Our podcast: Digital News Report 2021. Episode 1: What you need to know
Authors of the Digital News Report 2021, the most comprehensive study of news consumption trends worldwide, discuss the key findings from this year's report. In this episode we look at the main findings of the report, including how some news organisations have benefitted from a desire for reliable information over the last year and how the pandemic has accelerated shifts to digital, social and mobile environments.
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 also writes an annual report for the Institute on future media and technology trends.
Rasmus Nielsen is co-author of the Digital News Report and 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 ten years of experience spanning major publishers, research institutes and editorial networks around the world.
On trust in news↑
Federica: We’re now over a year into the coronavirus pandemic and, while the situation is improving in some parts of the world, it’s still a dire one in other regions. The news industry, as almost everything else, has been impacted by the crisis but the pandemic has also shown the value of accurate and reliable information at a time when lives are at stake. Nic, what has does the report find out about the impact of the pandemic on the public news consumption?
Nic: Well, as you suggest, Federica, no two countries are the same and over the last year we’ve seen huge peaks of consumption on the one hand at various stages. But now consumption is coming back to more normal levels and, in fact, in some of the focus groups we found elements of news fatigue setting in as well.
But if we look at lasting effects probably one of the biggest has been on print – on printed newspapers – so we see very sharp declines in most of the countries we look at due to problems of access and distribution during the pandemic. TV news, on the other hand, is still up in parts of Europe in particular. So TV news traditionally has been one of the most trusted sources of news. And then online is up in some countries and down in others. But I think one of the things we find, particularly in Northern Europe and Western Europe, is that some of those brands that have a reputation for trusted and reliable news seem to be still doing a little bit better. So there’s some correlation between how trusted a brand is and how well it’s done through this pandemic and I think that suggests that people are more acutely aware of the importance of reliable information at this time.
Federica: You mentioned trust, Nic. And after a few years of decline, the survey suggested trust in news is up in quite a few countries. Why do you think that happened?
Nic: Yeah. A really significant jump on average across all 46 countries. Trust is up six percentage points so 44% said they trust most news most of the time. That’s not great [laughs] but it’s better than it was last year. And I think there are different factors at play in different countries. But to some extent this is really a recognition that the media has played a critical and valuable role in informing people. And I also think that, to some extent, COVID-19 has squeezed out some of the very divisive and partisan debates that were a feature before this crisis had started and we know that some of those debates have undermined news media trust because the news media was seen as part of those debates at least in some countries.
And maybe just one final point. I think it’s interesting to look at the US which is now the lowest country in trust – so only 29% say they trust the news most of the time. And it hasn’t gone up at all in the United States and, to some extent, I think that’s because the story’s been different there. We’ve had the divisions over a stolen election, we’ve had divisions over race and so perhaps it’s not surprising that trust has remained rock bottom.
Federica: Rasmus, just to follow up on what we were saying, at a time when people are being reminded of the importance and value of trustworthy news from independent news organisations, what are people’s concerns when it comes to misinformation?
Rasmus: We continue to find that there are very large parts of the public who are concerned about whether the news they come across online is real or fake. And when we look more closely at what issues people are concerned about, it really runs the gamut. Coronavirus and politics loom large. These are the two topics that most people say that they have seen misinformation on but there are many other issues too like climate change, for example. When we turn from overall levels of concern and the topics that people are concerned about and try to understand better what people see as the drivers of these different problems, the overall finding is very clear. Domestic politicians are again named as a more concerning source of false information by more people than any other source; almost twice as many as the next options on the list.
And then if we turn from sources to platforms, then really it’s Facebook as a corporation that is the centre of public concern. So 29% identified domestic politicians as the source of misinformation they were most concerned about and 28% identified Facebook as the most concerning platform for misinformation with messaging applications next at 15% and, of course, several of these are owned by Facebook including WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger.
Now, as Nic said, the crisis has provided a reminder of the value of trustworthy news and the trust level overall has increased to a level not seen since 2018 in our research. But I think we also just need to contend with the fact that there still is a significant minority of people who identify journalists and news media as the most concerning source or platform of false or misleading information. And, actually, there is about as widespread concern about journalists and news media as there are about messaging applications. So, clearly, there is a significant minority who are very concerned about journalism as potentially being part of the misinformation problems that we face in our societies.
Federica: Nic, in the last few months we’ve seen many news organisations grappling with the issue of impartiality. What does the survey say about people’s expectation of impartiality and objectivity in news?
Nic: Yeah. I think this idea of impartial news where a news outlet tries, at least, to represent all points of view in a neutral way if you like, has come under a lot of pressure in recent years. So more partisan news outlets are available through the internet. You’ve had the rise of social media and then huge polarisation in society as well and I think all of those things together have combined to put pressure on how journalists have traditionally done some of these things. And many people, of course, argue that in the age of the internet you can create your own plurality. Your own balance, if you like.
You don’t need a single news outlet to do it for you. So we’ve been looking at this both in the survey but also in focus groups we’ve done in four countries because it is a really complex and nuanced subject. But I think the headline is that there is still a strong majority – so more than 75% in almost every country we look at – that think news outlets should provide that broad range of views and let people decide for themselves rather than take a stand on a particular issue or campaign. Having said that, when we went down a bit further and talk to people about specific stories it gets a little bit more complicated.
For example, there may not be two sides of a story like a domestic violence story, where people think it’s OK for a journalist to identify and not be impartial if you like. Or racism. So depending from your starting point, people have very different views of what impartiality looks like. And then, finally, I think there’s a gap between the ideal of impartiality that people have in their heads and what they say and actually what they do [laughs] and where they are often drawn to these quite shouty people often on television with a lot of opinions who, in practice, they find more interesting and more entertaining. But by definition, of course, that’s not impartial in a traditional sense at least.
Federica: This is quite a complex and nuanced issue as you said. Rasmus, what differences are we seeing across countries around the world?
Rasmus: I think it’s really important to recognise the point that Nic stressed, which is that, in most of the countries that we look at in the report, there are large majorities that say they want news organisations to try to be neutral, to give equal time to different sides of arguments and to reflect the wide range of viewpoints. And this is a silent majority in otherwise very different contexts across the world and I think it’s quite different from the impression that journalists and editors might get if they pay attention to what is expressed on Twitter or what they hear pundits and politicians opine about. And I think it’s quite important to recognise how similar that top level finding is across the world.
Of course, there are differences from country to country and there are more polarised and divided environments like Brazil or the US where there are larger minorities of people who want news organisations to take a clearer stance on things and show their colours – give more time to the side of an argument they find is stronger and not be neutral on every issue. But, in some ways, I think the more noteworthy perhaps difference is not so much between countries as within countries.
So we find in many countries very pronounced differences between the political left and then the political centre and the right in terms of how people identify, where the appetite on the left for news organisations to take a much clearer stance is much higher than it is in the political centre and on the political right. And, in fact, there are a number of countries including the UK and the US where there’s no majority on the left for news organisations to try to appear neutral. It’s sort of split between that and then people who want them to take a stance. Whereas in both the centre and on the right there are very large majorities for news organisations trying to be neutral.
Federica: Another important topic of discussion in the last year, Rasmus, in the wake of the broader conversation about diversity, has been whether different parts of the public feel represented in the news coverage. According to the figures we have, which are the groups that feel that the news media cover them unfairly?
Rasmus: I think this is a topic where it’s important to stress that what we are dealing with here is public perception. So we’re asking people about whether they feel they’re being fairly represented and viewers will differ as to what extent people’s perception and judgement of this are backed by empirical reality. I can feel aggrieved and have a grievance and I can feel aggrieved with something that others might not think of as a legitimate grievance or perhaps a lack of empathy with how other people are treated in society.
That said, I think some of these patterns are well aligned with what analysis of actual news content and news coverage would suggest. So women – in particular younger women – often feel less fairly covered by the media than men – in particular older men. In the countries where we have data on this (most importantly the United States) ethnicity and race matters greatly. So black Americans or the Latinx Americans, feel less fairly represented and covered in the media than white Americans.
And there are regional differences that I think are also well aligned with what outside analysis might suggest about the media coverage. So states in the East of Germany, parts of the Deep South in the United States and the North East of the UK are areas where people don’t necessarily feel that their region is well represented or fairly represented in the media. But there is another axis to this, which is politics, which often shapes people’s perception of the media and we find that political partisans are often the most discontent if you will. Particularly on the right in many countries; in the United States there's huge discontent on the political right but also in a number of other countries – Germany, Spain, elsewhere. And then there are some countries, like the UK, where actually it’s people on the political left who are most unhappy with how they’re covered and perhaps that reflects in the UK case a situation where, of course, historically many of the major newspapers have been centre-right or right-wing in their editorial line and many on the left may feel aggrieved by that even if we sometimes hear a bit more from press critics on the right.
On social media↑
Federica: Nic, as in previous years, the report also focuses on the role of social networks and evolution of the public’s consumption and attitudes towards different platforms. What does the report find about this?
Nic: Yeah. I think there’s some really interesting trends, many of which we’ve reported on for a few years now but I think we’ve seen an acceleration of some of these. Firstly, the move to closed messaging apps. So we’ve seen the growth of WhatsApp but also this year Telegram being used for news but also being used for false, misleading information as well in a number of countries. So partly that is people moving away to some extent from open networks and it’s also partly due to the fact that, during the pandemic, we’ve become used to talking to friends and families in groups and I think that’s been a real theme of the lockdown.
And then I think the second thing is the evolution of youth-focused social networks like Instagram, Snapchat and TikTok and really these networks had very little to do with news at all until very recently. But this year they’ve become a real locus for debate about everything from Black Lives Matter to the Israel-Palestine conflict and a lot of memes and discussion of coronavirus too.
So we find in our data that over a quarter of 18-24s, for example, say that they use Instagram for news each week. So that might be sharing news, discussing news or consuming news and one in ten say they use TikTok for news as well. And outside Europe we’re seeing these networks at the heart of a number of student-led protests around the world against inequality, for example, in Peru and also in Thailand and that’s really a combination of some of these networks – so Instagram, TikTok and actually YouTube as well – have been used to organise some of those protests and also disseminate footage and all the rest of it.
Federica: The report also shows that journalists don’t have so much influence in these newer networks, doesn’t it?
Nic: Right. One of the things we asked this year was, “Where do you pay attention when you’re in these different networks?” So, “Are you looking at journalists and mainstream media companies or are you listening to and paying attention to ordinary people or politicians when it comes to news?” And what we find is that in Twitter people are paying most attention to journalists but if you look at Instagram, if you look at TikTok, if you look at Snapchat – it’s really personalities of various types. It might be celebrities or musicians or comedians or influencers of different types. And, increasingly, they have been talking about things like Black Lives Matter and free school meals.
Marcus Rashford, famously in the UK – the Manchester United footballer – who has 15 million Instagram followers by the way – forced a change of government policy and that was partly driven through the influence he has on social channels and somebody like Boris Johnson has one million Instagram followers. So it’s a bit of a mismatch.
Federica: Nic, you’ve also been studying the rise of audio for a few years now. How have audio consumption trends changed in the last year and what has this meant for podcasts?
Nic: It’s a bit mixed really. On the one hand, you’ve had in many countries the loss of the commute and that was really a place where a lot of people listened to on demand audio. But then, on the other hand, you’ve had new opportunities opening up with pandemic walks or listening in different places in the home. If you put all that together, the overall effect’s been pretty neutral I think in terms of consumption.
But, on the supply side, of course, we’re seeing continued growth so the number of podcasts I think has grown to more than two million in the Apple Directory, now including a lot of new news podcasts so we’ve had Le Monde, for example, starting a daily news podcast, the public broadcaster in Denmark and some of these started in the heat of the pandemic. And then, on the business side, you’ve had the growth of paid content. That may be Spotify paying publishers to produce content, it’s Apple opening up subscription possibilities and our data really shows that there’s a lot of change with platforms. So it used to be dominated by Apple. Increasingly in some European countries now we’re seeing Spotify as the main platform through which are consuming podcasts. So it remains a very dynamic space and I think one of the things we really focused on in the report is this huge battle for attention and awareness given [laughs] the number of podcasts out there and the limited amount of our human attention we can devote to it.
On the business of news↑
Federica: I have one final question for you, Rasmus, and I’m sure it’s one of the most crucial ones for some of our listeners: what’s been the impact of the pandemic on the business of journalism? As far as I’ve seen, there is some good news but also some data points that are concerning for the industry as a whole.
Rasmus: I think Nic really hit on it with the example of podcasts. There is an unbelievably intense competition for people’s attention and, of course, that attention in turn is what can drive advertising revenue or consumer payment or donations and the like. And news organisations are very challenged in that battle for people’s attention. The pandemic has accelerated the move to a more digital, more mobile and more platform-dominated media environment. As Nic said at the outset, print decline has accelerated if anything.
Many people have discovered on demand video and streaming and the like during lockdowns and money is flowing out of offline and legacy platforms and towards the digital environment where advertising goes primarily to Google and Facebook and a limited number of other large platforms. Amazon is growing quickly. Microsoft has significant digital advertising revenues and there's a limited number of other big platforms. This puts immense pressure on news media. In particular, advertising-supported news media and, in particular, those that are still propped up by offline revenues that are in terminal decline – in particular in the print space. So it’s really, really challenging and a difficult environment for news publishers to find their way in.
That said, we should also recognise that while there are many losers in this environment, there are also a few winners. The losers, of course, are communities that won’t get the journalism that they ought to get and that they deserve. There are journalists who work for publishers who either haven’t or can’t adapt to the new situation and lose their jobs even though, in many cases, they’re doing really important and valuable work. But there are also winners and we should recognise that and we see that, I think, in particular in the subscription space where, while the overall growth is limited, it is still a small minority of our respondents who say they pay for online news.
Some individual titles are doing very well indeed. It’s a very strong, winner-takes-most market in most countries with a limited number of often upmarket, national brands accounting for something like half of all digital subscriptions for news. But, for those titles, things are going very well often and increasingly well as a virtuous circle allow them to invest in distinct quality journalism that in turn drives more subscriptions that, in turn, allow them to invest more in both their journalism and their product so it’s quite an encouraging outlook for a limited number of upmarket titles.
It’s also, I think, important to recognise that there are smaller entrants of various sorts – niche-oriented or digital-born media that are doing really well. elDiario.es in Spain, Mediapart in France, the Daily Maverick in South Africa and others. So it’s a grim outlook for the industry at large as news organisations often struggle to attract and retain people’s attention and loyalty, and convince them to pay for what they’re offering. But there, I think, a number of really green shoots and also some stalwart organisations that have come out stronger on the other side of the crisis and our data certainly supports that.
Nic: It's also important to have to look at who is paying and who is not prepared to pay and it tends to be those with more money who are paying and also older groups. We’ve looked at the average age of those who are paying for an ongoing subscription and, in most countries, it’s people over 50. That is younger than print subscribers but it’s still not attracting the next generation of subscribers and I think that’s really something that publishers are going to need to focus on more and think about. Is it about price? Is it about the type of journalism and agenda that they’re producing that’s not attracting younger people? Or is just that they don’t have sufficient money? Or is it what they really want is to access lots and lots of different titles because they’ve grown up with the frictionless internet and they don’t want to be tied down. So I think there’s a lot of factors which need unpicking behind that which publishers need to think about increasingly.