Principled, Paid and Partisan: The 2021 Reuters Digital News Report

It’s been a tricky time for journalism in the last year…or since 2016…or since the world went online, really. And yet, the trade soldiers on. Now in its 10th year, the Reuters Digital News Report is back with a vengeance.

You might remember that I like to cover the report every year. It’s a labour of love; a homage to the trade in which I cut my teeth as a writer. Plus, the report’s infinitely fascinating.

What is the Reuters Digital News Report?

To recap, the report studies our consumption of news, favourite channels and general attitudes towards the industry. This year’s study is the largest yet, examining 46 markets across six continents. Released every June, this one comes at a pivotal moment: the UK is on the brink of getting “back to normal”, whatever that may be.

It will be intriguing to see how next year’s results fare, bearing in mind the data were collected between January and February 2021, when:

While perhaps not all life-or-death issues, they do affect the attitudes in the report. Namely, I’ve picked out four themes, with a focus on the UK and the US for brevity:

  1. Fairness and representation
  2. Trust and avoidance
  3. Impartiality and balance
  4. The future of journalism.

No time to read the full 164 pages? Dive right in here.

Fairness and representation

A stand-out finding in this year’s report was the unfair representation of women, in particular, younger generations. Of course, this was compounded with ethnic minorities, bringing issues like the media’s treatment of the Duchess of Sussex to the fore.

Likewise, George Floyd’s murder continues to shape our views towards news reporting. However, those with right-wing views feel most unfairly represented by news outlets, with the US topping the charts at negative 59 points.

These viewpoints have a significant impact on how we consume news, too. Generation Zs, for example, are twice as likely to use social media than they are traditional channels. Meanwhile, many right-wing US citizens have “lost all interest” in the news following Joe Biden’s election.

Trust and avoidance

As ever, trust is an overarching theme in the Reuters report, and it’s no surprise to see its correlation with media representation.

In a heartening upward trend, trust in the news is up by six percentage points across all markets. Now at 44 per cent worldwide, this has been pinned on reliable reporting of the pandemic.

But the pandemic has also spurred a general news boycott among many markets. For example:

I must admit that first of all I started watching it, really engrossed in it, and then as time went on, I found it quite depressing so I just cut it off.

30-year-old female in UK focus group.

Remind you of anything? In 2019, an incredible 71 per cent of us said Brexit made us turn off.

“The Trump bump”

The world might be a less outrageous place without Trump on Twitter, but it appears he made more of an impact than previously thought. Paid news subscriptions in the US shot up in 2017, but networks such as Fox News have reported a huge fall in viewers post-Trump. Love him or hate him, the man commands attention.

Impartiality and balance

But while many of us would feel we’d trust the news more if we were accurately portrayed, we still want impartiality.

Or do we?

The report cites a surge of unregulated, partisan outlets, such as GB News. While this may have been founded to combat “liberal and metropolitan bias” of better-known outlets, it’s perhaps having the opposite effect – shifting the focus towards true impartiality.

Almost three-quarters of us believe news publishers should be impartial in their reporting.

But there are some subjects where impartiality has no place.

One UK focus group respondent said it was “OK for journalists to express opinions on things like domestic abuse”, but that they should remain impartial with politics. In another focus group, respondents were pushed for their thoughts on:

  • Racists
  • Anti-vaxxers
  • Climate-change deniers.

Younger respondents recognised the dangers of giving these views equal airtime.

“False equivalence”

This debate gives rise to the term “false equivalence”:

Creating a false impression of an alternative view when one viewpoint is supported by scientific evidence, whereas the opposing argument has none.

In fact, 83 per cent of us believe those with weaker arguments should be given an equal platform (save for the extreme topics above). Think the Queen is a lizard? Come on down.

The future of journalism

Of course, it would be remiss of me to skim over technology as we ponder the future of journalism. It’s a mixed bag for both journalists and tech manufacturers, for example:

  • Growth in podcasts has slowed due to less commuting
  • Television as a “main source of news” is up by 7 per cent in the UK
  • Influencers and alternative sources such as TikTok and Snapchat are “eclipsing journalists”
  • Multiple user subscriptions are becoming more common, such as newsletters and YouTube channels.

Faced with the continual decline of print (the Metro and Standard fell by 40 per cent thanks to transmission fears), today’s journalists must embrace a tech-forward approach.

The benefits are twofold: they’re capitalising on all generations experimenting with new channels, while they’re reaching a new cohort of subscribers: Generation Zs. The report notes that new platforms like TikTok are lost on long-established brands, putting the onus on individuals to ‘sell’ the publication.

We’ve already seen this working on Twitter, with 31 per cent of us getting our news from single journalist accounts rather than brand profiles. However, forays into ‘new’ mediums are paying off: the report cites the BBC’s Sophia Smith Galer’s ‘Suez Canal sea shanty’ going viral on TikTok.

The question for journalists

Today, there’s more emphasis on personal brand, particularly as we seek to reach new audiences. But there’s also more pressure to go cross-channel: video podcasts have taken off in a world dominated by Zoom, for example.

When we combine this with trustworthy, well-researched content, we see it paying off for a struggling industry. Today, 21 per cent of US citizens pay for some kind of news. (It’s rather a sadder story in the UK at 8 per cent, but give it time.)

The report ends with a question for journalists: what choice will they make?

  1. Continue to develop their existing audience, potentially taking a more partisan view but building trust in doing so.
  2. Try to bridge the gaps between difference of opinion with services that work for the largest number of people.

journalism magazineMy two cents

The abovementioned question poses a dilemma for traditional publishers. Do they risk tarnishing their reputation by peddling ‘weaker’ or extreme views? Or do they remain staunchly committed to their audience and their beliefs, à-la Fox News?

This lowly writer’s opinion is that the second option is a lovely idea. In principle. In reality, the world is always going to be divided, and we should embrace these differences, sparking debate rather than trying to convince someone with diametrically opposing views.

Like many survey respondents, I don’t believe this is synonymous with giving hate preachers a platform. Thank goodness the likes of Twitter are finally waking up to this – banning Trump signalled a landmark moment for the site.

We will always want facts, but we will always have our own confirmation biases. The role of journalists, as ever, is not to obscure the ugly parts. We should talk about George Floyd. We should talk about Meghan.

The key is to clarify the difference between fact and opinion.

Read the Reuters Digital News Report 2021 in full here.

Main image: Mark Jones on Flickr.
Meghan Reuters
Katie Lingo
by Katie Lingo
25th June 2021