A new study finds that social media users tend to prefer opinion over objectivity. That presents a challenge for traditional news organizations.

The dominant trend in news consumption across western democracies is that consumers increasingly obtain information about the world through social networks rather than consuming it directly from news publishers’ sites.

This has had wide-ranging effect on the news industry. Most notably, with the majority of advertising dollars now going to Google or Facebook, it has cratered the revenue model for journalism. But the quest for the likes, faves and retweets that are the status currency of social media has also re-shaped the character and altered the journalistic values of the news ecosystem. The type of news that flourishes on social-media platforms is often framed in a way that panders to the biases of the reader, and tends to be more sensationalistic, ideological and opinionated.

This stands in contrast to the norms and practices that evolved as journalism professionalized in the early decades of the 20th century. These practices are not universally followed, and variations in how these norms are ordered and interpreted have always existed, depending on the format (print, radio, television), ownership structure and even region. But taken together, certain values have underwritten mainstream journalism as practiced in Canada and the United States since the end of the Second World War. News coverage strove for balance, which usually involved telling both sides of a story or dispute. There was a belief that reporting should be objective, and that news shouldn’t be coloured by the ideology of the reporter or the editors. And these values were supported by a clear separation of news from opinion.

How do news consumers rank these values? Do those who consume more news through social media have different preferences about which values should dominate? And more specifically, does this represent a move away from the traditional news values that were the consensus for much of the 20th century? If so, this has important implications for how news organizations should adapt what they do for a form of journalism that is increasingly social media-based.

To find out, we conducted a study that was commissioned by the Max Bell School of Public Policy at McGill and administered by the Loewen Lab at the Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Toronto. The study included 2,245 English-Canadian respondents, including English-speakers in Quebec, and 452 French-speaking Quebecers. Among other things, we asked respondents about their news-consumption habits, their political preferences, their beliefs about the world, their trust in news organizations and what values they believe should guide journalistic practices.

The survey revealed important differences in news values between those who consume news via social media and those who do not. In general, social-media consumers care measurably less about traditional news values than those who do not rely on social media. This is true for respondents regardless of whether they consume news in English or French.

We found that those who consume news primarily through social media want news that differs, not only or primarily in content, but in the values that underwrite its production. Specifically, they want news that is happy to sacrifice balance and objectivity in favour of news that delivered faster, is more opinionated, and more transparently partisan or ideological. Those who rely on social media to consume their news place measurably less value on traditional news values than do those who use no social media at all.

For example, only 19 per cent of English-reading respondents who consume no news via social media agreed with the statement “Media outlets do not have to be balanced to be fair.” That compares with the 26 per cent of those who consume news via two or more social-media sources who agreed with the statement. The contrast was even starker for French-reading respondents, where those who rely on two or more social-media sources were more than twice as likely as those who rely on no sites to believe that media outlets do not have to be balanced to be fair (34 per cent vs 15 per cent).

These survey results come at a time when the traditional news values of the mainstream media, in particular the commitment to balance and objectivity in reporting, are being increasingly questioned. At the same time, there is a growing sense amongst legacy news organizations that they need to work to regain the lost trust of their readership. The crucial question, though, is whether trust can be regained by doubling down on the traditional values of news or by abandoning them. What is suggested by our results is that the answer depends on the audience, or at least on the preferred method of news consumption.

Some influential observers, such as New York University professor Jay Rosen, have gone so far as to argue that an excessive adherence to telling both sides of a story helped elect Donald Trump and has contributed to a more general decline in trust in the mainstream media. Rosen has argued that what journalists need to do is abandon what he calls “the view from nowhere.” Instead, he suggests they adopt the motto “transparency is the new objectivity,” and simply declare their biases.

In this respect, Rosen might be accurately reflecting the value preferences of those readers who access their news through social media. And this in turn offers a path forward for those news outlets looking to build trust and loyalty through these platforms. But there are also a couple of difficulties here.

The first is for mainstream news outlets that are trying to serve two or more distinct audiences: a legacy print audience, a loyal web-based audience and a perhaps more transient social-media based audience. Trying to serve two or more audiences, each of which brings a distinct set of values and expectations to the table, will be extremely difficult, and hard decisions will have to be made about whose values will predominate.

Second, our survey results suggest that critics such as Jay Rosen are correct in arguing that the social media-based news experience puts different demands on journalists, how they present themselves and how they frame their reporting. But to the extent that this involves abandoning the values of objectivity and balance that have animated news production for the past half century or more, it means potentially exacerbating the current trends toward partisanship and polarization in journalism that are currently fueling much of the vitriol that has become characteristic of social media.

If this is the case, then playing to the market – producing the type of content that does well within the market incentives of social-media platforms – could be better for the business of journalism. But it could ultimately undermine its role in our democracy.

Photo: Shutterstock, by Rawpixel.com


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