Many news consumers are “acutely aware of getting left behind in the 24/7 news cycle” and are prioritizing “quantity over depth in their news intake”, according to new research by Ofcom, the UK communications regulator.
Even more concerning is the fact that, because of modern news consumption trends— where people tend to get their news from their social media feeds rather than trusted news sources—the lines between entertainment and news has become blurred.
“The entertainment or social aspects of news had become primary—as opposed to secondary—benefits of news consumption,” the Ofcom report states.
The blurring of content in social media channels meant that many were unable to distinguish between advertising, social content, entertainment and news.
Ofcom’s research talked to individuals in the UK across all age groups from teen onwards, understood their media consumption habits, and interviewed them on their news consumption.
They presented their findings and conclusions in “Scrolling news: The changing face of online news consumption,” a comprehensive ~50-page report that paints a pretty grim picture about current news consumption habits.
The report mentions that there has been a considerable increase in the number of people accessing the news via online platforms, especially among younger audiences. This shift has many implications for news consumers, in particular, the increasing role played by non-news organizations and services, such as apps and social media platforms.
According to Ofcom, the purpose of this research was to gain a more nuanced understanding of the behaviors that sit behind this increase in online news consumption, in order to inform policy.
Smartphone-led, passive news consumption
The research found that most online consumption is smartphone-led, driving passive consumption due to smartphone user interfaces.
“Accessing the news through computers or tablets was often more purpose-driven (e.g. for school or university studies), or out of necessity (e.g. because phones weren’t socially acceptable at work),” the report notes.
“The predominance of smartphone and social media-led news meant that, for these individuals, much of their news consumption was happening via platforms such as Google and Facebook, that are as yet largely unregulated.”
The research also highlighted that the design and functionality of content delivered via smartphones seemed to encourage passive news consumption, encouraging scrolling, swiping and watching behaviors rather than proactive searching and exploration.
The ubiquitous newsfeed
Further observation focused on the newsfeed interface, which is becoming ubiquitous, and keeps people ‘in-app’.
The ‘newsfeed’ format, that is common across social media, news aggregators, or news-specific apps, offers, according to respondents, what feels like unlimited content to consume.
“This style of delivery often made judging or evaluating news content difficult, and news was increasingly indistinguishable from purely social media and entertainment,” the report found. “Respondents were often unsure of the sources of news articles, whether a particular article was news at all (rather than an advert or promoted content), or how it had reached them.”
Fake news, algorithms, echo chambers: “buzzwords” for most
While most respondents could recognize the current ‘buzzwords’ surrounding online news, such as fake news, algorithms and echo chambers, only a few were able to confidently articulate what these terms meant, or how these might look like, the research uncovered.
This had a significant impact on their ability to think critically when navigating online news, and few had conscious strategies in place to deal with it, using shortcuts which mostly consisted of superficial cues.
Many younger respondents used the rule of thumb that if an article had an embedded image or video, it was probably true.
“Over-loaded, exhausted and desensitized”
To deal with the 24/7 news cycle, some respondents employed compulsive strategies to feel as though they were keeping up, such as regular rituals of “clearing” notifications across all apps, the Ofcom study discovered. Many respondents prioritized quantity over depth in their news intake, and discussed being acutely aware of getting left behind.
This led to shallow processing of the news, with many struggling to recall news stories that they had seen just a couple of days previously.
“Many talked about feeling over-loaded, exhausted and desensitized by the amount of news to process,” the report observed. “Some had attempted news “detoxes” to reduce their intake, only to find themselves returning to previous levels of consumption because they feared they were missing out.”
Blurred boundaries between news and entertainment
Social media blurs the boundaries between news and other content, impacting people’s ability to critically understand what they see, according to the research.
“On social media, news was aggregated alongside other content, providing a convenient ‘one-stop shop’ for content,” Ofcom found. “Often, this meant that respondents didn’t realize certain stories were news, or did not treat them as such. It led to a focus on sharing and connectivity, with many respondents using popularity of an article to judge its importance.”
This naturally had a detrimental impact on people’s ability to understand and judge their own news intake.
News consumption is largely unregulated
The majority of news consumption is happening in a largely unregulated space, the report concluded. Social media is one of the most prevalent news channels, yet these platforms are largely unregulated.
In a comment piece for the Times, Sharon White, the head of Ofcom said, “The argument for independent regulatory oversight of their activities has never been stronger.”
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.
In a world where algorithms are determining what news people see, where social media ‘friends’ shape the content that individuals consume, leading to shallower, faster and less critical news consumption—mostly passive—there’s definitely a need to correct course before things get any worse.
Download the full Ofcom research report, Scrolling news: The changing face of online news consumption here.