Trustworthy news or the Greatest Show on Earth?

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Trustworthy news or the Greatest Show on Earth?

News fatigue is an age-old phenomenon. Not only do media have a reputation for “moving on” after a catastrophe, but readers, listeners, and viewers have a tendency to get bored. Sadly, extended calamities – the drought in the Horn of Africa, the war in Ukraine – lose public attention and concern.

This phenomenon has been exacerbated by digital platforms, whose global reach, rapidity of response, and insatiable appetite for novelty has created a world of instant information and split-second gratification.

In the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report 2022, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen writes in the Foreword, that “Despite the huge difference independent professional journalism can make in helping people understand the world beyond personal experience, we find declining interest in the news, lower trust… as well as a growth in active news avoidance amongst some groups.”

In a survey of more than 93,000 readers in 46 countries, the report finds that:

  • Selective news avoidance is high and increasing. On average, 38% of those surveyed said that they often or sometimes avoid news on certain topics – especially politics and COVID-19. They find that kind of journalism depressing and repetitive.
  • Levels of trust remain low. Only 42% of those surveyed said they trust most news most of the time. The USA finishes last among the countries with just 26% expressing trust, a three-point dip from 2021.
  • Progress on getting users to pay for digital news remains halting. In the USA, 19% pay for at least some online news, but large national newspapers are capturing most of that action. Paid digital subscriptions for regional titles are a much harder sell.

In brief, given that other factors complicate the issue:

  • Facebook remains the most-used social network for news, but users are more likely to say they see too much news in their feed compared with other networks. While older groups remain loyal to the platform, the report shows how the youngest generation has switched much of its attention to more visual networks over the last three years.
  • TikTok has become the fastest growing network in this year’s survey, reaching 40% of 18–24s, with 15% using the platform for news. Usage is much higher in parts of Latin America, Asia, and Africa than it is in the United States or Northern Europe. Telegram has also grown significantly in some markets, providing a flexible alternative to Meta-owned WhatsApp.
  • The smartphone has become the dominant way in which most people first access news in the morning, though the report finds different patterns across countries. In Norway, Spain, Finland, and the UK, the smartphone is now accessed first ahead of television, while radio retains an important role in Ireland. Morning newspaper reading is still surprisingly popular in the Netherlands; television still dominates in Japan.

It’s a serious problem for democratic debate and for democracy itself when in-depth news coverage is supplanted by sound or image bites, when independent professional journalism can be supplanted by fake news and disinformation, and when people begin to avoid news because of a low boredom threshold. Equally serious is the projection of news and current affairs – at least on television – as a “show”, with all its connotations of Barnum and Bailey.

Serious journalism needs formats that interest and hold the attention of the public without abandoning independence or pandering to sensationalism. Digital platforms need oversight and regulation to counter fake news and disinformation. Without both, trust in news will continue to plummet.

Photo: “Greatest Show on Earth” by Oleksii Sidorov