Audience Engagement Digital Publishing
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The “silent majority” want news to be neutral: Insights from Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2020

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Global concern about misinformation continues to be high, according to the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020. The report, based on surveys of 80,000 people across six continents and 40 markets, has found that 56% remain concerned about what’s true or false, with respect to news on the internet. Additionally, the majority would prefer news publishers to be neutral in their coverage. 

Domestic politicians are the single most frequently named source of misinformation (40%) and Facebook is commonly seen as the main channel for spreading it.

“Play a critical role in informing populations and shaping opinion”

38% of the respondents said in a poll undertaken in January 2020 that they “trust most news most of the time.” That represents a fall of 4 percentage points compared to 2019. The authors comment, “political polarization linked to rising uncertainty seems to have undermined trust in public broadcasters in particular.”

In recent years some populist politicians in particular have taken to undermining the media but this coronavirus pandemic has been a reminder that even weakened media play a critical role in informing populations and shaping opinion. 

Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020

Trust in the media’s coverage of COVID-19 has been relatively high worldwide, according to an April 2020 survey. Most people have said that the news media has done a good job in helping them understand the extent of the crisis (60%), and also in making clear what they can do personally to mitigate the impact (65%). 

Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020

“Reacting against a perceived increase in agenda-filled, biased, or opinion-based news”

Despite the rising concerns about fake news, and politicians being a commonly indicated source, most people (60%) still prefer news that has no particular point of view. Only 28% prefer news that shares or reinforces their views. 

Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020

Preference for news that has ‘no particular point of view’ has grown in the UK (+6) since 2013, while that which ‘shares their point of view’ has declined by a similar amount (-6). 

There has been a slight increase in partisan preferences in the US (+6) compared to 2013, but even there 60% of the respondents prefer news without a particular point of view. Moreover, partisan websites and TV brands have shown stagnant, or low traffic growth compared with other brands during the pandemic.

It is hard to be sure about the reasons, but one possibility is that a silent majority is reacting against a perceived increase in agenda-filled, biased, or opinion-based news. These themes came out strongly in comments from our survey respondents. 

Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020

“In a sense this is not surprising given that traditional expectations are that journalists should produce neutral and detached news,” the authors comment.

They add that it is consistent with earlier data which suggests, “the majority of people would like to make up their own mind rather than be told what to think by a journalist – or to feel that information was being withheld.”

This is consistent with 52% of the respondents preferring news publishers to prominently report false statements from politicians rather than not emphasize them (29%). 

In almost every market, people say that when the media has to deal with a statement from a politician that could be false, they would prefer them to ‘report the statement prominently because it is important for the public to know what the politician said’ rather than ‘not emphasise the statement because it would give the politician unwarranted attention.’ 

Richard Fletcher Senior Research Fellow, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism

“Of course, media companies should not necessarily change their practices just to meet the preferences of the audience,” suggests Fletcher. 

“These are difficult questions, and no response can satisfy everyone. We have focused on political claims here, but potentially inaccurate claims about coronavirus, for example, can have a direct human cost – and surely require a different approach.” 

He adds, “But if the way politicians and political parties use the media is fundamentally changing, then the media may have to make some changes too. No amount of data on audience preferences can tell us exactly how, but it can highlight some of the problems with simplistic solutions. 

“For example, it is sometimes said that the way to deal with politicians who lie is simply to stop reporting what they say. But no one likes to feel that things are being kept from them. So, are those who say this really describing a media environment they themselves would like to inhabit – or just one they would prefer other people to live in?” 

In reality this is not a zero-sum game. Most people like to mix news that they can trust with a range of opinions that challenge or support their existing views.

Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020

The full report can be downloaded here
Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2020