Our podcast: Digital News Report 2023. Episode 3: Unpacking news participation and online engagement over time

Kirsten Eddy explains how audiences are participating in news and how this correlates with the willingness to express opinions online
27th June 2023

In this episode of our Digital News Report 2023 podcast we look at levels of news participation such as commenting, sharing or posting news, and how this varies across the world. We also look at whether people have positive experiences of engaging in news online and offline, and whether people feel they need to be careful about voicing their opinions.


Dr Kirsten Eddy is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Digital News at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. She studies the interplay of journalism, politics, and digital media, with a focus on moral and civic media and political discourse. She is the author of the Digital News Report 20223 chapter on how people engage with news.

Our host Federica Cherubini is Director 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.

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What news participation meansNews participation worldwide | Quality of engagement and levels of news participation | Caution around expressing opinions online | Encouraging healthy news participation

What news participation means 

Federica: So in your chapter of the report, you look at the levels that people engage with the news, whether it's through actions like posting news, commenting, reading or sharing, for example. Can we start from the beginning? Why is this an important question to consider?

Kirsten: Yeah, I think it's a great question and I think it's important for a few reasons. The first is that engaging news users has been a growing challenge for news organisations around the world, which I think makes it important for us to better understand what this looks like from the audience perspective. And I think the second piece of this is that more broadly, participation in public life and public debate has generally been considered a central element of what civic engagement means in a democratic society. So how people are participating in these debates in many countries around the world and who is shaping them really matter.

Federica: And how did you go about researching the issue? What makes someone a participator, according to your methodology?

Kirsten: We've been tracking these questions around participation in the Digital News Report for some time now about how people are sharing or participating in news coverage. And we ask this by asking them about a theory of different behaviours, including things like talking to others about it, family and friends, colleagues, different forms of commenting, liking, etc. during an average week. And we ask participants to select all that apply, all that they do during an average week. And so we've broken these different groups of behaviours into a series of what we call segmentations. So the first being active news participators: these are people who engage with online news actively by posting or commenting about the news.

The second group are still participators, but they're more reactive. These are people who are reading comments, who are liking or sharing news online and offline. And then we have passive consumers. So these would be the non-participants, people who are using news but are actually not participating in the process at all.

News participation worldwide 

Federica: So if you look at the findings, what did you find about overall levels of news participation?

Kirsten: Overall, I think what we see here suggests, in many of our markets, less and perhaps more constrained public debate. So when we look at the averages across all 46 markets that we study here, we see a steady rise over time in that passive news consumption, as well as in reactive participation, alongside what's a pretty substantial fall in active participation. So that's down 11 percentage points to less than a quarter of respondents now over the past decade. So that group of people who are making up really a large swath of what the public sees as open participation with news is continuing to shrink over time.

Federica: Of course, the Digital News Report has a very global outlook and covers a lot of different markets around the world. Have you found any regional trend that it could be useful for us to know?

Kirsten: Absolutely. I think we see quite a bit of both country and regional variation here. And so it is clear that where you are in the world does play an important role in how you're participating with news. We see higher overall trends of participation, particularly in our African markets, our Southeast Asian markets and our Latin American markets. And we see much less participation in places like Central and Northern Europe, North America, and even some of our markets in East Asia. And in some ways, this could be partially due to sample differences. One example is that in our African markets, respondents are more likely to be younger, more educated English speakers. But at the same time, I mean, this is a pretty broad trend. And I do think that they reflect real country and regional differences in terms of media environment, particularly those that have higher reliance on, and adoption of, social networks. And so just to give one quick example of this, we see that over a third of people are actively participating with news in a market like Thailand, where social media is by far the most important gateway for news users. And that is kind of compared with an example of one in 10 respondents who are actively participating in Denmark, where we see huge direct connections with brands remaining much stronger than the turn toward, for instance, social networks for news.

Federica: And beyond the regional and local trends, have you been able to understand how any demographic, for example, details play into these different behaviours?

Kirsten: Yes, especially when we look at that group of active participators. So those who are posting or commenting about news online, we do see that across our markets, these groups are often more likely to be men, higher educated, more politically partisan, and more interested in news. So this group, as I said, makes up less than a quarter of news users nowadays. But we can see that from a demographic perspective, it's, increasingly, a fairly unrepresentative but vocal minority that are actively engaging.

Federica: And given the very rapid changes in the wider social media and platform environment, how is news engagement on such platforms changing?

Kirsten: I think there's kind of two pieces to that question. The first, we can see when we look at comparisons of online versus offline engagement. When we focus on individual forms of news participation, we can see these really steady decreases over time for most forms of public participation with news, both offline and online. At the same time, we do see that it's clear that online and offline participation isn't necessarily an ‘either/or’ sort of proposition. We can see that talking face to face offline about news has also declined. But even in this increasingly digital media environment, it remains the most widely reported form of news participation. So I think there's that kind of element, the fact that despite these wider changes that we see online and offline, you know, still remain equally used in different ways. 

I think to the point about changing media environment and the continued changes that we see among platforms and how people are using them, one thing we do see is that closed forms of online sharing, particularly via private messaging applications, really continues to grow over time, unlike other forms of sharing. This is especially clear in markets with higher overall use of private messaging apps. So markets in Latin America and Southeast Asia in particular. It also really maps on to some of the broader changes that we see across all markets and just people's use of messaging apps like WhatsApp or Telegram over time. And so we can see that the sort of changes in the digital media environment may lead some people to turn slightly away from more public sharing or participation because perhaps they perceive public debates there as a bit more toxic or a bit more dangerous for them and are instead turning toward more private platforms to do so at times.

Quality of engagement and levels of news participation 

Federica: In your research, you ask people whether they have a broadly positive or negative experience of engaging with the news online. What did you find out?

Kirsten: Yes, this year we asked respondents about their experience engaging with news online or on social media. So for them that included reading or posting comments as well as talking to people about news. And we find that while many people do have reason to be wary of online participation, generally, people are three times more likely to say that their experience of engaging with news online is positive rather than negative. At the same time, we also see that that largest swath of the public appears to be fairly ambivalent. They describe their experience as neither positive nor negative and that represents around 40% of people.

Federica: Is there a correlation of the quality of this experience with how much people choose to engage with the news?

Kirsten: Definitely. I think we were initially a bit surprised by our results given the sort of public discourse around online engagement being really toxic or negative. And to some extent, this is a fair criticism. Particular groups of people around the world experience far more dangerous online environments than others. And so many times engagement online varies depending on who you are and where you are in the world. But I do think that we find that part of this ambivalence and tends toward positivity over negativity may at least in part be because people are just simply not engaging with news as much online. People who don't participate in news are far more likely to express ambivalence about engaging with news online than to say that they feel positively or negatively.

And we also find that people with negative online experiences are nearly four times as likely as those who feel positively to not participate at all with news. And I think one of the things that we really find here that makes it stand out is that these people are still equally likely to talk offline about news. So this tells us that how people feel about their online news experiences clearly does affect how they participate with news online, even if it doesn't affect how they participate offline.

Federica: Were there any other factors that play a part in whether people have positive or negative experiences?

Kirsten: We see a few factors that play into this, particularly among specific demographic groups. And this varies across many markets. So in some cases, like the US, for example, a gender gap is very clear. In certain markets, politics plays a critical role in these perceptions as well, both in terms of political affiliation as well as interest in politics. So we see that those who are interested in politics are twice as likely to feel positively about their online news experiences than negative. And in certain markets, like the UK, US and Brazil, we do see that those on the political left are far more likely than those on the right to say that their online experiences are negative, actually.

I think the other piece that was particularly interesting is that we do see in some countries, for instance, Portugal, Germany and France, the youngest cohort of 18-to-24 year olds are significantly more likely than any other age group to say that they have negative online news experiences. And this really stood out to us. And of course, there's a variety of reasons for why this may be. It could be that younger people are more likely to be politically left leaning. So there may be sort of intersectional ties here between some of the demographics that we're looking at. Or it could be that they just see more conversation about the Internet and online comment sections being negative environments. Or that they just are more frequently present on these platforms and it can be quite overwhelming for them at times, perhaps in terms of just the expectations that are set on users or even just the toxicity on these platforms.

Caution around expressing opinions online 

Federica: You mentioned that politics and which side they lean to can have an impact. So related to this, to what degree do people feel comfortable expressing their opinion, whether online or offline, about politics then? How do they feel about that?

Kirsten: That's a really good question. I think one of the things we really wanted to engage with this year is we asked these sorts of questions around people's experiences with different forms of participation and engagement [and] the question of whether there is a sense that public debate is becoming more constrained, particularly when it comes to online debates around things like news and politics. Some of the questions that we included this year was asking how careful people feel they must be about what they say when they talk about politics, both online and offline. And I think we really see here on average that majorities of people do express across our markets being wary of what they say in political conversations, both online and offline.

Federica: How does this vary by country, for example?

Kirsten: We see that perceptions of not needing to be careful about what one says remain consistently low across our markets when it comes to online political conversation. So I think where we see a lot of variation or nuance is particularly when we look at offline political conversation. So, for instance, in some of our less politically contentious markets in Europe, such as maybe Finland or Denmark, we see that nearly half of people feel they do not need to be careful about what they say offline. But when we look at markets like the US, Australia, or Brazil, where we might say political debates are often more polarised, this is not the case. And we see around a quarter or less of respondents feel comfortable expressing their political opinions offline.

Federica: What could account for some of this variation?

Kirsten: In around half of our markets, we do find that majorities of respondents feel they must be careful about what they say when they talk about politics online and offline. These concerns are more prominent among particular demographic groups again. So political partisans, the highly educated, and those who are more interested in politics, regardless of medium, whether they're talking about politics offline or online. I think the other kind of piece of this that we see that might account for some of this variation is that markets where people are more concerned about discussing politics online are also often those with more active participators. In some cases, some of these markets have mixed or low media freedom rankings, according to the Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index. And these perceptions are particularly high among respondents in countries where citizens may feel the chilling effects of things like political unrest or threats to free expression.

Encouraging healthy news participation 

Federica: Finally, Kirsten, should news organisations be concerned about the findings of these chapters? What can they do to ensure that online spaces they own or use become ones for healthy news engagement?

Kirsten: These are such good questions. And I don't think you can find a journalist who doesn't think about or feel concerned about audience engagement nowadays. And I think these trends that we're noting here really raise some important questions about what participation and engagement mean in what is perhaps an increasingly online but less openly participatory news environment. And so it may be that we need to sort of grapple with participation, the nature of participation sort of changing over time. We see publishers moving away from open forms of news participation, like removing online comment sections. And we also see social media platforms downranking or limiting users' interaction with news. So I think with all of this in mind, to some extent, publishers need to be aware of these changes and find ways to sort of broaden and deepen engagement with that more passive or reactive majority of news users. And I think the second piece is that we clearly see this critical link between how people perceive their experiences engaging with news online and their willingness to actively participate in it.

So I think when it comes to, as you noted, both publishers and platform companies that are equally focused on better audience or user experiences, this really speaks to the clear importance of fostering healthy digital spaces as one way of promoting digital participation, particularly when it comes to that large segment of the public that is increasingly wary of engaging online.

Federica: Kirsten, thank you so much for joining us today on the podcast.

Kirsten: Thank you for having me. 

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