Reuters grim warning - trust on the wane as 'platform power' undermines traditional media in a 'Fake News' world

Profile picture for user cmiddleton By Chris Middleton June 24, 2019
Summary:
A grim assessment via Reuters Digital News report.

information

Many of us have given up on reading the news, according to Reuters’ annual Digital News Report, the latest edition of which presents statistical evidence of helplessness and mistrust among consumers – feelings reinforced by their technology choices and usage habits.

According to Reuters, nearly one-third of people (32%) now actively avoid the news, up six percentage points from 2018. In the UK, numbers abandoning the news have spiked 11% year on year to 35%, driven by “boredom, anger, or sadness over Brexit”. People click past the news because it has a negative effect on their mood (58%) or because they feel powerless to change events, says the report.

Reuters’ 156-page exploration of how people consume the news is based on a survey of 75,000 people in 38 countries across North America, Europe, Latin America, and Asia – not including China and India. The report also covers South Africa for the first time, but neglects the rest of the African continent. With such large omissions as these the 2019 edition can hardly be considered global, but it remains “the most comprehensive ongoing comparative study of news consumption in the world”, claims Reuters.

This year’s edition is published as populism is on the march in many countries, “inherited business models” continue to be disrupted, digital media usage is evolving, and we are bombarded by reports of untrustworthy news sources, troll farms, bots, and malicious intent by foreign powers.

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the breaking apart of legacy structures has given rise to widespread distrust, including of institutions that once stood tall in the media landscape like the monoliths in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Now we are all like the frustrated apes in Kubrick’s movie, learning to use new tools and tossing our mobiles into the air in frustration.

Trust 

Trust in news outlets is falling throughout the world, finds the report. Across all countries, the average level of trust is down two percentage points to 42%, while less than half of consumers (49%) trust media that they themselves use. Meanwhile, trust in news sourced via search and social media remains stable, but extremely low at just 23%.

In the US, media trust levels have remained stable at 32%, but this hides a “much richer and more dramatic story”, says Reuters:

Digging into the detail, we find an increase in trust (+18 percentage points) amongst those who self-identify on the left of the political spectrum as they lent their support to liberal media outlets in the wake of Donald Trump’s victory. Over the same period, we have seen the almost total collapse of trust on the right to just nine percent.

So, what is going on in technology terms? The smartphone continues to grow in importance as a news platform, with two-thirds of consumers now using their devices to access news weekly, up four percent year on year.

In the UK, the smartphone has become the “main first gateway” to news (28%), overtaking TV (27%). Forty-three percent of the UK populace go to a news website or app first when using a smartphone. Mobile news aggregators are a more potent force than ever before: for example, Apple News now reaches more iPhone users (27%) in the US than the Washington Post (23%).

However, one of the report’s most challenging findings is that under 35s seem to have little interest in dedicated news sites or apps. Almost half of younger adults begin their daily mobile journeys with social media (44%), with just one-third going direct to a news source (34%).

Overall, the proportion of all consumers going direct to a news source is down five percent from 2016. In the US, only 20% of people go straight to a news app, down from 23% in 2016. Among under-35s, just 13% go direct, with over half (54%) preferring to visit social media.

Young people’s time online is largely focused on communicating with each other and using social platforms, says the report. This shows the “importance of finding ways to bring at least some news to social platforms if younger groups are to be engaged”.

The impression, then, is of consumers throughout the world abandoning loyalty to single news sources and picking up snippets of free information on the move – yet trusting little of what they read. In short, whatever story flashes brightest attracts our weary eyeballs for a few seconds. In such a market, suggests Reuters, canny publishers zero in on depth and quality in order to ride out the disruption and hang onto their reputations – but attracting younger readers remains a challenge even for them.

The report adds:

People with higher levels of formal education are more likely to evaluate the news media positively along every dimension than the rest of the population, suggesting that the news agenda is more geared towards the interests and needs of the more educated.

People with populist attitudes are more likely to identify television as their main source of news, more likely to rely on Facebook for online news, and less likely to trust the news media overall.

Platform power

Amid all this change, some are beginning to question whether news media are still fulfilling their mission of holding powerful people to account and helping readers understand the world around them, says the report. Indeed, some populists appear to believe that holding leaders to account almost amounts to treachery, and that understanding the world can only be achieved through a filter of unalloyed patriotism and faith: a desperate state of affairs.

The report continues:

Platform power – and the ruthless efficiency of their advertising operations – has undermined news business models. [...] Political polarisation has encouraged the growth of partisan agendas online, which together with clickbait and various forms of misinformation is helping to further undermine trust in media – raising new questions about how to deliver balanced and fair reporting in the digital age.

In this context, many organisations are attempting a pivot to paid relationships with their readers, but few have worked out a sustainable business model for doing so, says Reuters:

Despite the efforts of the news industry, there has only been a small increase in the numbers paying for online news – whether by subscription, membership, or donations. Growth is limited to a handful of countries, mainly in the Nordic region (Norway 34%, Sweden 27%), while the number paying in the US (16%) remains stable after a big jump in 2017.

Even in countries with higher levels of payment, the vast majority only have one online subscription – suggesting that ‘winner takes all’ dynamics are likely to be important. One encouraging development, though, is that most payments are now ‘ongoing’, rather than one-offs.

However, in some countries ‘subscription fatigue’ may be setting in, cautions the report, with a majority of people preferring to spend their limited budgets on entertainment platforms, such as Netflix and Spotify, rather than news.

With many now seeing news as a ‘chore’, publishers may struggle to increase the market for high-priced, single-title subscriptions when most consumers want frictionless access to multiple brands. The fear is that any increased friction could “put people off news entirely, especially those who are already under-engaged,” says the report.

Meanwhile, platforms are rethinking their responsibilities in the face of regulatory threats and catastrophic events such as the Christchurch attacks, with Facebook rebalancing its business towards messaging apps and groups – a so-called ‘pivot to private’.

Indeed, social communication around news is becoming increasingly private as messaging apps continue to grow. For example, WhatsApp has become a primary network for discussing and sharing news in non-Western countries, such as Brazil (53%), Malaysia (50%), and South Africa (49%), the report says:

People in these countries are also far more likely than in the West to be part of large WhatsApp groups with people they don’t know – a trend that reflects how messaging applications can be used to easily share information at scale, potentially encouraging the spread of misinformation.

Public and private Facebook Groups discussing news and politics have become popular in Turkey (29%) and Brazil (22%), but are much less used in Western countries such as Canada (seven percent) or Australia (seven percent).

Overall, concern about misinformation and disinformation remains high – despite efforts by platforms and publishers to build public confidence. In Brazil, for example, 85% said they are worried about what is real and fake on the internet. Concern is also high in the UK (70%) and US (67%), but much lower in Germany (38%) and the Netherlands (31%).

In a world of spin, pivoting typifies the 2019 media landscape, with a further “pivot to audio” as podcasts boom in popularity, giving consumers a form of passive news consumption that they can actively buy into and control. The growth of smartphones has helped to drive this trend, especially among the young. More than one-third of respondents said they have consumed at least one podcast over the last month, but this rises to 50% for those under 35.

Other technologies are booming too. The use of voice-activated smart speakers, such as the Amazon Echo and Google Home devices, continues to grow, says Reuters: usage has risen from nine to 12% year on year in the US, and from seven to 14% in the UK. However, news access from digital-assistant-powered speakers – surprisingly – remains low across all markets.

My take

This year’s report finds the news industry at a crossroads, says Reuters – but anyone on this side of the media fence would say it has been at a crossroads since the 1990s, when the wholesale shift away from an analog/broadcast model to a digital world of peer-to-peer sharing began in earnest.

Publishers are working hard to distinguish high-quality signal from the noise that is widespread online – and many are exploring different ways to make people to pay for those services. However, there is “no sign that the majority of people are about to pay for online news”, although many recognise that information on the internet is often overwhelming and confusing, says the report:

Younger audiences in particular don’t want to give up instant, frictionless (and ideally free) access to range of diverse voices and opinions. They don’t want to go back to how the media used to be.

The challenge, then, is this: the combination of mobility and the networked world has encouraged all of us to come out of our silos, which speaker after speaker at digital events suggests is a good thing. But abandoning silos can mean living in a world of surface noise, in which content is valued by the speed at which it moves, rather than by its depth or veracity.

In this new world, trying to grab the consumer – even for a few seconds – encourage their loyalty, and persuade them to part with their cash is like trying to catch lightning in a bottle. We don't just want something for nothing, we want an infinite line of somethings, we want them now, and we don’t want anything getting in our way. Whether that sounds like a culture that’s maturing is another matter.