Wednesday 12 December 2018

Steve Dempsey: 'Worrying elitism in news access'

Access to quality news should be a key consideration for any democracy.
Access to quality news should be a key consideration for any democracy.
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Joseph Stiglitz wrote the book on inequality. Or one of the better books, at any rate. In the Price of Inequality he wrote: "The top one per cent have the best houses, the best educations, the best doctors, and the best lifestyles". And it looks like the top one per cent also get better access to news too. And poorer audiences get worse news and less of it - especially online.

New research from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism has found that access to news in the UK is more unevenly distributed than income. The research also found that there is greater social inequality in news consumption online than offline - ironic given that digital do-gooders have pitched the internet as a democratic agent for spreading information to all.

Lower social grade individuals were found to use significantly fewer online sources and are less likely than their well-off counterparts to go directly to news providers' websites.

"Those who are interested in news and politics are more likely to find more sources and to become more knowledgeable," said Antonis Kalogeropoulos, one of the report's authors. "While those who tend to prefer entertainment over news, are more likely to tune out of news altogether."

Methodology is key in research like this. So how was this study conducted? "We surveyed more than 2,000 news users using an online questionnaire," Kalogeropoulos said. "So our survey is representative of the online population in the UK and not the whole population. As this survey deals with news consumption, we filtered out anyone who said that they had not consumed any news in the past month, in order to ensure that irrelevant responses didn't adversely affect data quality."

Kalogeropoulos also compared the reach of some online and offline news brands across different social grades. He found that a number of UK news organisations, including tabloid newspapers and TV channels, have significantly higher reach offline with lower social grade individuals than with higher social grade individuals. Unsurprisingly, some up-market newspapers have higher reach amongst higher social grade individuals than lower social grade individuals. But here's the interesting bit: none of the brands analysed had a higher online reach with lower social grade individuals.

"This was actually my biggest surprise when looking at the research," Kalogeropoulos said. "I expected that some news brands that are clearly geared towards lower grade individuals will be used more by that audience, compared to high-grade individuals. But since many lower-grade respondents tune out of news, the online news environment is very uneven."

But what of the BBC, which you'd expect to be a great leveller of news consumption in the UK. Does the Beeb even things out? And would there be greater inequality in countries where no such institution existed? "It is quite possible that in countries without a strong public service broadcaster inequalities will be larger." Kalogeropoulos says. "Previous research has shown that strong public service broadcaster works as an equalizer in information inequalities."

Given the scourges of misinformation and electoral interference from overseas, access to quality news should be a key consideration for any democracy. As Kalogeropoulos points out, things may get worse as more news websites increasingly turn to paywalls to make ends meet. If only those who can afford to pay get access to premium news, the less well-off will be forced to make do with the freemium stuff.

This is a worrying prediction, which policy-makers should be tracking. It's easy to blame Facebook, Cambridge Analytica and other for fake news, echo chambers and increased polarisation, but perhaps the situation's more complicated. Access to news needs to be understood age, gender, or ethnicity as well as social grade. For example, another recent study, this time from the Pew Research Centre shows that young Europeans are less trusting of the news media than older generations, and less likely to think the news media is doing a good job. This trickles down into coverage of specific topics; Pew's study found that younger Europeans are less satisfied with how the news media covers immigration. Smaller, but still noticeable gaps can be seen in the ratings younger audiences give to the news media for their coverage of the economy and crime.

Different demographics will always have different perspectives on the world, but if we want an inclusive, democratic society, an informed electorate across age, gender and social grade is vital.

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