Our podcast: Digital News Report 2022. Episode 1: What you need to know
Authors of the Digital News Report 2022, the most comprehensive study of news consumption trends worldwide, discuss the key findings from this year's report. In this special episode of our Future of Journalism podcast, we look at the main findings of the report, including how a depressing news agenda is leading people to turn away from the news and how younger audiences are leaning into new social media platforms to access news.
Nic Newman is the lead author of the Digital News Report and is a Senior Research Associate at the Reuters Institute. He is also a consultant on digital media, working actively with news companies on product, audience, and business strategies for digital transition. He writes an annual report for the Institute on future media and technology trends.
Rasmus Nielsen is co-author of the Digital News Report, Director of the Reuters Institute and Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford. His work focuses on changes in the news media, political communication, and the role of digital technologies in both.
Our host Federica Cherubini is Head of Leadership Development at the Reuters Institute. She is an expert in newsroom operations and organisational change, with more than ten years of experience spanning major publishers, research institutes and editorial networks around the world.
On news avoidance ↑
Federica: Nic, over the past years we haven't been short of big news stories, the pandemic, of course, the invasion of Ukraine, now the inflation and rising cost of living. To varying extents each of them are having an impact on many people’s daily lives, with stories like these as a backdrop what has the survey found about the extent to which people are interested in and engaging with the news?
Nic: Well we know that these really seismic stories stimulate interest in news and have led to surges in consumption at least in the short term. But if we take the slightly longer-term view, our data is showing that a significant proportion are actually not engaging in any of the major news sources, including social media, on a weekly basis. So up to around 15 percent in the United States also in Japan, and that’s grown from just a few percent when we started doing this survey in 2012.
So an increasing proportion who seem to be disengaging from news, it’s not everywhere but certainly in a number of richer western countries. But we also find a larger group of people who are engaging with the news but are also selectively avoiding certain kinds of stories, particularly difficult depressing ones or perhaps shut off the news at particular times of day. And we’ve been tracking this since about 2017 and just a couple of examples: that percentage has doubled in the UK, it’s doubled in Brazil. Around the half the sample in each of those countries now say they often or actively are avoiding news.
Federica: If we look specifically at the conflict in Ukraine, for example, there is a lot of talk of interest starting to fade at the moment, have you looked at this in the survey?
Nic: I should add that our main survey, so across 46 countries, was conducted just before the Russian invasion of Ukraine happened. But we did do subsequent polling in five countries, the UK, US, Poland, Germany and Brazil, about a month after the war began and what we found is, if anything, selective news avoidance had increased particularly in some of the countries closest to the fighting, so Poland, Germany, for example.
And I think what we’re seeing is, there are some people who are super engaged, consuming more news, wanting to follow every twist and turn on the one hand, but then you have others who are really turning away. And obviously the longer the conflict goes on the harder it is for the media to sustain that interest.
Federica: You mentioned that some people are turning away from some news that is difficult or depressing but what are the main reasons that people are selectively avoiding the news?
Nic: Yes, clearly, the depressing nature of the news is a key factor. So across all markets, 36 percent, more than a third of avoiders say the news has a negative effect on their mood and younger people are more likely to cite that as a reason. Four in ten, 43 percent, say there is too much coverage of COVID-19, too much politics, the sense that much of the mainstream media news coverage is repetitive or maybe unresolved or people feel powerless in the face of these kinds of stories. And then there is also a similar proportion say the news just can’t be trusted, it’s biased.
I think just in general these findings will be very challenging for the news industry because subjects that journalists really care about and consider most important and put a lot of effort into covering, you know, political crises, international conflicts, global pandemics, these seem to be precisely the stories that are turning some people away from news. And I think the challenge is, how do you make these stories accessible, how do you make them relevant and how do you give people more of a sense of agency, I guess.
On trust in news ↑
Federica: Rasmus, last year the Digital News Report found the trust in news was up worldwide as audiences turned to trusted sources of news to stay informed about COVID-19. Another year into the pandemic are news audiences as trustful of journalists?
Rasmus: So the headline figure is a little bit down from last year, this year across the 46 markets covered we find that 42 percent say they trust most news most of the time. In almost half of the markets in countries that we cover trust is significantly down from last year. So the trust that was earned and built during the pandemic where people turned to credible news organisations for important and useful information on how to live their lives, how to protect themselves and their loved ones, what the implications might be for their job security and for the future of their country, some of that trust has eroded. Not all of it, not everywhere but some of that trust has eroded in many of the countries that we look at.
Federica: Which types of news outlets have the highest level of trust among news users? You’ve looked specifically at public service media, for example, right?
Rasmus: Yes, I think that’s an important dimension of the discussion that it is important to understand there’s a general level of trust in people’s overall perception of news as an institution in society. But I think at the same time it’s also important to recognised that most people are very discerning media users and have quite fine-grained opinions about individual brands, quite detailed judgements. And in that sense even people who may have only moderate levels of trust in news overall often have some individual brands that they trust.
I think we can also see some patterns in what the brands are that tend to do better when it comes to brand level trust. These are often brands that are widely used and thus familiar to lots of people, they are brands that people have relied on for years that are part of their daily routines, that people around them make use of and thus have a reputation in the community. They are also often brands that aim to be in the, sort of, British argot duly impartial, critics of this form of journalism might dismiss it as a default balance or centrist pro-establishment coverage.
But I think it’s important to recognise that the brands that are most highly and widely trusted are often those that are relatively impartial or strive to be relatively impartial. In many countries in Western Europe that’s public service media, genuinely independent public service media, ARD in Germany, the BBC in the UK, the Nordic Broadcasters of a similar type. It’s also I think important to recognise that in many countries commercial broadcasters do very well in terms of individual brand level trust. TV France in France, ITV here in the UK, TV2 in Denmark and others. And, again, I think the basic building blocks of that trust are very similar, it’s familiarity and a commitment to some form of due impartiality.
So sometimes it’s public service media but not always, and it’s also I think important to recognise that in countries where people have good reasons to wonder about the independence of media organisations that call themselves public service, and they may suspect that they are in fact state broadcasters or at least beholden to the ruling party or the parliamentary majority and are thus, at least in part, organs of influence more than they are independent news organisations, trust in what purports to be public service media can be quite low.
Federica: Looking at different countries are there any countries where trust in media is a particular problem?
Rasmus: You know, we cover countries that together account for more than half of the world’s population so there is a lot of variation and a very complicated set here. I think one I will single out because it’s a country that provides a lens through which many people across the globe often think about their own media environment is the United States. And the reason I single it out is twofold, one is that the United States is an outlier in our dataset, it’s the country in our sample of countries that has the lowest level of trust overall, just 26 percent, just a little over half of the average across 46 markets. So it’s a clear outlier with very low levels of trust.
The other reason I single it out is that it’s quite peculiar and in that sense, in addition to being an outlier, I would say that our research would caution against interpreting the experience of journalism and news media in other societies through an American lens. The United States today is a very politically polarised society more so than many of the other societies that we cover in our research. And the way in which the news media has been made a political football by sustained attacks, in particular from the political right but also sometimes a few voices on the political left is much more pronounced in the United States.
And the partisan differences in trust in news are very, very different from most other markets, people on the left, 39 percent, say they trust most news most of the time, not so different from the average across the 46 markets that we look at in the report. But amongst people on the right it’s just 14 percent who say they feel they can trust most news most of the time. This is an extremely pronounced partisan difference but it’s really important to recognise that’s not the way in which this plays out in every society across the world.
In other cases, take France, lack of trust in the news is less about ideological political divides and more about the split between, crudely put, the haves and the have-nots, people who are part of a successful metropolitan, urban, upwardly mobile part of society and people who feel left behind, often in the rural areas with lower levels of formal education, lower levels of income. And there are other parts of the world where lack of trust is closely related to people’s perception that the news media are subject to undue influence from political actors of commercial interests.
On the business of news ↑
Federica: Nic, subscription and revenue sources is another big theme in the report, many news outlets are increasingly relying on reader revenue to stay afloat. However, the report reveals that the number of people who pay for online news has remained static at 17 percent. Would you put this down to people having less spare cash, to inflation, choosing to cut back on their subscription, or is it the market is just reaching maturity?
Nic: I think it’s worth just putting a bit of context in here. Over the last few years some publishers, especially big national titles have done very well indeed by asking people to pay for that content, whether that’s via subscription or membership or donation. And many more people signed up during COVID, that sort of sense that media was really valuable and worth paying for.
And I think we are reaching a slightly different stage now for a couple of reasons. So firstly many people who are sufficiently interested in news have already signed up so growth is going to be more difficult. And then I think secondly, as you mentioned, the cost of living squeeze is likely to get people to look again at all their ongoing commitments including media subscriptions, and by that I mean everything from Netflix to Spotify to news.
I should also add, our polling was in January, prices were going up but it was before the energy crisis really hit people’s wallets. But even then we found a significant minority who said that they would be cancelling non-essential subscriptions or certainly looking at them again and citing the squeeze on household budgets. So I think it’s definitely going to be a factor this year.
Federica: With this broad picture of subscriptions remaining flat are there any signs within the data for optimism on subscriber rates?
Nic: Yes, I mean, it’s a mixed picture. So what we find is subscriptions actually substantially up in countries like Germany, which maybe have been a bit slower to ask people to pay, so up five percentage points to 14 percent. Now we see similar rises in Australia where you have a relatively small number of publishers acting together over the last few years to try and persuade consumers to pay and that’s clearly been successful.
And then some of the early movers like Norway, 41 percent paying, they’ve had huge success over the last few years, a very, very significant proportion of the population who are paying for some kind of online news including local news. And the US, as well, you know, relatively static but coming from a high base it’s had a lot of growth over the last few years.
I think the other really interesting change over the last few years is, more people seem to be interested in taking out multiple subscriptions. So in the US and actually in Australia as well around half now take out two or more, and I think that’s driven by the growing number of subscription offers, if you like, including lower-priced ones. For example, you had the Financial Times offering a cheaper product of just a small number of curated news stories, you also have in a product called FT Edit a lower price point. You also have individual journalists offering paid newsletters or paid podcasts typically, again, at a cheaper price point.
So I think lots of interesting changes on the supply side but, obviously, there is going to be a limit to how many individual news subscriptions any one person is prepared to take out, particularly at this time.
Federica: You mentioned before other online media subscriptions like Netflix, how do news subscriptions perform and compare to those other online media subscriptions and the number of people who are prepared to pay for more than one type of each?
Nic: This year we looked in a bit more detail at how many different media subscriptions people have, people who have news subscriptions typically also have a couple of TV and film ones, services like Netflix, Amazon Prime, they’re also often paying for a premium music subscription like Spotify or they might subscribe to TV sports. Interestingly audio books and podcasts is relatively high as well and typically at the bottom of the list you have news, in terms of the percentages, probably for all the reasons we talked about earlier. So crudely put people are prepared to pay for entertainment and diversion or more prepared to pay for that than for a service that might bring our mood down or upset you.
And then, of course, the age profile is also different which is interesting, so typically people who subscribe to online streamers and music tend to be a bit younger, people who subscribe to news on the whole tend to be a bit older. So in the UK, for example, I think 92 percent of all subscribers to news publishers are over the age of 30 so that’s another huge challenge for the subscription publishers is not only to find the right proposition but also to find the right pricing to attract that next generation.
On younger audiences ↑
Federica: To remain on this point I read in the report that the average age of a digital news subscriber is almost 50. It doesn’t seem to bode well for the future of news. Apart from being less likely overall to pay for online news how are younger people engaging with news?
Nic: Right. One of the things that we do in this year’s report is focus more on the behaviours and attitudes of younger people and we also challenge the notion that all young people behave in the same way, there is a huge amount of variety, of course, when it comes to news. And what we find in our data, and also we did some qualitative research on this, is that these younger social natives, so these are under 25s who have grown up with social media, have very different expectations around news, often different definitions of news.
They use different formats, they expect different tones of voice and they also have a much weaker connection with traditional news brands so they’re less likely to go directly to a website now, for example, much more likely to access news via a third party such as search or social media. So, in other words, this group is not just different but it’s also more different than people of the same age were in the past. And I think this will be increasingly challenging to publishers as this cohort and the next one comes through in the way in which content is created and also content is distributed.
On how people access news ↑
Federica: Rasmus, every year the Digital News Report looks at what access points people are choosing to get their news online, what does the report say this year about the main gateways to digital news, are we seeing changes from previous years?
Rasmus: I mean, overall we have tracked now for some years how most people with the internet access online news in many different ways. They go directly, they rely on social, they rely on search, they rely on aggregators, emails, any combination of these things. And then we have the follow-up question where we ask people about the different ways in which they access news online, what’s the main way in which they access news.
And for some time we’ve tracked there the gradual move from a world dominated by direct discovery where people went directly to new publishers for their news, to a world characterised by more distributive discovery where people rely on intermediaries, social media, search, aggregators and the like that’s their main way to access news.
I think in a way this year has been a bit of a tipping point in the sense that this is the first year where we have a single form of platform intermediation come out ahead of direct access. This year 23 percent say going directly to a website or app is the main way of getting news online, but 28 percent identify social media. And it’s the first time we’ve had a clear significant gap where a single kind of platform intermediary is more widely used as the main way of accessing online news than going directly.
It’s important however to recognise that there are some very significant cross-market differences here, different parts of the world are very different specifically when it comes to this, not generally so much in terms of overall platform use, search engines are widely used across the world, social media widely used across the world, there is sort of limited variation in that really. But when it comes to how central they are for how people get news online we have still a significant number of countries, mostly in the Nordic countries and Western Europe, where going directly is still the most important way, half in the UK, more than half in Finland and Norway.
And then a larger number of markets across the world where social is much more dominant than it is on average, you know, Thailand, the Philippines, Kenya, are all countries where the majority of our respondents identify social as their main way of getting news online. And also other configurations, there are countries in Asia-Pacific, Japan and South Korea spring to mind, where portals and messaging applications, WhatsApp, for example, are much, much more important than they are in Western Europe and North America.
So the overall picture I think is one in which people embrace platforms in many parts of the world, they are much more central to how people discover news but really, really significant differences from country to country. And still, importantly, a number of countries in which publishers have been able to build really strong direct connections with much of the public.
Federica: If you look more closely at social media as a news sources Facebook is still important but newer social networks are rising, why is that?
Rasmus: I think Nic hit on this point earlier which is that we are seeing a generation come of age now for whom things that people like me and those older than me might have thought of as new media or old media, right. I mean, Facebook for many years is a place where you, sort of, maintain the bare necessities of showing your family that you’re still alive while you actually rely on TikTok or Snapchat or Instagram for things that are proximate and close to your own interests and your own community of peers.
So what we’re seeing is a world in which the long-established platforms, Facebook and YouTube, are very important, very widely used also for news but amongst the 18-to-24 year olds who have grown up with social media Facebook is less and less central. Only about half say they’ve used it in the past for any purpose in our sample, whereas Instagram and TikTok and WhatsApp are becoming more and more important.
So it’s really driven here I think by a combination of new entrants, some of them owned by the same companies but some of them not, in the platform market combined with a younger generation with different preferences, different habits, different communities that they tap into as they use media, including social media.
Federica: Nic, let’s focus a bit more on TikTok, its profile has increased in the past several months also due to users posting videos related to the war in Ukraine. Where in the world is TikTok proving most popular?
Nic: Well, increasingly we see TikTok being used outside the US and the UK, so we’ve seen this pattern in many cases with WhatsApp and other social networks that have emerged and quite often the first emerging behaviour is actually not in the countries where they’re made. So, yes, Kenya and South Africa, in parts of Asia, Thailand, for example, you have around a fifth of the population say that they now are using TikTok for news and something like four in ten of our sample say they’re using it for any purpose. These are really quite significant numbers driven by younger people and, of course, many of those countries have a younger population so that would be part of the story.
And I think the change this year, because we’ve been tracking it for a few years, is that people are talking much more about TikTok as a place to see news and that’s partly, you know, driven by the narrative of Ukraine but it’s also politicians increasingly taking notice as they see that audiences they want are there. The Colombian election, just to take one example, you have a candidate there, one of the candidates is a self-styled 'King of TikTok' and he posts a series of eccentric videos, including one of him riding an electric scooter, which some people say really helped him engage and appear much more modern by embracing some of these new platforms.
We shouldn’t over-exaggerate this, while we found in our research that some people say, "It’s great, it’s really addictive, I like it for news," but we also found a lot of young people who said that they’re not convinced, they say that it’s just not the right format and they don’t trust anything they see on TikTok, it’s just not professional. I think this is an emerging space.
On misinformation ↑
Federica: Rasmus, each year the report strikes levels of concern around misinformation and the type of misinformation they are most exposed to, what subjects do people say they come across most regarding misinformation? Have we moved on from the anti-vaxx and fake COVID cures?
Rasmus: I think overall it’s important, again, to recognise that we document very widespread public concern about whether the news that people come across online is real or fake. Over half of our respondents say that they worry about identifying the difference between what’s real and fake on the internet when it comes to news.
In particular those who use social media to source news, which we’ve noted throughout is a growing part of the population in many parts of the world, are more worried than people who don’t use social media, suggesting how central social media are to this cluster of problems, including Facebook, including YouTube, but also some of the newer entrants in the market.
When it comes to the types of misinformation that people say that they see, you know, public health and COVID-19 still loom very large and then followed closely in many parts of the world by politics. And, of course, the two things are often intertwined as we’ve seen in many countries across the world: prominent politicians have spread misleading stories about the pandemic or have directly attached public health authorities, tried to undermine the validity of official statistics, dramatically undercounted death tolls and the like.
So it’s still public health that looms large across the markets that we cover but it is also about politics and often quite tightly intertwined with how elite political actors are spreading false and misleading information for their own purposes.
On polarisation ↑
Federica: Divisive political moments might create a sense that we live in a time of increased political polarisation, is that true, have audiences become more polarised over time?
Rasmus: Well, when we look at news use specifically and if we measure polarisation as the degree to which people sort themselves into like-minded communities that use the same media, crudely put, there are those on the left using media of one sort, those on the right using media of another sort with very little overlap and very little in terms of mixed or diverse audiences.
If we measure polarisation when it comes to news media, then I think it’s really important to recognise that we find no evidence really of substantial changes in polarisation since 2016 when we last looked more closely at this. And I think this is really quite an important find in terms of being in the spirit of that famous Sherlock Holmes story, The Dog That Didn’t Bark. It’s very clear that there are some countries that are very polarised, there are some countries that are growing more polarised, I mentioned the United States as a very clear example of this.
But it’s also important to recognise that sometimes these countries are outliers and we can’t always understand experience in other countries through the lens of those very particular and often peculiar cases. And we shouldn’t confuse the very real phenomena of very heated arguments on Twitter or other relatively not that widely used social media with the general public’s engagement with news and media. So what we find more broadly is that news media audience polarisation is generally quite low because most news outlets, in particular those that are more popular, attract mixed and centrist audiences and we don’t really see very much of a change since 2016.
So I think the reason it’s really important to recognise this null finding, to use the academic jargon for it, is that I sometimes fear that our concerns with problems that are very real and identified in the United States and that are very keenly felt by journalists who are active on Twitter, for example, can stand in the way of understanding the scale and scope of these problems and also sometimes distract from less visibly and attention-grabbing problems, such as growth in news inequality and the fact that a significant part of the public, as Nic said from the outset, are selectively avoiding news and that some people are turning their backs on news altogether. And these things are much less in your face, much less public and I think sometimes overlooked when we focus on polarisation, even though it may not have changed as much as journalists often seem to think.
On what news media can do ↑
Federica: To conclude this overview of the main findings, some of the things that stay with me the most are the weakening connection between much of the public and journalists coupled with losing some ground on trust, some groups actively avoiding the news.
And if we add that younger people are not necessarily subscribing in large numbers and are not going directly to news websites and apps, that makes quite a serious picture for news organisations to be looking at. Are there any lessons that you took from looking at this year’s data that could offer a guidance for news media on what to focus on? Any examples of someone really trying to reengage readers with news? Nic.
Nic: I think it’s very hard to generalise because there are so many different kinds of media companies and each media company will want to look at the different issues, some will be trying to engage younger people, some will be trying to build subscriptions. So there’s a lot of different challenges here but there is also a lot of innovation and I think one of the big questions is the extent to which media companies try and build these, sort of walled gardens and get people to come to them in a more traditional way.
Or the extent to which, as some media organisations are, they really are trying to engage using some of the new approaches, trying to really embrace some of the change around more diverse genres and also new formats and new tones of voice. And, obviously, there’s a risk there because there’s a risk that authority and trust might be damaged if you compress news into a TikTok video or chase attention too much.
But I think a clear shift in that direction is necessary, our data does show that many people are disconnecting or turning off important stories and so making news stories more accessible, making them more relevant I think is the key focus.
Rasmus: Yes, I think there are really two big things we need to hold in our minds at the same time. The first is the bad news for the news, which is that the social contract between much of journalism and much of the public is demonstrably fraying. Many people are paying less attention to the news, many people are less trusting of the news, many people are less convinced that news is valuable and relevant for them in addressing real issues that they care about in their lives.
And they are, on that basis, increasingly indifferent to the news, unwilling to pay attention, unwilling to pay and not really particularly interested in engaging with it. That is a tremendous challenge, the connection with the public is the foundation on which journalism is built as a profession, as an industry and certainly also in terms of the legitimacy of institutions such as public service media.
That’s the bad news for the news, at the same time I also think that we should really recognise that journalists and news media are two-and-a -half decades into the most intense disruption that we’ve seen in generations and the most intense competition for attention that’s ever existed in human history. And in some cases demonstrably successful at connecting with people, doing forms of journalism that some people really value and are willing to pay attention to, to benefit from, sometimes to pay for as well or support through public funding and we couldn’t take that for granted and shouldn't take that for granted.
I think we need to recognise that success as well as the enormity of the challenge that it is if journalism becomes a profession oriented towards serving the few. People like me, affluent, highly educated, very interested, a minority rather than the many, the public at large.