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Public turned to trustworthy online media during pandemic, with RTÉ and The Journal top

Reuters Digital News Report 2021 shows this publication and State broadcaster were most popular news sources for online audiences.

Image: Leah Farrell/RollingNews.ie

THE PUBLIC’S NEED for quality, fact-checked information in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic saw an increase in trust in national and regional media in the past year.

The Reuters Digital News Report for Ireland 2021, published today, records a leap of 5 points in the number of news consumers who agreed that “you can trust most of the news most of the time”. The figure moved from 43% in 2020 to 48% of those surveyed earlier this year.

The Journal, whose fact-checking unit expanded in the past 16 months to debunk coronavirus-related misinformation, held on to a prime position as the most frequently used digital-native source for the Irish news consumer.

The report notes that The Journal “leads the way among the online-only publications, and has remained relatively steady over the past five years”.

In a list of all digital news brands, including those with broadcast or paper publishing platforms, RTÉ News Online established a strong lead with 30% of those surveyed saying they frequently used the platform. The report suggests that this increase of 9% on last year mirrored “the increase RTÉ saw in its traditional formats possibly due to audiences tuning in for COVID-related coverage and updates”, including NPHET briefings and government announcements.

The Journal was the next most popular after the State broadcaster online with 18% of those surveyed saying they had accessed our publication on a frequent basis. Independent.ie and IrishTimes.com followed with 17% and 14% respectively. BreakingNews.ie took fifth place at 11%, with Sky News Online and BBC Online both attracting 9% of those frequent users. The Irish Examiner online was at 7%, while 6% of respondents cited frequent use of the websites of their local radio station. The Irish Mirror online was also namechecked at 6%.

Screenshot 2021-06-22 21.13.21 Source: Reuters Digital News Report Ireland 2021

There is recognition too, for The Journal’s community-sourced investigative platform Noteworthy, as it is recorded for the first time in the Reuters Digital News Report in the list of online brands consulted by the surveyed public this past year. It shared a place with business site The Currency, Broadsheet.ie, Vice News and Buzz.ie with each cited by 1% of the respondents as a site they frequently visit.

The report noted that The Journal, along with IrishTimes.com, were most likely among the most popular digital brands to attract readers from both the 18-24 age group as well as the older (over 65s) cohort; there was only a 6% gap in frequent usage between each of these groups.

In overall media trends, the number of consumers who cited television as their main source of news in Ireland has risen by 8 points to 41%. The next most popular sources of news were online news sites at 29% (unchanged from 2020). Social media came in at 16%, down 4% on 2020. The number of consumers citing radio as their main source of news fell by 4 points, to 9%, and newspapers by 2 points, to 4%.

Citizens worried by misinformation

The impact of Covid-19 on how the Irish public sought out information and news is recorded in this year’s report as a renewed reliance on “trusted media outlets” at both a national and local level. Celine Craig, Deputy Chief Executive of the BAI (Broadcasting Association of Ireland), which commissioned the report, acknowledged the “critical role” of the media “in ensuring citizens had access to timely and accurate information on the pandemic”.

The report noted increased public concern about online misinformation and disinformation. Analysis by researchers at DCU’s Future of Journalism Institute (FuJo) found that citizens were more wary of what they were seeing on social media in particular during the pandemic to January 2021. The most common topic around which those surveyed said they had noticed misinformation was, unsurprisingly, Covid-19 (at 49%), with politics a distant second at 28%, followed by false info about celebrities (25%), climate change/environment (19%) and immigration (16%).

When it came to who the Irish public believed is more likely to be spreading this poor-quality information, there was a definite age split between people over 55 and those aged 24 and under. The older cohort registered a big concern about “activists or activist groups”, while the younger sector was more worried about misinfo spread by “ordinary people”, “celebrities” and “foreign government, politicians and political parties”.

The report says:

Happily for journalists and news organisations, they attract little concern from consumers regarding false or misleading information about Covid-19. This shows a great deal of confidence in professional reporting to check and verify information.

The least-trusted social media platform for misinfo-spotters was Facebook – 38% of those surveyed named it as their main source of concern around the spread of false Covid information. Facebook also experienced the biggest decline in popularity of usage among respondents (down 4% on the previous report), alongside Youtube (also -4%), with Twitter down 1% and Snapchat down 2%.

WhatsApp became the most popular social platform among these news consumers, for any use, with 69% of respondents using it. The Journal FactCheck’s Debunked project, launched last year to enable users to send suspicious content to a dedicated WhatsApp number and for the project to redistribute good information and answers to user concerns, focused on the platform as a particularly busy hub of information in the early days of the pandemic.

  • You can submit circulating messages about coronavirus that you want us to check out to our WhatsApp: 085 221 4696 or Email: answers@thejournal.ie

At the other end of the information scale, the public surveyed said they were most likely to go to a national health organisation such as the HSE as their main source of information on Covid-19 (42%), followed closely by news organisations (40%) and scientists and other health experts, such as those on NPHET, (38%). The Government came in fourth at 36%.

Why Irish are paying to support quality news

While the vital role of mainstream media is underlined by the report findings, the financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on an already challenged media sector is noted by the report authors. However, the news-consuming public appears aware of this challenge, with more Irish people telling the survey that they were “quite concerned” or “very concerned” by the financial survival of commercial news organisations here (37% here compared to 26% in the UK, 33% in North America and 28% on average in the EU).

The Future of Media Commission has been hearing from media organisations – including Journal Media here and here – and other parties on how public interest content should be funded or otherwise supported. It is due to publish its report by the end of this summer.

A positive message from the Reuters Digital News Report’s Irish respondents is that a growing number of news consumers have paid to access online news content in the last year. (That’s an increase from 12% to 16%, while only 8% of UK news consumers paid for online news content last year.)

“We find that there has been an increase across all age groups in those who have subscribed, donated, or paid a news organisation to view content,” the report states.

People over 65 are more likely to have taken out a regular news subscription (51%) than younger age groups but younger people, says the report, are more likely than their older counterparts (21% versus 6%) to have made a one-off donation to help support a digital service.

“This finding will be welcomed by news organisations such as TheJournal.ie, which has launched a crowd-funded investigative platform, Noteworthy,” says the report.

The Journal also successfully launched a readers’ fund in the past year, with options for a one-off or a monthly recurring contribution. The stated objective of the fund is to help keep the publication’s journalism accessible to all.

Similarly, the Reuters report sounds a concerned note about its findings which show that those in higher income brackets are more likely to pay to access news, and to subscribe to more than one news source.

The report says:

Of those who have paid to access news content in the past year, those on lower incomes are more likely to access a single news source. Those on middle and higher incomes tend to pay for access to multiple news sources, with a small cohort (3% of both middle and high income earners) paying to access more than five news sources. Diversity of news sources is a factor in puncturing filter bubbles and countering news echo chambers.

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Another area where there is work to be done by Irish media, according to the report’s findings, is in reflecting more fairly and proportionately the concerns and make-up of Irish society. “Across all topics, there is a considerable group of news consumers – roughly a quarter – who believe that issues relating to their gender, class, ethnicity, locality, and political views, are not being covered fairly by the news media,” the report finds.

That is a significant proportion of news consumers although the report does find that over half of respondents feel that the media gets levels of coverage of people’s ethnicity, locality, social class, gender, age, and political orientation “about right”, from 56% around politics and locality to 64% on gender issues and 62% on ethnicity.

Celene Craig of the BAI said that the report helps pinpoint areas where research and funding into sustaining plurality in the media is needed, with the objective of “delivering a media landscape that it representative of and accessible to the diversity of Irish society”.

Susan Daly, Managing Editor of Journal Media, which publishes The Journal, Noteworthy and sports site The42, said: “We are heartened to see the trust the Irish public continues to put in quality news publications and broadcasters. Our team, like so many of our colleagues across the wider news industry, has worked hard through a challenging time to keep good information flowing to the public when they needed it most.

“This is a critical juncture for us to build on this trust, to expand on the service we provide, and we have already been doing so in this last while with the Coronavirus Debunk effort and The Good Information Project in The Journal, and the publication of scores of investigative reports from Noteworthy, inspired by submissions from the public on which issues they wish to see highlighted.

“The support from the public on these proposals and in supporting our news team has been invaluable. Our hope is that the government will look closely at this valuable Reuters report and consider seriously making concrete moves to support our industry’s long-term sustainability and vitality so we can continue to serve our audiences, and serve better those who currently feel underrepresented by the Irish media.”

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