The Reuters Digital News Report 2017 busts some myths and maps a fast-changing digital media landscape. The conclusion: algorithms now hold all the power, not journalists.
Few sectors have been disrupted by new technology as comprehensively as news organisations have this century. Allegations of fake news and political bias pushed by AI and machine-learning algorithms are rife on both sides of the political divide, while many readers now rely as much on social shares, WhatsApp, and Twitter to find out about world events as they do on established brands employing teams of expert reporters.
Throughout the media world, people are consuming more information, more often, on more platforms/channels than ever before, but they trust news sources less and – in some cases – read little more than the headline findings.
The social allure of memes and sensationalist stories must pose a risk for those organisations whose prime focus is editorial depth, quality, and voice, where avoiding the clickbait culture that is flattening the media landscape around them is essential for brand maintenance and trust.
The Reuters Institute knows more about all these challenges than most, and it has produced new research – The Digital News Report 2017 – on the impact of new technology on news gathering, dissemination, and consumption worldwide.
Just as allegations of fakery and bias proliferate, some received information about the media sector itself is inaccurate, suggests Reuters. Its research shows that growth in the use of social media for sharing the news is faltering in many markets, as private messaging apps that tend not to filter content algorithmically are becoming more popular – the same apps of which some governments are highly critical.
“It is striking that, outside the United States and United Kingdom, growth in the use of social media for news seems to be flattening out,” says Reuters. “In most countries, growth has stopped and we have seen significant declines in Portugal (-4 percentage points), Italy (-5), Australia (-6), and Brazil (-6).
“The use of WhatsApp for news is starting to rival Facebook in a number of markets including Malaysia (51%), Brazil (46%), and Spain (32%).”
But are social platforms any better at filtering out perceived bias? Quite the opposite, says the report.
“Only a quarter (24%) of our respondents think social media do a good job in separating fact from fiction, compared to 40% for the news media. Our qualitative data suggest that users feel the combination of a lack of rules and viral algorithms are encouraging low quality and ‘fake news’ to spread quickly.”
There are wide variations in public trust across the 36 countries surveyed. The proportion that say they trust the news is highest in Finland (62%), and lowest in Greece and South Korea (just 23%). But despite these regional variations, it’s clear that trust overall is low.
“In most countries, we find a strong connection between distrust in the media and perceived political bias. This is particularly true in countries with high levels of political polarisation, like the United States, Italy, and Hungary,” continues Reuters.
“Almost a third of our sample (29%) say they often or sometimes avoid the news. For many, this is because it can have a negative effect on mood. For others, it is because they can’t rely on news to be true.”
This year’s report comes amid “intense soul-searching in the news industry about fake news, failing business models, and the power of platforms”, concludes Reuters. “[Meanwhile] mobile marches on, outstripping computer access for news in an increasing number of countries”.
According to the report, mobile news notifications have grown significantly in the last year, especially in the US (+8 percentage points), South Korea (+7), and Australia (+4), becoming an important new route to content and giving a new lease of life to news apps.
In a related development, there has been significant growth in mobile news aggregators, notably Apple News, but also Snapchat Discover for younger audiences. Both have doubled usage with their target groups in the last year.
This pushes researchers towards a startling conclusion: more people now discover news through algorithms than through human editors.
But does this amplify the social ‘echo chamber’ and create more polarised – even extreme – views, as many people believe? Not necessarily, cautions Reuters. “This year we have new evidence that, far from restricting content, algorithms are exposing most users to a greater range of online sources. Users of search, social media, and online aggregation services are significantly more likely to see sources they would not normally use.”
Nevertheless, we tend follow politicians we agree with, and avoid listening to those we don’t, says Reuters.
In a sample of six countries (US, UK, Ireland, Germany, Spain, and Australia), researchers found that over one-third of social media users (37%) followed at least one politician or political party. “Across countries, people who do follow politicians are most likely to follow a politician or party of the left (20%), followed by the centre (16%), while those on the right tend to get less attention (12%).”
In short, more socially engaged citizens in the real world tend to be the most socially engaged in the virtual. This may go some way towards explaining the recent UK Election results, which found many people – especially young adults – becoming immune to the once-powerful narratives pushed by traditional print tabloids and their online versions.
Plus, it’s fair to say that some governments – most notably the UK’s – are perceived to be anti technology, anti online freedom, and pro surveillance, messages that play badly with millennial voters.
If social media are reaching saturation point for news publishing, the same is also true for smartphones – at least in developed markets. In most countries, the weekly reach for news is at a similar level to last year or falling, although Reuters has (again) seen increases in the US (55%) and UK (49%), which are increasingly seen as anomalies.
This may be partly due to resistance against the current governments in both countries being played out on social platforms and mobile devices, against mainstream reporting that other research has shown to be biased against opposition parties. Take this UK report by the London School of Economics (LSE) into media coverage of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, for example.
Smartphones are now just as important for news inside the home as outside, continues Reuters. “More smartphone users now access news in bed (46%) than use the device when commuting to work. Voice-activated digital assistants like the Amazon Echo are emerging as a new platform for news, already outstripping smart watches in the US and UK.”
In the UK, this is good news for organisations such as the Daily Mail, which established a bridgehead to Alexa almost immediately, while other UK news organisations are still deciding whether voice- and audio-driven AI systems might be ‘a channel too far’ for their content.
In terms of online news subscriptions, a substantial “Trump bump” has been noticeable in the US (from nine to 16%), according to Reuters, along with a tripling of news donations. “Most of those new payments have come from the young – a powerful corrective to the idea that young people are not prepared to pay for online media, let alone news.”
That said, only around one in ten people (13%) overall pay for online news in the countries surveyed.
Among the more surprising findings is that ad-blocking growth has stalled on desktops (at 21% of users) and remains low on smartphones (at seven per cent). Over half of the survey’s respondents say they have temporarily disabled their ad-blocker for news in countries such as Poland (57%), Denmark (57%), and the United States (52%).
Yet there are further challenges ahead for major news organisations, suggests Reuters, despite the reduced threat to their revenues.
“We have new evidence that news brands may be struggling to cut through on distributed platforms,” says the report. “In an experiment tracking more than 2,000 respondents in the UK, we found that while most could remember the path through which they found a news story (Facebook, Google, etc.), less than half could recall the name of the news brand itself when coming from search (37%) and social (47%).”
Again, this must constitute a threat to the many news organisations for whom brand and voice are everything. In such an environment, the story is the only thing that counts.
In most cases, that must be a good thing, but given the world of mass-media surface and Likes that many people now live in, the risk is that inaccurate, sensationalist stories will always prove popular in the short term.
That said, fact-checking services and technologies are set to become more prevalent in the years ahead – from the many news organisations (such as Le Monde), search companies (such as Google), and social platforms (such as Facebook) that are investing in them. In time, these developments may translate into wider adoption by socially engaged users.
Unsurprisingly, there is a generational element to these technology and consumption changes, too, according to Reuters.
“Across all countries, younger groups are much more likely to use social media and digital media as their main source of news, while older groups cling to the habits they grew up with (TV, radio, and print),” says the report.
“One-third of 18-24s (33%) now say social media are their main source of news – that’s more than online news sites (31%) and more than TV news and printed newspapers put together (29%).”
All of this suggests that reaching the younger, more socially engaged user with content they can trust, check, and verify from their devices is where the future of news media lies. As the recent UK Election showed, ignoring young people and taking their opinions for granted is something that no organisation can afford to do anymore.