Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Overview and key findings of the 2023 Digital News Report

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Q1c. How interested, if at all, would you say you are in news? Base: Total sample in each country-year ≈ 2000. Finland in 2015 = 1509.

These declines in news interest are reflected in lower consumption of both traditional and online media sources in most cases. The proportion that say they did not consume any news in the last week from traditional or online sources (TV, radio, print, online, or social media) has increased again this year across countries. The highest proportion of ‘disconnected’ users can be found in Japan (17%), the United States (12%), Germany and the UK (9% each). But in countries like Finland (2%) a much smaller proportion are disengaged.

Last year’s report highlighted the problem of selective news avoidance, especially with some hard-to-reach groups. Publishers have spoken openly about falling web traffic and the difficulty of engaging audiences with subjects such as the war in Ukraine and climate change.9 Our data provoked much debate about the precise nature of news avoidance and this year we have explored this further, as well as looking at what can be done to address it. In this year’s data we find continued high levels of selective avoidance (people who say they actively do it sometimes or often), with the headline rate at 36%, 7 percentage points above the figure in 2017 but two points lower than last year. It was down in the UK and Brazil but up some other countries, such as Greece, Bulgaria, and Poland.

This year, for the first time, we asked about the different ways that people avoid the news and found that around half of avoiders (53%) were trying to do so in a broad-brush or periodic way – for example, by turning off the radio when the news came on, or by scrolling past the news in social media. This group includes many younger people and those with lower levels of education.

A second group tends to avoid news by taking more specific actions. This may involve checking the news less often (52% of avoiders), for example by turning off mobile notifications, or not checking the news last thing at night, or by avoiding certain news topics (32% of avoiders) such as the war in Ukraine or news about national politics.

Proportion of news avoiders that say they do each

All markets

  • of avoiders avoid most sources. e.g. scrolling past news, changing channels when news comes on.

  • Avoidance 2

    of avoiders check sources less often. e.g. limit to certain times of day, turning off notifications, etc.

  • Avoidance 3

    of avoiders avoid some topics. e.g. topics that bring down mood or increase anxiety.

Avoidance_behaviours_2023. You said that you try to actively avoid news. Which of the following, if any, do you do? Please select all that apply. Base: Those who sometimes or often avoid the news in all markets = 33,469.

In our qualitative study this year we’ve heard more evidence about the circumstances that give rise to this selective news avoidance, even by those who are otherwise very interested. Certain news stories that are repeated excessively or are felt to be ‘emotionally draining’ are often passed over in favour of something more uplifting.

I try to avoid stories relating to the UK economy currently as it is just depressing. I’m probably choosing to read more light-hearted stories than I used to at the moment.

M, 51, UK

 

Turning my back on news is the only way I feel I can cope sometimes. I have to consciously make the effort to turn away for the sake of my own mental health.

F, 42, UK

Avoidance of the war in Ukraine is widespread

Amongst avoiders, almost four in ten (39%) said they had avoided news on the war in Ukraine, followed by national politics (38%), issues around social justice (31%), news about crime (30%), and celebrity news (28%). Selective avoidance of Ukraine news was highest in many of the countries closest to the conflict, reinforcing findings from our additional survey last year, soon after the war had begun.10

Our data may not suggest a lack of interest in Ukraine from nearby countries but rather a desire to manage time or protect mental health from the very real horrors of war. It may also be that consumers in these countries already consider themselves to be well-enough informed on Ukraine, with extensive and detailed coverage across all channels, including via social media.

Bitter political debates are another key factor driving avoidance

Comparing Finland with a politically polarised country such as the United States (see next chart) that is less affected by the war, we find a very different pattern of topic avoidance. In the United States, we find that consumers are more likely to avoid subjects such as national politics and social justice, where debates over issues such as gender, sexuality, and race have become highly politicised. By contrast, there is very little active avoidance of local news in either country.

American politics are pretty toxic these days. I find sometimes that I have to disconnect from stories that just make me angry.

F, 61, United States

For some people, bitter and divisive political debates are a reason to turn off news altogether, but for some political partisans, avoidance is often about blocking out perspectives you don’t want to hear. When splitting topic-based avoidance by political orientation, we find those on the right in the United States are five times more likely to actively avoid news about climate change than those on the left and three times more likely to avoid news about social justice issues such as gender and race. Those on the left are more likely than those on the right to avoid news about crime or business and finance.

Addressing news avoidance

Evidence that some people are turning away from important news subjects, like the war in Ukraine, national politics, and even climate change is extremely challenging for the news industry and for those who believe the news media have a critical role in informing the public as part of a healthy democracy.

Many news organisations are looking to tackle both periodic and specific avoidance in a variety of ways. Some are looking to make news more accessible for hard-to-reach groups, broadening the news agenda, commissioning more inspiring or positive news, or embracing constructive or solutions journalism that give people a sense of hope or personal agency. In our survey this year, we asked respondents about their interest in these different approaches.

At a headline level, we find that avoiders are much less interested in the latest twists and turns of the big news stories of the day (35%), compared with those that never avoid (62%). This explains why stories like Ukraine or national politics perform well with news regulars but can at the same time turn less interested users away. Selective avoiders are less interested in all types of news than non-avoiders but in relative terms they do seem to be more interested in positive or solutions-based news. Having said that, it is not clear that audiences think much about publisher definitions of terms such as positive or solutions journalism. Rather we can interpret this as an oft-stated desire for the news to be a bit less depressing and a bit easier to understand.

Generally, I want a lighter tone. It’s good for my soul and makes me less anxious.

M, 55, Germany

There are no simple solutions to what is a multifaceted story of disconnection and low engagement in a high-choice digital environment, but our data suggest that less sensationalist, less negative, and more explanatory approaches might help, especially with those who have low interest in news. Of course, what people say doesn’t always match what they do, and other research reminds us that in practice we are often drawn towards more negative and emotionally triggering news (Robertson et al. 2023).11 This may be true in the moment, but over time it seems to be leaving many people empty and less satisfied, which may be undermining our connection with and trust in the news.

Trust in the news continues on a downward path with notable exceptions

Across markets, overall trust in news (40%) and trust in the sources people use themselves (46%) are down by a further 2 percentage points this year. As in previous years, we find the highest trust levels in countries such as Finland (69%) and Portugal (58%), with lower trust levels in countries with higher degrees of political polarisation such as the United States (32%), Argentina (30%), Hungary (25%), and Greece (19%).

However, the United States has seen a 6pp increase in news trust in the last year as politics has become a bit less divisive under Joe Biden’s presidency. Meanwhile, trust in Greece is now the lowest in our survey amid heated discussions about press freedom and a wiretapping scandal involving prominent politicians, businessmen, and journalists.

Germany has also seen a significant fall in trust in the news (-7pp) in the wake of a new government, concerns about energy security, and the war in Ukraine, though a closer examination shows the number essentially returning to pre-COVID-19 levels. Indeed, through the rear-view mirror, the COVID-19 trust bump is clearly visible in the following chart, though the direction of travel afterwards has been mixed. In some cases (e.g. Finland), the trust increase has been maintained, while in others the upturn looks more like a blip in a story of continued long-term decline. As always, it is important to underline that our data are based on people’s perceptions of how trustworthy the media, or individual news brands, are. These scores are aggregates of subjective opinions, not an objective measure of underlying trustworthiness, and changes are often at least as much about political and social factors as narrowly about the news itself.

Media criticism and its impact on trust

One potential contributing factor to low trust has been widespread and forthright criticism of the news media from a range of different sources. Digital and social media have provided much-needed accountability for news media, with articles and commentaries scrutinised for accuracy, hypocrisy, and bias. But other criticisms are less fair, coloured by political agendas and often forthrightly expressed by activists or special interest groups. Political polarisation hasn’t helped, and many of our country pages carry examples of verbal abuse, coordinated harassment of individual journalists and independent media, and, in some cases, physical attacks against journalists. Looking across our entire dataset, we find a correlation between low trust and media criticism. Some of the highest reported levels of media criticism are found in countries with highest levels of distrust, such as Greece, the Philippines, the United States, France, and the United Kingdom. The lowest levels of media criticism are often in those with higher levels of trust, such as Finland, Norway, Denmark, and Japan.

On average, politicians are most often cited by respondents for their criticisms of the media, followed by ordinary people. This is particularly the case in the United States (58%), where some leading politicians regularly deploy phrases like ‘fake news media’ to deflect accountability reporting and mobilise loyalists. Commentators on politically polarised cable TV outlets also routinely attack other news organisations with media-critical segments.

Politicians and activists are seen as a main source of media criticism in the Philippines (46%), where journalists critical of the government are routinely branded communists or terrorists. In Mexico, President López Obrador, known as AMLO, carries a section in his morning news conferences where he routinely exposes so-called ‘fake stories’ published by the mainstream press.

In terms of where people see or hear media criticism, we find social media (49%) cited most often, followed by chats with people offline (36%) and then other media outlets (35%) such as television and radio. The bad-mouthing of journalists is not new, but attacks can now be amplified more quickly than ever before through a variety of digital and social channels in ways that are often closely coordinated, sometimes paid for, and lacking in transparency. Media criticism has become a key part of the political playbook, a way to deflect criticism and intimidate investigations – and these tactics often land on fertile ground.

Journalists and activists call for justice and protection of media workers during an indignation rally following the killing of Filipino radio journalist Percival Mabasa, in Quezon City, Philippines, October 4, 2022. Mabasa, 63, was killed by two assailants at the gate of a residential compound in the Las Pinas area of Manila on October 3, 2022. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez
Journalists call for justice during a rally following the killing of Filipino radio journalist Percival Mabasa, in Quezon City, Philippines. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

Public service news media under pressure

In recent years, public service media (PSM) have been one of the objects of media criticism, often from politicians, activists, and alternative media on the right, but also from commercial media who feel they provide unfair competition in the digital world. Increasingly polarised debates have made it harder to deliver news services that are seen to be impartial by all parts of society, while falling reach for traditional broadcast services has increased pressure on funding models whose justification is the provision of universal services.

In the last year, Austria’s public broadcaster, ORF, has been ordered to cut over €300m by 2026 as the government looks set to change its funding model. In the UK, the BBC has merged its global and national 24-hour news channels after a licence fee freeze and has faced a new crisis over impartiality. A corruption scandal in Germany has undermined confidence in public media there, and the Swiss public broadcaster, SRG SSR, is due to face a new referendum which will propose major funding reductions. Against this background, we wanted to get a sense of how important audiences still feel public media news is for them and for society. We have focused on around 20 public media organisations in Western Europe and Asia-Pacific that are generally seen as being relatively independent of government.

In almost every country covered, more people say public service media are important than unimportant. It is little surprise that the perceived importance is highest in Nordic countries, small territories with a unique language and culture to protect, and public service media that many observers regard as among the best at delivering on their remit in a changing media environment. Public news broadcasters are seen as less important in Southern Europe, though their importance to society is rated a few points higher in every country.

Our research suggests that the experience of using public service media is a powerful driver of how important people think they are. Independent public media are still often the first port of call for all age groups when looking for reliable news around stories such as the Ukraine conflict or COVID-19 but in almost all cases online reach is still much lower than that achieved through television and radio. In Germany and the UK, younger audiences are less likely than older ones to use public broadcasters and this is reflected in our scores around importance. In Germany, over-55s find news from public service media (ARD and ZDF) much more important than all other age groups. In the UK this sense of importance is a bit more evenly spread across age groups.

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We find similar gaps elsewhere, with a weaker sense of importance among those with lower levels of education, despite an explicit remit around providing for underserved audiences. Those who self-identify on the political right are also, in most cases, much less inclined to rate public media important compared with those on the left – making it easier for opponents to make the case that these organisations are part of a ‘liberal elite’.

Further detailed analysis, where we also control for usage, suggests that education and political orientation remain significant predictors of people’s perception of public service media news, but this is not the case with age. These findings suggest that lower perceived importance of public service media among younger people is related more to the fact that many younger people have grown up preferring digital and social media, and have little or no experience of using these services. This underlines how important it is for their long-term legitimacy that public service media find better ways to reach young people with relevant content and formats.

The growing importance of multimedia formats in online news

This year we asked respondents about their preferences for text, audio and video when consuming news online. On average, we find that the majority still prefer to read the news (57%), rather than watch (30%) or listen to it (13%), but younger people (under-35s) are more likely to listen (17%) than older groups. In the past, young and old have told us that they find reading the quickest and easiest way to access information, but the opportunity to multitask by listening to news seems to be particularly appealing to those brought up with smartphones and headphones.

Behind the averages we find significant and surprising country differences. In markets with a strong reading tradition, such as Finland and the United Kingdom, around eight in ten still prefer to read online news, but in India and Thailand, around four in ten (40%) say they prefer to watch news online, and in the Philippines that proportion is over half (52%). It is worth bearing in mind that less representative samples in these countries may be a factor in these differences.

In many Asian countries, populations tend to be younger, mobile data tend to be relatively cheap, and video news is widely available via platforms such as YouTube and TikTok. In Thailand, for example, greater opportunities for freedom of expression online have led to the creation of a spate of independent TV-style online shows that are widely consumed on mobile phones.

But even in countries with strong reading preferences, we find different patterns with younger generations. In the UK, a majority of 18–24s still prefer text, but they are much less likely to want to read online news compared with older groups, and have a stronger preference to watch as well as listen, suggesting future online news habits may look very different in the next decade.

Video consumption has been growing across markets

Overall, we find that weekly consumption maps strongly onto these underlying preferences. In Kenya (97%), the Philippines (94%), and Thailand (91%), for example, respondents are twice as likely to consume news video weekly as those in the UK (46%) or Germany (45%).

Across all markets, almost two-thirds (62%) consumed video via social media in the previous week and just 28% when browsing a news website or app. Facebook and YouTube remain the biggest outlets for online video, but with under-35s TikTok is now not far behind.

Younger groups consume disproportionately more news video via social networks, but are less likely to access video via news websites or apps. The next chart illustrates how 18–24s have leaned into social media consumption in the last few years, a period that has coincided with the rise of short TikTok videos, Instagram Reels, and YouTube Shorts.

Podcast reach remains stable with a loyal audience

Audio news consumption has been growing in recent years driven by changing underlying audience preferences, higher quality content, and better monetisation. Publishers have been investing in podcasts because they are relatively low cost, help build loyal relationships, and are good at attracting younger audiences. Public broadcasters and leading newspaper publishers such as the New York Times and Schibsted in the Nordic region have invested in original shows – as well as building their own platforms for distribution. Overall, our data show that around a third (34%) access a podcast monthly across a basket of 20 countries where the term podcast is well understood. Around a third of these (12%) access a news podcast regularly, with the strongest growth in the United States and Australia. Just under a third (29%) say they have spent more time listening to podcasts this year, with 19% saying they have listened less.

News makes up a relatively small proportion of podcasts in most markets, but plays a bigger role in the United States (19%). By contrast, only around 8% listen to news podcasts monthly in the UK. This year, we asked respondents in 12 countries to tell us which news podcasts they listened to, using an open survey field, and this has enabled us to build a good picture of the different types as well as their relative popularity.

In the United States, we find the New York Times explanatory podcast The Daily to be the most widely listened-to show, and the format has been widely copied around the world. The Danish equivalent, Genstart, was mentioned by 24% of news podcast listeners there, with public broadcaster DR accounting for over half of all named podcasts – and it is a similar story in Norway. In other countries, however, there are no clear winners, with a large number of podcasts each attracting a relatively small audience.

Extended talk formats such as The Joe Rogan Experience, which is exclusive to Spotify, are also popular with news podcast users across the world, even though shows can last up to several hours. In the UK, the BBC’s Newscast faces stiff competition from Global Radio’s The News Agents and political talk show The Rest Is Politics. The production of podcasts is also becoming more complex, we find, with many shows now filmed to enable wider distribution via video platforms such as YouTube, as well as more impactful promotion via social media.

Conclusions

While some individual news brands have been very successful at building online reach or even convincing people to subscribe, this year’s data show how fragile these advances are in the face of economic and political uncertainty, fragmenting audiences, and a new wave of platform disruption. Even as a few winners are doing well in a challenging environment, many publishers are struggling to convince people that their news is worth paying attention to, let alone paying for.

In the short term, growth is severely challenged by the combined impact of rising costs and falling revenues, as well as increasingly unpredictable traffic from legacy social networks like Facebook and Twitter. In the longer term, our data suggest that significant shifts in audience behaviour, driven by younger demographics, are likely to kick in, including a preference for more accessible, informal, and entertaining news formats, often delivered by influencers rather than journalists, and consumed within platforms like YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok. Visual and audio formats won’t replace text online, but they are set to become a more important part of the mix over the next decade. But across formats, we still see the convenience and aggregating power of platforms trumping direct access, even if some smaller countries with strong publishers and high levels of trust have been able to buck these trends.

With an abundance of channels and options now available to consumers, it’s perhaps not surprising that we find that news consumers are increasingly overwhelmed and confused, with many turning away temporarily or permanently. Selective news avoidance and news fatigue has been exacerbated by the tough times that we are living through. The ‘public connection’ between journalism and much of the audience continues to fray.

In this context it’s clear that most consumers are looking not for more news, but news that feels more relevant, and helps them make sense of the complex issues facing us all. New technological disruption from Artificial Intelligence (AI) is just around the corner, threatening to release a further wave of personalised, but potentially unreliable content.

Against this background, it will be more important than ever for journalism to stand out in terms of its accuracy, its utility, and its humanity. We can see from our data this year that audiences are ambivalent about algorithms but they are still not convinced that journalists and news organisations can do any better in curating or summarising the most important developments. The challenge ahead is, more than ever, about restoring relevance and trust through meeting the needs of specific audiences. Building relationships and communities won’t be all about pushing people to websites and apps, even though that remains important for business models, but it will also mean reaching out through other platforms and channels with trusted information that provides real value to consumers – in return for attribution and hopefully financial return.

The war in Ukraine and the consequent economic shocks have encouraged publishers to further accelerate their transition to digital, embracing new business models, different types of storytelling, and new forms of distribution too. There will be many different paths but innovation, flexibility, and a relentless audience focus will be some of the key ingredients for success.

Footnotes

1 According to the online measurement site Parse.ly, which tracked aggregate data on referral traffic based on publishers in their network.

5 In 2021 we only gave respondents one option but in 2023 we allowed multiple options to be selected so the data are not directly comparable.

8 6.3m news subscribers in 4th quarter of 2022. See here.

9 72% of industry executives said they were worried or very worried about avoidance in Journalism and Technology Predictions 2023 (Newman 2023).

11 Negativity drives online news consumption (Robertson et al. 2023).

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