on the right (82%) think that the government has done a good job, but just 14% of those on the left say the same.

We do not see these differences for other actors. Even news organisations see similar levels of approval from both sides.

Figure 2. Proportion that think each has done a good job of responding to coronavirus by left-right self-placement

UK_Political. Do you think each of the following is doing a good job or a bad job in responding to the coronavirus pandemic? Q1F. Some people talk about 'left', 'right' and 'centre' to describe parties and politicians. With this in mind, where would you place yourself on the following scale? Base: Left = 686; Right = 438. Note: Left/right is ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ left-/right-wing. Don’t knows not shown.

When asked whether individual news outlets are doing a good job or a bad job covering the coronavirus pandemic, we find very significant variation. TV outlets like the BBC (60%), ITV (36%) Channel 4 (32%), and Sky (28%) get a higher proportion of positive evaluations than many newspapers (probably in part because they are more widely used). All the main TV news outlets also have net positives across the political spectrum, and the BBC is seen as doing a good job by a majority both on the political left, the political right, and in the centre.

Most major UK news outlets have net positive ratings (good job minus bad job), though for some the picture is more mixed, and for a few, more people feel they are doing a bad job than say they are doing a good job. As is clear from Figure 3, many people say they don’t know when asked about coverage from specific outlets (unsurprising, as most people do not use them).

Figure 3. Proportion that think each has done a good job of covering coronavirus

BRAND_PERFORMANCE. Do you think each of the following news outlets is doing a good job or a bad job in covering the coronavirus pandemic? Base: Total sample: 2,823. Note: Don’t knows not shown.

While a large majority (65%) say that news media have helped them understand the coronavirus pandemic and explain what they can do in a response to it (73%), a quarter feel news media have exaggerated the crisis (25%).

More worryingly, almost half of our respondents say they sometimes actively try to avoid the news (47%). This figure is much higher than what we have found in previous research (Newman et al., 2019) and may suggest the beginnings of coronavirus news fatigue after the initial wave of interest.

The UK public is clearly very worried about the impact the coronavirus will have both on public health, the economy, and their local communities. Large majorities see the virus as threatening or very threatening to both the UK population as a whole, their personal health, the UK economy, and day-to-day life in their local communities. Half say the same about their personal financial situation.

Overall, more people are worried about the society-wide impact on public health (shaded blue on Figure 4), the whole economy, and their local communities than are worried about their personal health and personal financial situation (shaded green).

Figure 4. Proportion that think coronavirus is ‘quite’ or ‘very’ threatening to each

COVID_Threat. How threatening, if at all, is the coronavirus pandemic to each of the following? Base: Total sample: 2,823. Showing ‘very’ or ‘quite’ threatening.

Finally, our survey was in the field from 10 April to 14 April, a period in which hospital deaths from COVID-19 in the UK grew from 7,978 to 11,329 (Roser et al., 2020), and where there was growing news coverage of and public discussion of possible shortcomings in the UK’s response to the coronavirus crisis.

Overall, just 10% of respondents thought that the coronavirus situation in the UK was on the “wrong track”, with the vast majority saying either they thought the UK was heading in the “right direction” (39%), or that the picture was mixed (45%). However, this could change fast, as news coverage of coronavirus is relentless and sometimes identifies significant problems, and each new day brings new events and new challenges.

Figure 5. Proportion that think the coronavirus situation in the UK is generally heading in the right direction

Q19. All in all, do you think the Coronavirus situation in the UK is generally headed in the right direction, or do you feel things are off on the wrong track? Base: Total sample: 2,823. Note: Don’t knows not shown.

References

About the authors

Richard Fletcher is a Senior Research Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and leads the Institute’s research team.

Antonis Kalogeropoulos is a Lecturer in Communication and Media at the University of Liverpool and a Research Associate of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is the Director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford.

Funding acknowledgement

The Nuffield Foundation is an independent charitable trust with a mission to advance social well-being. It funds research that informs social policy, primarily in Education, Welfare, and Justice. It also funds student programmes that provide opportunities for young people to develop skills in quantitative and scientific methods. The Nuffield Foundation is the founder and co-funder of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics and the Ada Lovelace Institute. The Foundation has funded this project, but the views expressed are those of the authors and not necessarily the Foundation. Visit www.nuffieldfoundation.org.

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Author’s note: due to a scripting error the original data in Table 4 (Appendix) was incorrect. Table 4 was amended on 6th May 2020.