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June 26, 2023, 2:51 p.m.
Audience & Social

The “passive news consumer” is on the rise

“We find that news users who say their experiences engaging with news online are negative (21%) are nearly four times as likely as those who say they are positive (6%) to not participate at all with news.”

The rise of social media signaled the promise of a new public square, facilitating more open debate and diverse voices. With these new opportunities for digital participation also came a host of new challenges, including online trolling, disinformation, and a less trusting and more disconnected public. When facing these challenges, newsrooms often rely on participation metrics (including comments, likes, and shares) to gauge success when engaging and retaining online audiences — even as many fear these spaces are being transformed into toxic, hostile hellscapes.

In this year’s Reuters Institute Digital News Report, we unpack trends over time in global news participation to better understand whether having more means of digital participation has translated to greater actual participation among the public.

Instead, across many markets, we find steady falls over time in open and active sharing alongside rises in passive consumption.

For many years, the Digital News Report has tracked how people share or participate in news coverage during an average week. In our work, we break news users into three groups:
active participators, who post and comment about news;
reactive participators, who read, like or share news stories; and
passive consumers, who use news but do not participate with it.

On average across 46 markets, we now find that less than a quarter of respondents (22%) actively participate in news — down a striking 11 percentage points since 2018. Meanwhile, growing numbers of news users participate reactively (31%, up 6 points since 2018), and nearly half now do not participate at all (47%, up 5 points). These trends remain consistent in the U.S., for instance, where the proportion of active participators (24%) is down 11 percentage points since 2016 and passive consumers now make up a majority (51%) of news users.

As the group of active participators — who make up much of what the public sees when it comes to news participation — continues to shrink, it also increasingly looks like the unrepresentative traditional news audience. These participators are more likely to be men, higher educated, more politically partisan, and more interested in news. In a world with digital subscriptions, news organizations risk listening too much to this group and not enough to the silent majority of readers.

These patterns also vary by region, with far more active news participation in markets in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America than in Central and Northern Europe. In many of the markets with stronger trends around active participation, we also find higher uptake of social networks in general and for news specifically. For instance, a third of news users (36%) are active participators in Thailand, where social media is by far the most important gateway to news, compared with about one in ten in Germany (11%), where direct connections to news brands remain stronger.

These trends aren’t limited to specific forms of news participation, nor are they limited only to online participation. Across the board, we find steady decreases over time for most forms of online and offline participation.

However, even amid steady declines in other sharing and commenting behaviors, we find that one form of news participation has grown over time: Sharing via private messaging apps (up from 17% in 2018 to 22% in 2023). This is particularly pronounced in markets in regions with higher overall use of private messaging apps, such as Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Southern Europe — but it also maps onto broader uptake across all markets of platforms like WhatsApp (+9 points since 2018) or Telegram (+12 points).

And, while offline participation is not immune to over-time declines, talking face-to-face with friends and colleagues about the news remains the most widely reported form of news participation. Around one third of news users do it (32%, down 7 points from 2018). Together, these trends suggest a shift among audiences, to some extent, toward some closed spaces where people can have private conversations with trusted friends.

Why is this happening? It may be that some segments of the public avoid publicly sharing news because they perceive online debates — or news in general — to be toxic. We find that news users who say their experiences engaging with news online are negative (21%) are nearly four times as likely as those who say they are positive (6%) to not participate at all with news. Such perceptions may be worsening as a relatively smaller — and less representative — group of people make up most of what we see as active news participation.

Perhaps the nature of participation is simply changing. Publishers continue to shut down online comments sections, often noting the difficulty of moderating discussions in these spaces and pushing audiences toward engagement on social media. Social media platforms like Meta, meanwhile, have steadily shifted resources — and users’ interactions — away from news. Alongside these shifts have come broader changes in which platforms people, and particularly younger audiences, are using in general and for news. This includes the rise of less “social” platforms like TikTok, which emphasize content broadcasted by creators over peer-to-peer interactions.

Publishers should be aware of these trends and consider new ways to broaden and deepen engagement with a more passive or reactive majority. Given the connection between users’ perceptions of their news experiences and their willingness to actively participate in them, one means of building and connecting with audiences may be to invest in fostering healthy digital spaces.

And, as the novelty of the participatory opportunities of social media fades, it may be time for publishers, journalists, and researchers to rethink what news engagement and participation mean in a more online but less openly participatory news environment. That includes reflecting on the audiences left behind when these spaces are overtaken by toxicity or partisanship – often the same people who have long been underserved or misrepresented by the news media.

Kirsten Eddy is a postdoctoral research fellow in digital news at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Photo of a newspaper on a bench by Kristina D.C. Hoeppner used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     June 26, 2023, 2:51 p.m.
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