Reuters Institute News Digital Report 2019: news’ consumption in times of political polarisation

posted on 25 June, 2019   (public)

While tech giants are forced to face more responsibilities and on-demand formats are becoming the new business model, concerns arise about quality journalism, for the benefit of more trusted news brands and radio podcasts

The new edition of the annual Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2019* reveals the impact of the rise of political polarisation and populism in news consumption. In general, despite the high popularity of television and online social networks, the level of trust on news media is decreasing dangerously, and mistrust is even greater on the part of people with populist attitudes.

The report observes a trend to question the role of the media, perceived as reliable for breaking news but not when it comes to explaining the news or holding rich and powerful people to account. Some crises, like the Yellow Vests in France, have seriously increased the consumers’ feeling of a lack of impartiality and independence of the media (-11% in the level of trust).

In this environment, new formats and new concepts seem to emerge as sort of winner, such as “slow news” and radio podcasts (the “pivot to audio”), both representing better quality content and “on-demand” formats.

The report also reveals the following key points:

  • There is a will to rely on trustable and serious publishers and traditional “trusted” brands benefit from the increase of concerns regarding information disorders. Concerns about the sustainability of high quality journalism are of high relevance for some governments, some of them studying the question of public funding for journalism, in order to preserve quality and independence.
  • To preserve quality content, more and more publishers turn to pay business models. While the report shows that users are ready to pay to access content, it also shows that the “subscription fatigue” leads usually to a single online subscription in favour of entertainment such as Netflix and big national brand news only. In consequence, news under “paywall” become increasingly difficult to access, which can raise the question of the accessibility of news in a democratic system.
  • The winners of the 2019 trends are smartphones and mobile aggregators, such as Google News or Apple news, as essential actors of news consumption. However, like often observed in a digital disruption, traditional media seem not very keen to join the world of technology giants. Nevertheless, users are showing interest in accessing multiple brands at the same time and the traditional ecosystem based on advertising revenues is running out of steam. Therefore, the question is now: can publishers use the new platform services “in ways that are mutually beneficial and deliver sustainable returns?"
  • Ineluctably, the question of the responsibility of social media is mentioned in this report. Facebook algorithm’s change following the various “scandals” has led to a decrease of Facebook use for news (still however the most popular social network) in favour of more “private” networks like Whatsapp and Instagram, a favourable ground for information disorders. Still low in most of European countries, using messaging app for news is a trend well established in countries like Brazil or Turkey. Young people, in particular, spend a lot of time on social media, which tends to make social networks an essential platform to catch young people's interest about news. This raises in turn the question of the limits of providers' responsibilities and these limits are currently being challenged in several countries (as a reaction Facebook changed its algorithms and invested in fact-checking service).

Whereas  68% across all countries say that they prefer to consume news in text (rather than in video on platforms), there is an increase in people voluntary avoiding the news, claiming that it makes them sad and affects their mood, especially in the UK as a result of Brexit.

The conclusions of the report raise the question how far media providers can go “to satisfy a readership that no longer splits easily along traditional lines” and how traditional media can respond to these new challenges.

* Based on online questionnaires with samples of around 2,000 persons in each country with different ages, genders, regions and education. The report includes data from countries in Americas, Asia pacific, Africa and Europe (Norway, Turkey, Switzerland and EU members except Cyprus, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta and Slovenia).

Three broadcasting regulatory authorities are partners of this project: the BAI (IE), Ofcom (UK) and the Dutch Media Authority (CvdM - NL). More detailed reports for Ireland and for the Netherlands are available on the Irish and Dutch regulators' websites. In the UK, where web tracking and in-depth interviews were also included in the research, Ofcom's report is to be published in September 2019.

Sources: Reuters Institute, BAI Ireland and CvdM Netherlands