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66% of the audience use social networks to access news: Publishers need to “adapt to these more informal spaces”

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“One of the most striking findings in this year’s data,” according to Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2021, is that GenZ (the under-25s) are less likely to visit a news website compared with the millennials. They are “more likely to say they use social media as their main source of news.”

“Deeply networked, they have embraced new mobile networks like Instagram and TikTok for entertainment and distraction,” the authors explain, “to express their political rage – but also to tell their own stories in their own way.” 

Engaging these audiences is proving challenging for newsrooms that are mostly staffed by journalists who consume news in completely different ways.

Digital News Report 2021, Reuters Institute

“A quick and convenient way to check the news”

Overall, just 25% of consumers (across all ages) prefer starting their news journeys with a website or app. 18% of those under-35 access websites/apps directly and 34% say they are much more likely to prefer accessing news via social media.

These trends “seem to have been unaffected by COVID-19,” according to the authors. 

Younger groups are not going to abandon the platforms and aggregators, which provide a quick and convenient way to check the news. 

Digital News Report 2021, Reuters Institute

Reuters Institute has tracked the use of social networks across 12 countries for the past seven years. The countries include UK, USA, Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Ireland, Denmark, Finland, Japan, Australia and Brazil. 66% of the respondents from these countries use one or more social networks or messaging apps for consuming, sharing, or discussing news. 

Although “Facebook has become significantly less relevant in the last year,” it leads as the network where people come across news more often. However, this is mostly incidental as they do not use the platform primarily to access news.  

Source: Digital News Report 2021, Reuters Institute

It is Twitter that is used most often to intentionally access news. “Though less popular than Facebook overall, Twitter is widely used by journalists and politicians and is where the news gets broken first – attracting others with a strong interest in the news,” comments Dr Simge Andı, one of the co-authors of the report.

When I’m wondering what is going on in the world … Twitter [is] definitely like the first place I go to and usually there’s like a news story that’s breaking and I can read the news and read people’s opinions. 

Survey repondent

Relatively newer platforms like WhatsApp, Instagram, TikTok, and Telegram are getting more popular for this purpose. People also use YouTube and Snapchat for news, but the primary intent for using these networks is fun and entertainment.

“Compete with a range of voices”

Majority of the users accessing news on social media—especially Facebook and Twitter—in the US, say that they are most likely to pay attention to mainstream media and journalists. Many also like that they can find alternative perspectives on the platform.  

“I pay attention to articles from sources I trust – NY Times, Washington Post, MSNBC, and my local newspaper,” says a survey respondent. “Sometimes I read articles from lesser known sources because they often go deeper … or present a different slant on the subject.” 

These patterns are observed across most markets by the researchers.

Source: Digital News Report 2021, Reuters Institute

This also means, “news brands and journalists have to compete with a range of voices that can often be more engaging and strident,” notes Andı. These include politicians and political activists, who often use social media to bypass mainstream media. 26% of those who use Twitter for news in the US say they pay most attention to politicians when checking out news on the platform.

There has been a rise of influencers on popular social networks in the last few years. These personalities who command considerable attention on social media often have strong opinions and “have been found to be among the key distributors of misinformation about vaccines or the link with 5G networks.”

Opportunity to “play a more prominent role”

News organisations have an opportunity to “play a more prominent role on these networks and provide more credible information,” according to Andı. 

The Guardian, for example, produces the ‘Fake or for Real?’ segment on Instagram. It has a young journalist going over the week’s claims using the platform’s quiz feature. The Washington Post’s Dave Jorgenson, creates amusing spoofs linked to the news on TikTok regularly. Such strategies can help news publishers understand and engage with younger audiences more effectively.

Source: Digital News Report 2021, Reuters Institute

“Social media are a complex space for mainstream media organisations to navigate,” concludes Andı. “They have to share this space with a range of other content creators who do not have the same editorial principles and values. 

“But given the time that people spend on social networks – and the dangers of false information and political propaganda – it still seems important that journalists and news organisations find ways to adapt to these more informal spaces, especially if they want to engage people with low interest in news and young people (groups that rarely go directly to news sites or apps).”

The full report can be downloaded from Reuters Institute:
Digital News Report 2021