This essay examines in detail how online news users in the UK get breaking news, and further analysis on a fast-moving story. We asked a series of questions about which platforms they would go to for these types of news and about how they use social media, search engines, and news websites, in order to better understand the news ‘journeys’ that people make to get to the news content they are seeking.
This analysis helps us understand how the online news environment is being negotiated by users. To what extent are they driven by brand or simply want the most convenient access to the news event or issue; to what extent are they seeking professional or ‘amateur’ voices (e.g. friends, eyewitnesses, other non-specialist commentators)? How do people find the relevant news information once on the social media or search engine site, and do they pay attention to the types of site they end up on? And, importantly, what are the demographic differences between age groups in particular, which can give us indications of the likely future direction of travel of such habits?
These questions are of importance to policy-makers and practitioners. The landscape of news provision and consumption is changing rapidly. While traditional brands such as the BBC in particular endure in the UK, it is nonetheless the case that the rapid growth of social media as a means of news consumption has a range of possible ramifications. One is that, while choice proliferates, actual consumption may narrow: people may stay within a limited range of sources, selected via means that involve the tastes of their peers rather than a more societally connected, broader news agenda. Another is that people may pay less attention to the provenance of their news source, as long as it provides what appears to be the latest information on a topic. A third is that the ways of reading news may change, which may impact upon the extent of content encountered by serendipity or chance. While scrolling through a feed is currently the main way of getting content on a social media site, other means, such as finding a hashtag which pulls together the best information, may become increasingly popular.
TV continues to be the most popular platform for breaking news – but this masks considerable differences by age group
We asked our online news sample where they would go for the latest information about a breaking news story, and where they would go for analysis or further depth on such a story. We wanted to see the extent of difference in the use of news sources, and the relative importance of different platforms.
For a breaking news story, participants are most likely to use TV (60%), then websites or apps (35%), then radio (16%), then search engines (14%), then social media (13%), with printed newspapers at 9% for obvious reasons.
The picture is broadly similar for analysis or further depth – TV is most-used (51%), then websites or apps (35%). However, newspapers are far more likely to be used for this purpose, with one in five (20%) of online news users saying they use them.
Where people go for breaking news and in depth analysis
Thus television remains considerably ahead of other platforms for both initial reporting of a news event, and then further information and explanation, when the overall UK sample is considered. However, this pattern belies considerable differences by age group.
News sources for breaking news, by age
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|Type of news source, %||All||18-24||25-34||55+|
Q10a. Where do you tend to go for the VERY LATEST information on a fast-moving news story? (e.g. an earthquake, major riot or political crisis) (Please select all that apply)
Base: UK 2082
News sources for further depth, by age
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|Type of news source, %||All||18-24||25-34||55+|
Q10b. Where do you tend to go for ANALYSIS or FURTHER DEPTH on a fast moving news story? (e.g. an earthquake, major riot or political crisis) (Please select all that apply)
Base: UK 2082
When traditional and online forms are aggregated, the distinction between age groups is stark and in mirror image – for both types of news, young people aged 18–24 are twice as likely to use online as traditional sources while for people aged 55+ it is the reverse.
The BBC is the most popular online brand for a fast-moving news story by a significant margin
We wanted to understand which online news brands were used for breaking news and for in-depth analysis, and in particular to find out what differences there are between the two types of news.
Which online news brands are used, and how they are used – online news sites used
Which online news brands are used, and how they are used – types of content accessed
There is very little stated distinction between the two types of news. The BBC is most popular by a significant margin – 80% of those that use websites for these kinds of news say this is a source. The next most popular source overall is Sky News (21%), although for breaking news, those aged 18-24 are less likely to nominate it as a source (10%), and more likely to nominate the Mail Online (18%). This source is relatively popular both among younger age groups – 18–34 – and older age groups – 55+.
The majority of participants say they use these branded sites for headlines (69%) and also for longer stories (51%) when accessing for breaking news. They are equally likely to use these two categories for depth analysis (60% and 57%). Live pages are likely to be used by four in ten for fast-moving news stories – a considerable difference to their use in a general news situation (8%), as seen in section 4.2.
As seen elsewhere in this report, the preference for text-based information online remains, with little sign of younger people preferring video over text.
Three-quarters of search engine users choose sites they know and trust
As stated earlier, 14% of online news users nominate search engines as a news source both for breaking and in-depth news. This rises to 19% of 18–24s.
The majority of this group say they use search engines to access information about the news event itself, rather than as a means to get to a particular news site. For breaking news, 57% of search engine users say they enter one or two keywords related to the story, and 49% say they use a search engine like Google news that pulls together news from different sources. In contrast, only one quarter (26%) said they entered the name of a news site. The figures are almost identical for depth analysis of news.
Once people have a list of news sources on their results page, which do they click on? To what extent do they pay heed to the brand that has provided the news? Three-quarters of this sample say they click onto sites that they trust (74% for both breaking news and depth analysis), while one in four say they don’t notice the brand, but just use the source that looks the most relevant (21% for breaking news and 25% for depth analysis). Those in ABC1 socio-economic groups are more likely to make an explicit choice to go to sites they trust for breaking news (79% of ABC1s vs 66% of C2DEs).
Social media news consumption involves using professional and ‘amateur’ sources in broadly equal measure
As noted above, while social media are used by a relatively small number of online news users for breaking news (13%), this rises to 30% of 18–24s saying they use them for this purpose. We examined these social media users in more detail, to understand which sources they used and how they used them.
Which social media sites are used in a fast moving news scenario
Of those that use social media for breaking news, six in ten (58%) use the relatively passive technique of scrolling through their feed for the relevant information they are seeking. Four in ten (39%) say they search via keywords, and a similar proportion say they find and follow a relevant hashtag (39%). One in four (27%) says they follow someone who is an expert on the story. Habits relating to further analysis show very similar results.
Social media comprise very different levels and types of news content, from traditional news brands to personal friends’ discussion. We asked which types of voice on social media they tend to pay most attention to – to what extent are professional or amateur voices sought?
Which social media posts are given most attention?
For breaking news, nearly half of respondents (46%) say that they pay attention to posts by news brands/companies, and a similar proportion (45%) that they use posts by journalists – indicating that the individual journalist is as popular as the news brand in this area. Four in ten (39%) use posts by eyewitnesses. One in five (21%) says they use posts by personal friends. At a net level, some three-quarters (77%) use professional sources and 65% ‘amateur sources’ such as posts by eyewitnesses, friends, and other people.
In terms of more in-depth analysis, people are less likely to turn to posts by eyewitnesses, which is understandable given the need for a different kind of information, but perhaps surprisingly are also less likely to turn to posts by journalists (31% vs 45% for breaking news).
This short essay has set out the ways that people say they are accessing different forms of news, and which types of content and sources they pay attention to.
While TV news remains a dominant source of news at an overall level, this is not the case for younger age groups, where online sources are most used. However, the BBC brand for online news is very popular, across all age groups. One quarter of search engine users say they don’t really notice which news brands they are clicking on. It will be interesting to see whether this response grows over time.
Among users of social media for news, browsing is the main means for finding out information, and there is a broadly equal distribution between professional and amateur voices for both types of news. This balance between official and unofficial voices is important to track, to see whether the inherently social or user-generated dimension of this platform becomes less important, and its ability to operate as a convenient aggregator of branded and professional content develops.