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By Thomas Baekdal - May 2020

The news fatigue is growing around COVID-19

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.

Today's newsletter is all about the value we bring as publishers. We are going to talk about two things:

The news fatigue is growing

Last year I spent a lot of time looking into the trend around news fatigue and news avoidance. I even did a month-long experiment with it, which I detailed in a podcast episode.

This is important, because we are starting to see the same effect around newspapers and COVID-19.

We don't really have much data yet, but I did hear about two very interesting studies recently (and thanks to Dr. David Fernández Quijada for the heads up).

The first study is from Ofcom in the UK. Here they have commissioned an ongoing study over three months where they are following a sample group of 2,000 people to see how their media consumption has changed, and one of the factors they are looking into is news fatigue.

It's only been five weeks, but what they have found so far is a persistent increase in news fatigue, with an average of 34% saying they are now actively avoiding reading news about COVID-19.

These are the average numbers per week. Obviously, if we look at it per gender or by age, we see bigger differences. Around 43% of those between 18-34 are trying to avoid news about COVID-19 (which is a problem for newspapers trying to reach a younger audience). In terms of gender, 38% of women try to avoid news, whereas the number is 30% for men.

There are many reasons for this. Some people do it to protect their mental health, because this crisis is making a lot of people very anxious. Something that we in the media industry are no stranger to. Many media people that I follow have certainly expressed feeling this way, and I too have felt I needed days to disconnect entirely.

But another element is the media itself and how we cover this crisis (and other events where we see similar patterns). There are two things in particular that we need to look at, which Ofcom is also measuring.

One is whether people believe they have been informed in a useful way so that they know what to believe.

Here we see another big problem. Almost 40% of the population (in the UK) don't feel well informed.

This, again, is a huge problem and it ties into the way we define journalism.

There are generally two mistakes we make all the time in the media. The first mistake is that we have a very strong tendency to focus on volume rather than substance. Every single day, we flood people with articles about COVID-19, with so many different voices and so many different elements that people just can't process it.

The result of this is that, instead of creating clarity of voice, we get a sea of noise. We create a news environment where people just generally give up trying to understand it.

The second mistake is that, as journalists, we always try to find the opposing view. This has been a constant problem throughout this crisis. Whenever one person has said something, the journalist immediately starts calling around to find someone who can give them a quote disproving it.

So, some medical experts say this, but other medical experts disagree. The government says this, but a politician for another party says that. The WHO says this, but we say that.

Many people in the media industry believe this to be good journalism. But all this does is to create confusion. You are not helping people to understand what is going on, you are unhelping them.

I'm reminded of a quote, which is a favorite of mine:

If one person says it's raining, and another person says it's not, our job, as journalists, isn't to cover what these people said, but to look out the window and see what is actually going on.

I know that this is not easy to do, especially with a crisis with as many unknowns as this one, but our style of journalism is often undermining itself.

The result is what we see in this study by Sky News. People don't think about newspapers as a trusted intermediary or a place to get informed. Instead, people overwhelmingly turn directly to the healthcare community or even just the government.

And we see this throughout the latest YouGov studies:

The NHS (National Health Service) remains the most trusted source for information on Covid-19. Nine in ten adults who use it for information say they trust it (91% in week five, 95% in week one). A clear majority of respondents using official sources continue to trust the information provided by official scientists (87% in week five vs. 90% in week one), local health services (84% vs. 91%), the WHO (81% vs. 94%) and the government (78% vs. 89%).

This is a huge problem for journalism. But it's a problem that we have created for ourselves. It's happening because we do not provide people with the clarity they need.

Mind you, this doesn't mean trust is down. It just means there is a problem. And there are also massive differences between different media sites.

The second thing we need to look at is misinformation.

In the latest YouGov study, we see that 50% have come across false or misleading information. That's a huge number. But at the same time, only 34% have gotten news from social media, and only 7% have used a Facebook group. But even more importantly, of all the people who have seen false information, only 3% are sharing it.

At the same time, 86% of people are getting COVID-19 news directly from the media (down from 93%) every day. So we are dominating this.

But this also illustrates that we are part of the problem. Because, if 50% have seen misleading information, but the majority of media use isn't coming from social channels ... that must mean part of it is coming from us.

And it's happening like this:

This is a headline that we could find in hundreds of newspapers across Europe and the US, which followed a week of other headlines with a similar message.

This is misinformation!

Now, as publishers, you will argue that you are "just reporting what he said" and that in the article you are pointing out that he didn't provide any evidence.

But you are still facilitating a conspiracy theory. And, by just reporting it, you leave it up to the reader to decide whether to believe it or not. And, you have chosen to present this story with a headline that is directly misleading.

We know that many people are just scanning through the newspaper and only see the headlines of most stories. So ask yourself: A person that only sees the headline of this story, what will they end up believing?

This is straight up journalistic malpractice. There is no excuse for this!

And we can see this in the YouGov study. When they measured what type of misinformation people say they had seen, the topics they cited were mostly those heavily reported in the press.

As in weeks three and four, the most common piece of misinformation respondents came across (from a select list) was 'theories linking the origins or causes of Covid-19 to 5G technology'. There has been a small decrease in the proportion of respondents coming across this, from 51% in week four to 47% in week five. In week five, 9% of respondents said they had seen 'other' pieces of misinformation outside of those on our select list which related to 'injecting disinfectant' and 'exposure to UV light'.

We often say that misinformation comes from the top (which we clearly see here), but we in the press are facilitating it ... and then presenting it in such a way that people feel that our stories are not valuable to them.

And it's the combination of all of this that is causing the increase of news fatigue. We are doing this to ourselves!

We see exactly the same thing in the US. Here is a recent study from PEW that found that 71% are expressing symptoms of news fatigue.

This is a huge problem that we need to do something about. And yes, I'm well aware that publishers are currently experiencing tremendous growth in traffic and boosts in subscriptions, which sounds like it would contradict all that I just wrote. But the long-term effect of news fatigue is way more important than the short-term effect we see today.

This should be a key focus area for every newsroom.

The trend towards 'better'

Another truly fascinating trend is the shift we have seen over the past many years towards things that are better.

This is a weird trend because it's incredibly hard to quantify, and for casual observers, it often looks like the public is getting more and more distracted.

We often say that people have a low attention span, because when you just look at your analytics, that is what you see. But it's not true. People don't have a low attention span, we just have an abundance of low-quality things to look at.

Think about it like watching TV. If there is nothing good going on, people will start flipping channels and continue to do that all evening. But if your favorite show is on, then you will be glued to the screen, and even start binge-watching it (if you are using Netflix).

In other words, low attention span is a symptom of poor media choices, rather than the cause of it. If you do something good, everything changes and people start to behave very differently.

The trouble however, has been that this effect has been very hard to prove. But I recently came across a tweet from Benedict Evans, where he compared the words 'best' and 'cheap' on Google Trend. And it was fascinating.

So I took a look at this, and added 'free' to my query, and the result is very interesting.

Back in 2004, the internet was certainly dominated by 'free' and 'cheap' things. But since then, there has been a persistent shift in focus towards people wanting things that are better.

In the UK, 'best' is now used more as a search term than 'cheap' and 'free'.

As I said, there is nothing surprising about this. This is exactly the trend we have been seeing for years. We just haven't had the ability to visualize it. But here it is.

I love this!

Of course, it's not just the UK. Let's look at some other countries:

There are some fluctuations between countries. For instance, I'm very surprised by Germany, but maybe this is a translation issue where I'm not using the right words.

I also find it fascinating that there is a very clear change around COVID-19 in France, but that we are not seeing the same effect in other countries.

But overall, you see a very persistent trend that people want things to be better. Obviously, in many countries, 'free' is still the dominating word. But it is also very clearly trending downwards across the board.

So what does this mean for publishers?

Well, it means that this will define the future of media. In the past, we have seen so many publishers focus on giving people content for free to build traffic, but this trend is telling us this is no longer the right strategy.

It means that people are saying:

There is so much low-quality free junk on the internet. I don't want 'free' anymore. Give me the 'best' you have to offer instead.

This is an incredibly important long-term trend!

This is an archived version of a Baekdal/Basic newsletter (it's free). It is sent out about once per week and features the latest articles as well as news and trends about the media industry. If you want to get the next one, don't hesitate to add your email to the list.


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Thomas Baekdal

Founder, media analyst, author, and publisher. Follow on Twitter

"Thomas Baekdal is one of Scandinavia's most sought-after experts in the digitization of media companies. He has made ​​himself known for his analysis of how digitization has changed the way we consume media."
Swedish business magazine, Resumé


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