Where do people get their news?

The British media landscape in 5 charts

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen

Where do people get their news?

News is the most important source of information about politics and public affairs for most citizens, as few of us have any real personal contact with politicians. But where do people in the UK get their news in the run-up to the General Election?

Research from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford gives the answer — and the answer is online and from television. The campaign is therefore not only fought on the doorstep and the TV screen, but also increasingly on the internet. This changing media environment provides the arena in which political actors fight for our votes.

Recent years have seen the gradual erosion of television as the single most widely used source of news, to the point that by 2016 it has been overtaken by online sources in terms of reach — at least amongst the 92 percent of the UK population who has access to the internet. The reach of printed newspapers has declined rapidly in the same period, and social media has become much more important.

Half a century ago, the Pilkington Committee on Broadcasting concluded that “until there is unmistakable proof to the contrary, the presumption must be that television is and will be a main factor in influencing the values and moral standards of our society.” Proof is now available that things are changing — television is still important, but people spend more time with digital media, and increasingly turn to digital media for news and politics as they do for so many other things.

Generational differences in news use

The move from traditional sources of news like television and printed newspapers is particularly clear if we look at differences between age groups. There are very clear generational divides. Asked to identify their main source of news, online comes out number one in every age group under 45 — and for those under 25, social media are by now more popular than television.

The television news audience is still large, but it is also old — and aging — and younger people increasingly find their news from websites and apps, and via search engines and social media. By now, the BBC is the only news media organisation in the UK that reaches more people with online news than Facebook. In 2016, 51% of our respondents said they used the BBC online as a source of news, whereas 28% said they used Facebook for news — more than even the Mail Online (17%) or the Guardian (14%).

How do people find their news?

47% still say they go directly to the websites of broadcasters or newspapers for their news, but online, people increasingly find news via the various search (20%) and social media (25%) services offered by US-based platform companies like Google and Facebook. These have become integral to how people find and access news all over the world, including in the UK.

Some worry that the growing importance of these digital intermediaries might lead to the formation of echo chambers or filter bubbles, where people only get information from a few sources that largely confirm their pre-existing views (a situation we should be familiar with in the UK, given the proud tradition of partisan newspapers).

A closer look at the evidence suggest that the situation may in fact be the opposite — at least, people who get news via search engines and/or social media sites report using significantly more different sources of news than those who do not. Search engines and social media thus seem to lead people to a wider sources of news that they would have used otherwise.

What do people think of news and media?

Interestingly, the British population has a somewhat mixed view of the news they get, the media who provide it, and the journalists who produce it.

First of all, only about a third see the media as free from undue political influence, and just over a quarter as free from undue commercial influence.

Second, the journalistic profession does not fare much better. 29% say they trust journalists “most of the time” — a much lower figure than the 50% who say they trust the news that journalistsproduce.

If we break down the trust figures by whether people consider themselves politically on the left, in the centre, or on the right, it is clear that people on the left in the UK have particularly low levels of trust in news, whereas a majority on the centre and the right say they trust news “most of the time.”

A changing media environment (and political arena)

Media developments in the UK are in line with those seen across the world — a move to a more digital media environment, where traditional media like broadcasters and newspapers are still very important producers of news, but where many people increasingly find their news via search engines and social media.

This change is accompanied by continuity too, such as the long-running scepticism of both journalists and the news they produce, and the continued centrality of both public service media like the BBC committed to impartiality as well as private media like the Daily Mail and the Guardian with their more partisan take on the events of the day. Major newspapers are under pressure as their print business models continue to erode, but politically, they are important because they often still set the agenda for both television and online.

For some, this environment is a cornucopia of easily accessible news and information, and they embrace every opportunity at hand. A minority (18%) of news lovers are those who are very interested in news and use it many times a day.

The challenge for politicians can be, however, that as engaged and often vocal as these news lovers are, they are still a minority, and many people may feel they have more important things to do than follow the latest liveblog or tweet from Westminster. A large number of people (44%) — what we call “daily briefers” follow the news at least daily, but with less interest, and a significant group (37%) use news less than daily and have little or no interest. There is a clear polarization in the news habits of more and less interested users — a polarization that is perhaps even more significant than partisan differences in what media people use.

This mix of the established traditions and dynamics of the British media, and rapid change driven by the preferences of a younger generation and the possibilities offered by technology companies, provides the arena in which the general election campaign of 2017 will play out.

About the author

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, and teaches in the Department of Politics and International Relations as well as the Blavatnik School of Government. He is a Research Associate of the Oxford Internet Institute. He has written extensively about political campaigns, news media, and digital communication, including his award-winning book Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns.


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