Media brands are grappling with news avoidance and mistrust. But there are reasons to be upbeat

18th June 2024

The latest Reuters Institute research shows how people interact – and don’t – with the media, says director Chris Hopper

Regular readers of the Digital News Report, conducted each year by the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford, will know that it’s been telling an increasingly complex tale about the environment media brands are operating in and how they’re responding to it.

This year the global story is in part one of mistrustful and somewhat apathetic citizens continuing to engage with media more sporadically and in ways that make it difficult for news brands to succeed commercially. Fears of misinformation, disinformation and bias appear prevalent, with only 40% of people saying they trust the news ‘most of the time’. Even putting trust aside, there’s a whole other challenge in the form of news avoidance, with 39% saying they dodge the news often or some of the time, up three percentage points versus 2023’s report.

And media brands face differing challenges from social media. Facebook, once a consistent driver of traffic to news sites, is now far less reliable. Only a quarter (26%) use Facebook for news compared with 42% in 2016. Unsurprisingly, younger consumers are increasingly likely to turn to TikTok, with 23% getting news from the platform.

In the UK the challenges are arguably even more acute. As the report outlines, Britain’s media brands have endured a brutal 12 months, with job losses (Reach, particularly across its regional titles, The Guardian, Channel 4), scale-backs (Talk TV has binned its linear Freeview channel and the Evening Standard is stopping its daily print edition) and commercial woes (The Guardian again, the Telegraph). The BBC also faces ongoing political scrutiny – but that could be any year.

Compare UK consumers to the global average, and they’re more likely to avoid news (46% vs 39%) and less likely to trust it (36% vs 40%). With a fair chunk of UK citizens dodging and mistrusting news, few pay for it online – just 8%.

Amid this tsunami of gloom, what’s the case for optimism? Let’s give it a shot.

Despite seismic shifts, the UK remains a media powerhouse. Brands like The Economist, The Guardian and BBC are held in high esteem around the globe. Mail Online is one of the world’s most read news websites. These titles are stuffed with smart people paid to figure out how to prosper in the new world order.

Domestically, UK consumers’ reluctance to pay for their news in part reflects the quality on offer for free. Almost every adult in Britain uses the BBC in any given month, while the Beeb’s TV news competitors, ITN and Sky News, offer outstanding journalism bound by Ofcom’s impartiality rules. Compare them with their partisan, talking head-heavy counterparts in the US. Plenty of other providers, from The Guardian to Reach’s national titles like the Mirror to podcasts, offer news, at least on a limited scale, without the need for a subscription too.

More broadly, considering recent context – which has taken in Brexit, five prime ministers in eight years, a pandemic and wars in Europe and the Middle East – it’s perhaps no surprise Britons have developed a habit of tuning out of the news. Though correlation is not necessarily causation, trust levels as measured by the research have also dipped in line with the turmoil of recent years. Now a general election is looming, with the prospect of a new government. Things may become quieter on the home front, giving exhausted news consumers some respite from political chaos.

A harder challenge is figuring out social media, principally Facebook’s down-weighting of news and how to engage disparate audiences, particularly younger ones, on the likes of TikTok. It’s a work in progress but more than one journalist has offered me the glass-half-full take on this: namely, that it pushes titles to ensure their content is compelling, engaging and truly multiplatform.

That’s the enterprising spirit that’s most likely to make the next Reuters Institute report a more encouraging read.

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