In this piece

The relevance of impartial news in a polarised world

Election posters in park

Election posters of Germany's top candidates for chancellor. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch, 16 September 2021

19th October 2021

In this piece

Executive summary

A report by JV Consulting commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford 

Executive summary

This research provides further detailed evidence that impartiality – along with accuracy – remains a bedrock of trust in the news media. 

  • We find that audiences really value what impartiality stands for, despite the complexity of the concept. Most people want to be exposed to a range of views, especially around politics and other serious and important topics. They recognise the risk of giving exposure to extreme views or one side in the name of balance. However, evidence from this group of engaged users is that they are even more concerned about the suppression and silencing of viewpoints. 
  • There are some differences across countries, especially in expectations of traditional sources between countries like the US on the one hand and the UK and Germany on the other. And younger people, who have grown up using more informal and digital sources, also tend to have different expectations, although their underlying attitudes and desires are remarkably similar to older people’s. 
  • News – where balance and fairness within a story is particularly important – and analysis – which people also value but recognise carries greater risk – is distinguished from opinion, which people also want as part of the mix but which is partial by definition. Audiences have very different expectations of these layers of news. 
  • In the analogue world, differences between news, analysis and opinion were much clearer, with special labelling and clear sections, but in digital the divisions have blurred. For journalists, dilemmas around impartiality have also been tested by more informal formats such as social media, especially where news has become more emotive or controversial. Many fear that opinion and advocacy have become increasingly entwined with the news itself in a way that is often not transparent. 

The mushrooming of perspectives and the range of new digital formats are putting new pressures on impartiality in news. So, how should media companies respond? 

There is not one answer to this, given different traditions and regulatory environments. Some public service media companies like the BBC have concluded that they need to restate their commitment to impartiality – because of the link with trust – and are rethinking staff guidelines to take account of changing expectations. Other news organisations are looking to align more closely with the views and values of their audiences and this may push them towards a more partial approach. 

Even here, though, many will want to take note of audience desires for a range of views to be represented and to see clearer labelling of news and opinion. In particular: 

  • There needs to be more recognition of the new challenges to impartiality highlighted in this report and how trust with specific audiences can be affected.
  • There needs to be better training of journalists about the dangers of undermining impartiality in specific areas, for example, where journalism is more informal or accessed in distributed environments such as social media.
  • News organisations should be more transparent over their policies around difficult issues like inclusion and exclusion, and false equivalence.
  • There needs to be clearer and consistent labelling and signposting of different content types (news, analysis, opinion) to overcome consumer confusion in digital contexts. 

These questions are not just for media companies. Given the importance of social media, search and other access points, technology platforms such as Facebook, Google and Apple, will also need to bear these points in mind. Their own trust will depend on better separating news and opinion and being transparent about difficult issues like inclusion and exclusion, whether by algorithm or human intervention. 

News literacy is also playing a part in changing the ways in which impartiality can be achieved. Engaged and ‘confident’ consumers can increasingly create their own plurality through careful selection of multiple sources, but we find that others have more ‘cautious’ or ‘concerned’ mindsets that still rely on specific news brands to distinguish news from opinion and provide a range of views on important stories. 

This report is made possible by the support of the Reuters Institute’s sponsors and published with the support of the Google News Initiative. 

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