Trust is down, subscriptions are up — and the demand for objective news is falling

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The COVID-19 pandemic has given a boost to trusted sources of news such as television and online mainstream outlets, but has battered print newspapers for the simple reason that people find it harder to get their hands on them while on lockdown. And though paid digital subscriptions are on the rise, that may be driving a demand for coverage that’s more in line with readers’ political views.

Those are some of the findings of the 2020 Digital News Report, an annual study of news-consumption habits compiled by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and the University of Oxford. The new report is based on a YouGov survey of some 80,000 people in 40 markets, most of them Western democracies but also including countries such as Kenya and the Philippines.

“The seriousness of this crisis has reinforced the need for reliable, accurate journalism that can inform and educate populations, but it has also reminded us how open we have become to conspiracies and misinformation,” writes Nic Newman, senior research associate at the Reuters Institute.

The study was mainly conducted pre-pandemic, with some follow-up in late March and early April in order to determine how COVID had affected news habits. The report is massive, but there are a few findings that I think are worth highlighting.

• Trust in the media rose somewhat at the height of the pandemic, but overall it continues to fall. For me, the most striking finding is that news consumers said their levels of trust are low even in the media that they use.

Globally, trust in the media that people actually use was 46%, down three points from the previous survey. In the United States, 45% of respondents said they trust the news they use. In addition, 29% of U.S. respondents said they trust the news media in general, 22% said they trust news from search and only 14% said they trust news from social media.

If Americans no longer trust even the media they rely on, that represents a new and unsettling challenge for journalism — and a dramatic change from just a few years ago. For instance, take a look at this 2014 survey by the Pew Research Center. More than 60% of self-identified liberals said they trusted NPR, PBS, the BBC and The New York Times. Similarly, 88% of conservatives said they trusted Fox News.

What could explain the slide? No doubt it has a lot to do with the hyperpolarization of the Trump era. I can’t explain what’s going on among conservatives; Fox News is more popular than it’s ever been, and I assume that supporters of President Donald Trump watch it because they like it.

But among liberals, and especially among politically engaged Twitter users, we’ve all seen an exponential rise in anger when supposedly liberal outlets like the Times or NPR report the news in a way that plays down Trump’s lies and wanton acts of cruelty.

There is, in fact, some substance to these complaints, and the current media business climate makes news consumers feel empowered. Which brings me to my next observation.

• As advertising revenues plummet, paid digital subscriptions continue to rise. About 20% of Americans now report paying for a digital subscription, up four points in just a year. According to the report, the digital-subscription increase has come in two waves — the first in 2017, when anti-Trump readers stepped forward to support mainstream outlets, and the second this year, as news outlets cut back on free sampling while enticing new subscribers with steep discounts. (Such discounts, for example, help account for a surge at The Boston Globe to more than 200,000 digital subscribers.)

Traditionally, advertising paid for newspaper journalism while the nominal amount that consumers paid covered the cost of printing and distribution. As advertising continues to decline in importance, though, subscribers may be demanding a bigger say in how the news is covered.

At a webinar on the Reuters report on Tuesday, Rasmus Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute, said one of the reasons Americans, in particular, cite when asked why they subscribe to digital news is “because they believe in the mission of journalism and they want to support it.”

Given the overwhelmingly liberal orientation of subscribers to The New York Times and The Washington Post, the two leading national general-interest newspapers, it would hardly be a surprise if they see harshly negative coverage of the Trump administration as part of that mission.

And yet that runs counter to the third finding that I think is worth noting.

• Most survey respondents say they prefer neutral, objective news. This contradicts fears that an explosion of internet outlets and cable channels would lead many of us to seek out news that conforms to our ideological predilections. In the U.S., for instance, 60% “still express a preference for news without a particular point of view,” whereas 30% prefer news that reflects their beliefs.

In many other countries, though, the preference for nonpartisan news is higher than it is in the U.S. — and the percentage of American consumers who want ideologically compatible news is up seven points since 2013.

No doubt the difference between the U.S. and other countries is grounded in the sort of polarization that dismisses COVID as “fake news” and that has transformed wearing a face mask into a partisan political statement.

In addition, the report noted that countries where the preference for neutral news is highest — Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and Denmark — all have “strong and independent public broadcasters.” That is decidedly not the case in the U.S., where the federal government spends more on the Pentagon’s public-relations office than on PBS.

Bottom line: Although it’s somewhat heartening that a solid majority of Americans prefer objective news to partisan spin, we’re not doing as well as other countries — and the trend is heading in the wrong direction.

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