Traditional media, in particular the BBC, still provide the most trusted sources of relatively uncontaminated information, in the sea of material that washes into the lives of young people. This is one conclusion from an international research study looking at the way in which news is accessed, verified and passed on by university students in the UK, Norway and Israel.
We found however that in the UK, levels of trust in news and journalism are particularly low. One student sums it up: “My generation, we have had this sort of exposure to the whole scandal about phone hacking and that sort of thing, and I think, we are quite distrustful of journalism at the moment.”
But this does not mean that UK students feel that they have found other, more reliable sources of information. They have even lower levels of confidence in non-mainstream sources – fewer than half even trust their own Facebook friends. So for many, the only faint light in the sea of uncertainty is the BBC; and even here there is no ringing endorsement: “The fact that it’s funded by everybody gives it a certain truth in a way because, there is no really ... there is no one certain set people that is trying to bring out their ideologies.”
There is a similar breakdown of trust in journalism in Israel but students tend to use a variety of both mainstream and international news sources in order to locate themselves. Living in conditions of uncertainty these young people can be characterised as ‘news-junkies’, compulsively checking bulletins and their social media throughout the day.
In Norway the picture is different again. Norwegian students have a high level of trust in traditional media and tend to use their local newspapers (online) as a prime source of news, while keeping Facebook mainly for social activities. They are also more likely than their Israeli and British peers to regularly access news from foreign sources.
UK students on the other hand, are not plugged into any form of national news platform that gives then a diet of information on a daily basis. For those with an interest in news and politics, the Internet provides a wealth of random material, but it doesn’t come with a guide. For those attempting to navigate, the BBC provided at the very least some sort of compass.
However, those with no particular prior interest in news appeared to be passive consumers of whatever happened to turn up in their personal news streams. For a large number that means a diet of celebrity and sensation.
There is nothing new about this passive approach to news, apart from the circumstances in which it now occurs. International comparative studies of news consumption have demonstrated that there are higher levels of news knowledge, irrespective of social class, in those countries with public service television. This has been put down to the ‘trapping’ or hammocking effect of news scheduling, which ensures that people who tune in for East Enders, or the prime time show at nine in the evening will be likely to see the news headlines that come afterwards, just because they are still sitting in front of the TV.
As young people watch less TV they are increasingly less likely to encounter news broadcasts passively like this, and as newspaper sales decline they are also unlikely to see headlines on billboards or papers left on kitchen tables. On the other hand they do bump into news in their social media streams, often mixed up with stories that have no basis in reality at all. While they may be aware that some of the stories that come to them are not true, they are not always motivated to try and find out which are which. As one research interviewee told us: “it’s a fun story whether or not it’s true”.
Given that Facebook algorithms, and those of other social media tend to feed a reader ‘more of the same’ as soon as they click on a few links, the clear likelihood is that those who are less interested in politics or hard news, will gradually find such stories filtered out of their news stream. This is a major problem not only for the BBC but for the democratic purposes on which the BBC is based.
If the role of entertaining is out-sourced to commercial services such as Facebook there is no reason to suppose that the other BBC purposes of educating and informing will go with them. As entertainment, news and current affairs are disaggregated into personalised news streams, consumed on demand, we can expect to see an understanding of news and current affairs become the preserve only of the most motivated ‘news junkies’. Evidence coming from the United States indicates that this is already happening there. Working class people in the US are considerably less likely to be well informed about news than are their counterparts in, for example, Finland or Denmark.
The debate about the future of the BBC needs to turn away from concerns about whether or not Bake Off ought to be a commercial programme and ask a bigger question: how in the future do we want our young people to be educated and informed? Education and information without the leavening of entertainment may look more like a more respectable public purpose but what is the point of a public service that caters only for the minority who would probably pay for it anyway? If the BBC is to be publicly funded it needs to understand what it is for, and that should surely start with working out how to get relatively impartial news in front of even those people who may only consume it by accident.
This article is based upon a paper “Deep and narrow or
shallow and wide: a comparative study of
how young people find news via social media” by Angela Phillips, Eiri
Elvestad, Mira Feuerstein, presented to the Future of Journalism Conference in
Cardiff, September 2015.