By Nic Newman, Senior Research Associate, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
More than a year after it began, the Coronavirus pandemic continues to cast a dark cloud over the health of our communities – as well as that of the news industry. The crisis – complete with lockdowns and other restrictions – has hastened the demise of printed newspapers, further impacting the bottom line for many once proud and independent media companies. Our country pages this year are full of stories of journalistic lay-offs as advertisers take fright in the face of a global economic downturn. New business models such as subscription and membership have been accelerated by the crisis, as we document in this year’s report. But in most cases, this has still not come anywhere near making up for lost income elsewhere.
And yet, this crisis has also shown the value of accurate and reliable information at a time when lives are at stake. In many countries we see audiences turning to trusted brands – in addition to ascribing a greater confidence in the media in general. The gap between the ‘best and the rest’ has grown, as has the trust gap between the news media and social media. Of course, these trends are not universal and this year’s report also exposes worrying inequalities in both consumption and trust – with the young, women, people from ethnic minorities, and political partisans often feeling less fairly represented by the media.
The Capitol Hill riot in the United States and the global spread of false information and conspiracy theories about Coronavirus have further focused minds on where people are getting their news, which is why we have undertaken detailed research this year on understanding the role of different social networks for news and the complex ways in which they are being used to spread misleading and false information around the world.
This tenth edition of our Digital News Report, based on data from six continents and 46 markets, aims to cast light on the key issues that face the industry at a time of deep uncertainty and rapid change. Our more global sample, which includes India, Indonesia, Thailand, Nigeria, Colombia, and Peru for the first time, provides a deeper understanding of how differently the news environment operates outside the United States and Europe and we have tried to find new ways to reflect this, whilst recognising that differences in internet penetration and education will make some comparisons less meaningful.
Summary of findings
A summary of some of the most important findings from our 2021 research:
Trust in the news has grown, on average, by six percentage points in the wake of the Coronavirus pandemic – with 44% of our total sample saying they trust most news most of the time. This reverses, to some extent, recent falls in average trust – bringing levels back to those of 2018. Finland remains the country with the highest levels of overall trust (65%), and the USA now has the lowest levels (29%) in our survey.
- At the same time, trust in news from search and social has remained broadly stable. This means that the trust gap between the news in general and that found in aggregated environments has grown – with audiences seemingly placing a greater premium on accurate and reliable news sources.
- In a number of countries, especially those with strong and independent public service media, we have seen greater consumption of trusted news brands. The pattern is less clear outside Western Europe, in countries where the Coronavirus crisis has dominated the media agenda less, or where other political and social issues have played a bigger role.
Television news has continued to perform strongly in some countries, but print newspapers have seen a further sharp decline almost everywhere as lockdowns impacted physical distribution, accelerating the shift towards mostly digital future.
- While many remain very engaged, we find signs that others are turning away from the news media and in some cases avoiding news altogether. Interest in news has fallen sharply in the United States following the election of President Biden – especially with right-leaning groups.
- Elsewhere, we find that the media are seen to be representing young people (especially young women), political partisans, and – at least in the US – people from minority ethnic groups less fairly. These findings will give added urgency to those who are arguing for more diverse and inclusive newsrooms.
- Despite more options to read and watch partisan news, the majority of our respondents (74%) say they still prefer news that reflects a range of views and lets them decide what to think. Most also think that news outlets should try to be neutral on every issue (66%), though some younger groups think that ‘impartiality’ may not be appropriate or desirable in some cases – for example, on social justice issues.
The use of social media for news remains strong, especially with younger people and those with lower levels of education. Messaging apps like WhatsApp and Telegram have become especially popular in the Global South, creating most concern when it comes to spreading misinformation about Coronavirus.
Global concerns about false and misleading information have edged slightly higher, this year, ranging from 82% in Brazil to just 37% in Germany. Those who use social media are more likely to say they have been exposed to misinformation about Coronavirus than non-users. Facebook is seen as the main channel for spreading false information almost everywhere but messaging apps like WhatsApp are seen as a bigger problem in parts of the Global South such as Brazil and Indonesia.
- Our data suggest that mainstream news brands and journalists attract most attention around news in both Facebook and Twitter but are eclipsed by influencers and alternative sources in networks like TikTok, Snapchat, and Instagram. TikTok now reaches a quarter (24%) of under-35s, with 7% using the platform for news – and a higher penetration in parts of Latin America and Asia.
- We have seen significant increases in payment for online news in a small number of richer Western countries, but the overall percentage of people paying for online news remains low. Across 20 countries where publishers have been pushing for more online payment, 17% have paid for any online news in the last year – up two percentage points. Norway continues to lead the way with 45% (+3) followed by Sweden (30%), the United States (21%), Finland (20%), the Netherlands (17%), and Switzerland (17%). There has been less progress in France (11%), Germany (9%), and the United Kingdom (8%).
- In most countries a large proportion of digital subscriptions go to just a few big national brands – reinforcing the winner takes most dynamics that we have reported in the past. But in the United States and Norway we do find that up to half of those paying are now taking out additional subscriptions – often to local or regional newspaper brands.
- More widely, though, we find that the value of traditional local and regional news media is increasingly confined to a small number of subjects such as local politics and crime. Other internet sites and search engines are considered best for a range of other local information including weather, housing, jobs, and ‘things to do’ that used to be part of what local news media bundled together.
Access to news continues to become more distributed. Across all markets, just a quarter (25%) prefer to start their news journeys with a website or app. Those aged 18–24 (so-called Generation Z) have an even weaker connection with websites and apps and are almost twice as likely to prefer to access news via social media, aggregators, or mobile alerts.
- While mobile aggregators play a relatively small part in the media eco-system of Western countries, they have a powerful position in many Asian markets. In India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Thailand a range of human- and AI-powered apps like Daily Hunt, Smart News, Naver, and Line Today are playing an important new role in news discovery.
- More widely, the use of smartphone for news (73%) has grown at its fastest rate for many years, with dependence also growing through Coronavirus lockdowns. Use of laptop and desktop computers and tablets for news is stable or falling, while the penetration of smart speakers remains limited in most countries – especially for news.
- Growth in podcasts has slowed, in part due to the impact of restrictions on movement. This is despite some high-profile news launches and more investment via tech platforms. Our data show Spotify continuing to gain ground over Apple and Google podcasts in a number of countries and YouTube also benefiting from the popularity of video-based and hybrid podcasts.