Times testing fractured media landscape

Special to Western News

Despite its struggles, people continue to turn to sources in traditional media, like the New York Times, CBC or London Free Press, because they have confidence that the information will be accurate, fair and balanced.

Editor’s note: Visit the official WesternCOVID-19 website for the latest campus updates.

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The COVID-19 pandemic will continue to test a fractured media environment’s ability to balance speed, accuracy and consistency – all in real time with lives on the line. It is a test, according to Western experts, for traditionalists and techies, alike.

When it comes to where we get our news, there is a huge generational divide among the audience to be considered, Journalism professor Jeremy Copeland explained.

“For many years, we’ve heard statistics pointing to the rising age of TV news viewers. The numbers might vary, but they show a consistent trend towards an aging audience,” he said.

Citing numbers reported by Adweek, Copeland notes that CNN’s median U.S. viewer age in 2017 was 60, while that of Fox News and MSNBC was 65. Those figures lead to challenges reaching the entire population with authoritative information about the outbreak.

Copeland teaches both undergraduate and graduate level students. In each class, he asks students where they get their news from. Perhaps unsurprisingly, fewer than 1-in-10 have watched television news in the last month, with similar numbers for talk radio. The students do, however, get a lot of news through videos on their mobile devices and current affairs programming on podcasts.

Despite this, Copeland says news from traditional sources still offer some advantages: “In a word – credibility. In an age where there is so much false and misleading news out there, news organizations with a trusted brand are incredibly important.”

People continue to turn to sources like the New York Times, CBC or London Free Press because they have confidence that the information will be accurate, fair and balanced. Copeland acknowledges that growing numbers of American and Canadian consumers are distrustful of all mainstream news, but they remain a minority.

Comparatively, social media is “a wild west” where traditional outlets jockey for space alongside influencers, conspiracy theorists, alternative news propagandists, and “your Uncle Fred.” Copeland says information on social media is reaching a wider audience than traditional mediums, for better or worse.

“More and more people of all ages are getting their news on mobile devices through apps. That has a big impact on what they are hearing and learning about.”

In previous eras, the news was curated by human news editors. Audiences saw the stories news editors thought they should see. With digital media, especially social media, algorithms make those decisions.

The problem with that, Copeland stresses, is that important stories can get weeded out for popular ones.

“For example, I would guess that Canadians on social media were seeing a lot more information about the COVID-19 situation in China and Italy in their feeds back in February than they are now. Now, people are probably primarily seeing local, provincial and national information.”

He continued, “Canadians also need to continue to be informed about what’s happening in China and Italy. The coronavirus hit those countries hard. To some extent, we should expect to follow in the same path. It would help us to prepare for what is coming, both in terms of the negative impact, as well as when and how things will start to turn around.”

Faculty of Information and Media Studies professor Anabel Quan-Haase says one of social media’s strengths is its ability to collate many sources of information and data.

“Social media helps move a wide range of information from a diverse set of sources. Take my WhatsApp, where I’m getting videos from experts, updates from the World Health Organization and Germany’s Koch Institute, links to funny videos, etc. I would never be able to put together such varied and relevant sources by myself. Basically, social media is doing all that work for me,” she said.

And while she acknowledges that the proliferation of misinformation is a huge downside of social media, Quan-Haase also highlights how users of social media can help each other understand the information they are receiving by adding context, new ideas, clarifications and solidarity.

She continued, “My social networks are helping make sense of the information by adding comments, criticizing certain types of information, and also pointing out where more information is needed.

“My Twitter network has also helped show the depth of the pandemic, but also the fact that other people are out there experiencing what I’m experiencing. Through jokes, humour and silly posts, it also helps us cope. It shows that other academics and Canadians are dealing with similar situations.”

Admittedly, traditional media cannot capture the same kind of breadth of content one sees on social media. But more troubling, Copeland stresses, is that traditional news is struggling to do what it has done well for so long because of resources and staffing cuts.

“The local journalists I’ve spoken with are all going flat out at work every day covering COVID-19 stories. With the cuts to many newsrooms that we’ve seen in the past, covering a story of this magnitude may stretch newsrooms and journalists to the breaking point,” he explained.

The end result is that they might start missing important stories.

Copeland continued, “One of the things this pandemic reminds us of is the need for local reporting. Newspapers have closed in many smaller cities and towns across Ontario. That means many communities don’t have anyone telling them about how COVID-19 is affecting their cities.”