Media Still Hold Sway…Sometimes

22 Sep 2020

This year’s Reuter’s Digital News Report – the sixth – is especially revealing, as it contains data from both before and after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemia. The 2020 report points out the dichotomy between the public’s expressed preference for unbiased, accurate journalism, and its increasing dependence on non-professional sources of information.

Once upon a time, professional journalists collected, verified, contrasted, packaged and explained information about current events to a public that largely trusted them. This is not the situation in 2020.  Technology has imposed a 24-hour news cycle, brought the farthest corners of the world to the palm of anyone’s hand, and made a journalist – or even a columnist – out of anyone with internet access.

Consumers of all goods and services are becoming harder to please over time as ever-expanding choice shifts power toward the demand side of the equation, and media is no exception. Journalists no longer control access to information.  It is no longer strictly necessary to pay for news in any form to have a grasp of current events. This year’s data reveal that roughly half of global consumers are unwilling to pay for news under any circumstances.  Nevertheless, the year since the previous survey saw important increases in digital news paid subscriptions - as much as 8 percentage points in Norway, for example, which was already the country with the highest percentage of paying consumers.

Overall, the public trusts traditional, professional news media much more than social media and other platforms. Nevertheless, these newer options consistently gain ground as primary sources of information. Only 38% of respondents trusted “most of the news most of the time,” down 4% from the 2019 survey. Most people express concerns over misinformation. However, people tend to trust their preferred media more than they do the news overall, with 46% reporting that their own news source was reliable.

Globally, 60% of consumers prefer news to be politically neutral. Spain and the US were among the countries with the highest preference for news that reinforces consumers’ preexisting viewpoints. In all markets, younger age cohorts were more likely to prefer news that caters to their worldview.

Non-text options were also on the rise – podcasts and news videos on demand were gaining popularity, especially among the 18-25-year-old cohorts. Only about half of the respondents preferred to read their news in Europe, dropping to 42 percent in North America. Higher education was correlated with greater likelihood of reading news as opposed to listening to or watching it. 

This year’s 40-country survey had been completed before the pandemic had affected many of the countries, so some parts of the survey were repeated in six countries (UK, USA, Germany, Spain, South Korea and Argentina) in April to get some COVID-consequences in the survey.

Not surprisingly, television news jumped 20% points as the preferred medium during the lockdown. Traditional news sources also benefitted from a boost, as fear of misinformation sent people back to the tried and true. But these were expected to be contemporary conditions. “The crisis is likely to accelerate long-term structural changes towards more digital, more mobile, more platform-dominated media environment,” said Rasmus Kleis Nielsen in the forward. 

“Journalism matters and is in demand again,“ claims the report, “but one problem for publishers is that this extra interest is producing even less income – as advertisers brace for an inevitable recession and print revenue dips.”

Yet, the report gave cause for hope. Having demonstrated its important role during the coronavirus crisis, the public, policymakers and tech companies might be inspired to find new ways to support independent news media.