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COVID-19 crisis news environment found full of contradictions and concerns

Mark Sableman June 23, 2020

The coronavirus crisis has heightened both the need for reliable information and existing concerns about the growth of misinformation and the financial weakening of traditional media. At the same time, Congress and other policymakers are considering changes to our basic laws about publication and distribution of information on the Internet.

Now is a good time to look at some basic facts on how we receive and understand news and information, and the economic strength and prospects for those who supply it. A recent report by the Reuters Institute, based on extensive worldwide research, addresses just those issues, and gives us a vivid snapshot of the news environment at the outbreak of the coronavirus crisis.

The report, titled “Digital News Report 2020,” explains the results of surveys of tens of thousands of people in 40 global markets at the beginning of 2020, supplemented by special post-coronavirus outbreak surveys in several key markets, including the United States. It concludes that news consumption continues to change dramatically, often to the economic detriment of traditional news organizations, even as public concerns about misinformation rise to record highs.

The data from the surveys are subject to many different interpretations, but one obvious conclusion is that today’s news environment is filled with contradictions:

  • More than half of all persons surveyed worldwide (56%) are concerned about distinguishing between real and fake news on the Internet. Social media is identified as the biggest source of that concern, with 29% across all countries concerned about Facebook. But lots of people continue to use social media for their news. In the United States, 47% of people used social media for news, compared to 60% using television and only 16% using print.

  • Traditional news media, and public broadcasters in particular, continue to rate relatively high on their trustworthiness, particularly relating to the COVID-19 crisis. Media trust was more than twice the level for social networks on the coronavirus. But even so, as traditional media increasingly need to rely on subscription revenue, there’s “a very high proportion of non-subscribers (40% in the US) who say that nothing could persuade them to pay.”

  • Most trend lines are similar worldwide, though there are some telling national differences. Political polarization of the news audience seems particularly acute in the United States, and, most likely related to it, there is somewhat lower trust in the media here. Worldwide, for example, 60% of people felt the media helped them understand the coronavirus crisis, but that figure dropped to 52% in the United States.

  • Finally, the coronavirus crisis seems to put new twists on many parts of the news environment. Social media, the source of so much virus misinformation “has also sustained people at a time of anxiety and isolation and provided an effective way to amplify reliable information.” TV news viewership is up, as people turned to that trusted source in times of crisis, though the report warns that “the lockdowns have also accelerated the use of new digital tools.”

Overall, the report, while offering a few signs of hope, warns that trends imperil established media, particularly local news providers because of their greater dependence on both print and digital advertising. The use of aggregators like Google News and the shift toward mobile content have also made it harder for traditional news brands to forge direct ties to consumers. As news providers move forward in these trouble times, “clearer than ever about the value of their product,” their economic outlook remains uncertain at best.

Mark Sableman is a partner in Thompson Coburn’s Intellectual Property group.