The digital news landscape from a social media perspective

The extensive Digital News Report 2017 provides a deep and globally specific insight into the use of news in digital media. Opinion researchers from YouGov, commissioned by the Reuters Institute and the University of Oxford, surveyed over 70,000 users of online news from 36 countries in America, Asia, and Europe. They wanted to know how often users consciously, accidentally, or incidentally use online media as news sources.

Overall, it can be noted that social media also lead the way in terms of news. Across all countries, an average of 54 percent of respondents use social media as a news source. 14 percent even claim to use social media as their main source of news. However, the deviations from the average, both upwards and downwards, show how large the differences are in each country: While 76 percent in Chile claim to use social media as an information channel for news on a weekly basis, in Germany and Japan, it’s only 29 percent.

It is also evident that with increasing age, there is a stronger inclination towards traditional media (TV, print, and radio), while the younger age group tends to consume news online and specifically through social media.

News on social media: A double-edged sword

Although social media plays an important role worldwide as a sources of information for news, it is still controversial, and its use and reception are by no means homogeneous. Therefore, it is not surprising that only just over a quarter of respondents say that social media does a good job of separating facts from fiction, while 40 percent think so of other online news services. Overall, according to the results, users believe that the combination of lack of rules and the power of algorithms contributes to the lower-than-average quality of news on social media and that fake news can spread much faster. As a result, 29 percent of respondents say they sometimes simply avoid news – either because they are afraid it might darken their mood or because they don’t trust the news.

Furthermore, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Instagram are feeling the competition from messaging services, especially WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger. According to the Digital News Report 2017, users appreciate these deep social channels primarily because news through them is more private and unfiltered in terms of algorithms. And thus, somehow more authentic.

Compared to 2016, messaging services across all providers have increased by 15 percent as a channel for reading, discussing, and sharing news. In countries like Malaysia, just over half of consumers use WhatsApp as a weekly source of news, 46 percent in Brazil, and nearly a third in Spain. However, in the USA, it’s only 3 percent. In other countries, the choice falls on other messengers: for example, WeChat dominates in Asia, while South Korea relies on its own brand, Kakao Talk, to read and spread news.

Nevertheless, the growth rates of messengers do not pose a threat to the importance of social media as (an additional) news information sources. Because 78 percent of messenger users are multiple-network users, meaning they use at least one social media platform weekly in addition to their messenger application. 32 percent even use two or more. Regarding Facebook, which includes WhatsApp and Instagram, these numbers bring a smile to Mark Zuckerberg’s face and the shareholders. Moreover, they will be pleased to hear that, according to the Digital News Report, 80 percent of respondents use an application from the Facebook family at least once a week.

Is social media helpful, an actively used or rather incidental source of information?

In addition to the quality of the news that can be discovered and read through social media, the researchers also asked how users actually use social media as news sources – whether they consciously search for news on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and Co. or come across it more incidentally. Across all countries, almost a fifth of respondents said that Facebook is a helpful source of information, while over a quarter said they came across news on Facebook without really searching for it. After all, 23 percent did not come into contact with news during their visits to Facebook.

On YouTube, only 10 percent actively search for news, while another 10 percent come across it incidentally, and 39 percent do not use the platform to find and read news.

Finally, Twitter seems to be the least popular news source. Only 6 percent actively find news here, 3 percent stumble upon news accidentally, and 11 percent use the microblogging service without a focus on news.

A memorable cross-reference: the percentage of respondents who use Twitter (20 percent) almost corresponds to the number of users who see Facebook as a useful source of news (19 percent).

Echo chambers

The results of the Reuters and Oxford study also show that the way users consume news and which media and platforms they use for it is becoming increasingly heterogeneous. Because in addition to social media and traditional media, digital voice assistants are also appearing for the first time as sources of information for news – especially Amazon Echo and Google Home. The fact that they play a role at all is mainly due to publishers like CNN, BBC, and Spiegel, who have created news and weather applications specifically for these devices. At least in the USA and Great Britain, they have since been used as news sources and even outperform smartwatches in this regard. In addition, Alexa’s success has reinforced Amazon’s position as the fourth-largest player in the news market. Overall, smart speakers could soon outstrip radio and smartphones as sources of information.

Reading, watching, listening

Even though Alexa, Google Home, and co. deliver news for the ears, 71 percent of all respondents still prefer news in text format, while 14 percent use videos and text equally. Broken down to some core countries, the text-heavy nature of news consumers is evident in Great Britain, where 74 percent prefer online text, while in Germany it’s only 61 percent, and 13 percent prefer moving images and text equally. Text format is particularly favored for consuming news because it allows for faster acquisition of (searched) information, while videos garnish news with credibility, context, and drama. The text-heavy nature of news consumption can be observed across all age groups.

A Look at germany

Finally, looking more closely at the results regarding news sources specifically for Germany provided by the report, one can be partly surprised and also receive confirmation for the global trend.

60 percent of respondents who also use online services for other purposes choose websites, apps, and social media as weekly channels for news. This places Germans below the average of other surveyed countries. Similarly, social media scores below average as an information source for news. Only 29 percent of Germans use the platforms for this purpose – and this despite, for example, Facebook massively increasing its number of employees in Germany and launching a collaboration with the fact-checking platform Correctiv to identify and mark fake news on Facebook more quickly in the news feed.

Similarly, messengers have a tough time in Germany regarding their information value for news. Only 7 percent mainly use WhatsApp as a single source of information. Less than 2 percent say the same for social media.

In Germany, people are more connected to traditional media, especially the public service news dinosaurs Tagesschau, Tagesthemen, heute, and heute journal. These formats still enjoy the best reputation and trust when it comes to news sources. Print bestsellers like Spiegel, Stern, Focus, and SZ have lost some significance.

Online editions of news magazines and newspapers suffer greatly from the spread of ad blockers, paywalls, and other payment models that many users are not willing to pay for.

Regarding social media as sources of information for news, the major platforms have lost significance. 25 percent (2 percentage points less than in 2016) use Facebook to stay up to date with news. 14 percent go to YouTube for this purpose, almost as many (12 percent) use WhatsApp. Both formats have gained 2 points each. Twitter and Facebook Messenger play a rather minor role in the news business.

Conclusion: The Digital News Report 2017 provides a comprehensive and exciting overview as well as deep insights into which media are the top sources of information for news worldwide. That the picture is neither homogeneous regarding individual countries or continents nor regarding the channels used is surprising, nor is the correlation between little trust in the news in countries with polarized political and social spectrums. Also, that social media, especially Facebook, has lost peoples’ trust in terms of being a serious source of information regarding news seems somehow understandable. However, what is much more interesting are the newcomers among the news channels, such as the major messenger players and digital voice assistants. Both of these present news publishers and marketers with new and significant challenges regarding reaching target audiences in these sometimes very private and closed communication channels.