The role of news media companies in the pandemic has been clear from the state: People need factual and helpful information.
Yet that is not what they are always getting — or even seeking.
The COVID epidemic has been accompanied by what the World Health Organisation describes as an “infodemic” of both good and bad information, from many different sources and accessed via many different platforms. In a Webinar for INMA members on Wednesday, Rasmus Nielsen, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, summarised new findings about the role of news organisations in helping people navigate the crisis and the impact of relying on social media on people’s knowledge about the disease.
As the World Health Organisation (WHO) pointed out, a pandemic like the coronavirus is accompanied by a tsunami of information — including misinformation. This can lead people to make decisions that could put them at risk.
“Ideally, news organisations play a really important role in helping people navigate a situation like that,” he said.
Nielsen shared three key findings from the new Reuters Institute report on how people in six countries access and rate news and information about COVID-19 (covering Argentina, Germany, South Korea, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States).
- Most people rely on news organisations for news and information about coronavirus, and most people consider news organisations a relatively trustworthy source of information. In most countries, those who rely on news organisations know more about the coronavirus.
- Various different kinds of platforms — including search engines, social media, video sites, and messaging applications — are also widely used as sources of news and information about coronavirus. Most people trust these platforms less than they trust news organisations, and Reuters finds no consistent evidence that people who rely on them know more (or for that matter less) about the coronavirus.
- News and information matters, but social and political factors matter, too. Take education as a social factor. In almost every country, those with lower levels of formal education know less about the coronavirus. In terms of politics, in four countries, respondents on the political right know less; and in every country, those who say “don’t know” when asked about their political views know much less.
“This is good news for both the news industry and its role in society,” Nielsen said. He added that the major platforms have put measures in place to combat misinformation and are working with the WHO and governments on this.
Nielsen then delved further into each of these three findings.
1. News media is widely used and trusted
“Roughly between half and three-quarters of our respondents say they rely on news organisations specifically as a source of news and information about the coronavirus,” Nielsen said. This number is almost certainly higher because when people say they rely on government or health authorities, much of this likely comes from news media.
In a crisis like this, however, not everyone turns to journalism. “It’s a forceful reminder that even in an age of unparalleled abundance and ease of access, we are losing touch with at least a minority of the population.”
The biggest reason for this might be trust issues, Nielsen. Some countries, such as the United States and Germany, score higher with the public for trust in news organisations. The trust numbers in all six countries for news media are higher now than it is in the annual Reuters’ survey.
“I think there is an encouraging finding here that in times of crisis, while we don’t reach everyone and don’t have the trust of everybody, there are more people who are perhaps reminded in a time like this that there is a real value in independent, professional journalism,” Nielsen said.
This matters because relying on news organisations is statistically associated with knowing more about the disease than other people. In four out of the six countries, people who rely on the government for information are less informed about COVID-19.
2. Platforms are widely used, but less trusted or informative
From search engines and messaging applications to social media and video sites, the major platforms are widely used to access information about coronavirus. People also use these sites to discuss the pandemic with people they know.
However, the platforms are much less trusted than news organisations. For example, in the United States, only 25% of respondents said they trust social media for information, while 52% said they trusted news organisations. In Germany, 15% trusted social media versus 58% who trusted news organisations.
This trust gap is significant, Nielsen said. Across all six countries, that gap between the reported trustworthiness of news organisations versus different types of platforms are:
- Messaging apps: 35%
- Social media: 33%
- Video sites: 30%
- Search engines: 14%
“People use these platforms, but they’re much more skeptical of them than they are the information they get from news organisations,” Nielsen said.
All of the platforms have problems with the distribution of misinformation. There is no consistent pattern that Reuters found between people’s reliance on the platforms for information and the knowledge that they have about coronavirus.
3. Social and political factors linked to trust and knowledge
News and information matter, Nielsen said, but other factors matter as well. “When we look more closely, for example, to how this plays out in political lines, the picture is very different — and in some countries, extremely different.”
Trust in different sources is quite polarised politically in the United States and Spain, but less so in other countries. In the United States, for example, people who identify on the left politically report a 70% trust in news organisations, and those in the centre report 57% trust. For those on the right, however, they report only a 35% trust in news organisations — even less than they trust people they know.
“Your uncle may be nice, but are you really going to take health advice from him? Probably not,” Nielsen said. For people on the right politically, however, it’s a different story. “More people there would turn to their uncle for information about the coronavirus than would turn to professional journalists and independent news organisations. I think that is a frightening situation.”
For those on the right politically, 68% trust the government for information, while only 30% of people on the left do.
Social factors also play a part, he said: “What we find is that in almost every country, those with lower formal education know a little bit less about the coronavirus. Our hypothesis is they may find it quite difficult to process the quite technical jargon.”
Partisan polarisation presents a disparity between trust and knowledge as well.
“If you have very prominent politicians who many people trust, even if they are divisive figures, who advance false and misleading narratives, the people who trust those politicians will be less knowledgeable about the disease and about the crisis — simply because they are being misled,” Nielsen said.
Where does this leave news organisations?
These findings are a reminder that journalism has a very important role to play in this crisis, Nielsen said. It also presents an opportunity to remind a large part of the population of the value of what news organisations do.
Business challenges before the coronavirus have been harshly accelerated, but there are some opportunities as well.
“No one can do this alone,” Nielsen said. “No one can, on their own, address the epidemic.”
The problem is not a deficit of information. This is a time when there is access to more information than there has ever been in mankind.
“It’s more a problem of getting the right information from the right sources in front of the right people,” Nielsen concluded. “News organisations are absolutely critical in that, and I applaud all of you whose work is making that possible. I hope society will sort of repay that by engaging with your work and perhaps also with patronising your business. But even we, as important as I think we are, cannot do this on our own.”