Today, Ofcom has published two qualitative research reports which explore what people think and feel about the news, and how they consume it.
There are vast numbers of news stories available 24/7, through a wide range of online platforms and devices, and this research reveals how we are adapting our habits and behaviours in order to keep up.
Here, Ofcom Chief Executive Sharon White shares her views on the findings. A version of this article was originally published in the Times.
Picking up a newspaper with a morning coffee. Settling down to watch TV news after a day’s work. Reading the sections of the Sunday papers in your favourite order.
For decades, habit and routine have helped to define our relationship with the news. In the past, people consumed news at set times of day, but heard little in between. But for many people, those habits, and the news landscape that shapes them, have now changed fundamentally.
Vast numbers of news stories are now available 24/7, through a wide range of online platforms and devices, with social media now the most popular way of accessing news on the internet. Today’s readers and viewers face the challenge to keep up. So too, importantly, does regulation.
The fluid environment of social media certainly brings benefits to news, offering more choice, real-time updates, and a platform for different voices and perspectives. But it also presents new challenges for readers and regulators alike – something that we, as a regulator of editorial standards in TV and radio, are now giving thought for the online world.
In new Ofcom research, we asked people about their relationship with news in our ‘always-on’ society, and the findings are fascinating.
People feel there is more news than ever before, which presents a challenge for their time and attention. This, combined with ‘fear of missing out’, means many feel compelled to engage with several sources of news, but only have the capacity to do so superficially.
Similarly, as many of us now read news through social media on our smartphones, we’re constantly scrolling, swiping and clearing at speed. We’re exposed to ‘breaking news’ notifications, newsfeeds, shared news and stories mixed with other types of content. This limits our ability to process, or even recognise, the news we see. It means we often engage with it incidentally, rather than actively.
In fact, our study showed that, after being exposed to news stories online, many participants had no conscious recollection of them at all. For example, one recalled seeing nine news stories online over a week – she had actually viewed 13 in one day alone. Others remembered reading particular articles, but couldn’t recall any of the detail.
Social media’s attraction as a source of news also raises questions of trust, with people much more likely to doubt what they see on these platforms. Our research shows only 39% consider social media to be a trustworthy news source, compared to 63% for newspapers, and 70% for TV.
‘Fake news’ and ‘clickbait’ articles persist as common concerns among the people taking part in our research, but many struggle to check the validity of online news content. Some rely on gut instinct to tell fact from fiction, while others seek second opinions from friends and family, or look for established news logos, such as the Times. Many people admit they simply don’t have the time or inclination to think critically when engaging with news, which has important implications for our democracy.
Education on how to navigate online news effectively is, of course, important. But the onus shouldn’t be on the public to detect and deal with fake and harmful content. Online companies need to be much more accountable when it comes to curating and policing the content on their platforms, where this risks harm to the public.
We welcome emerging actions by the major online players, but consider that the argument for independent regulatory oversight of their activities has never been stronger. Such a regime would need to be based on transparency, and a set of clear underpinning principles.
In practice, this would place much greater scrutiny on how effectively the online platforms respond to harmful content to protect consumers, with powers for a regulator to enforce standards, and act if these are not met. We will outline further thoughts on the role independent regulation could play in the autumn.
When it comes to trust and accountability, public service broadcasters like the BBC also have a vital role to play. Their news operations provide the bedrock for much of the news content we see online, and as the broadcasting regulator, Ofcom will continue to hold them to the highest standards.
Ofcom’s research can help inform the debate about how to regulate effectively in an online world. We will continue to shine a light on the behavioural trends that emerge, as people’s complex and evolving relationship with the media continues to evolve.