How do People Want the Media to Cover Politics?

As the structure of the media environment has changed in recent years, so has the relationship between politics and journalism. The growth of platforms like social media and video sites means that politicians can now communicate with the public more directly. This allows politicians to largely sidestep media scrutiny – the price they used to have to pay to get their message across – arguably shifting the balance of power, giving politicians the confidence to bend the rules that used to govern their relationship with the media. (Think, for example, of cases where political parties have used social media to spread re-edited versions of video interviews that make their candidate look better or their opponents look worse.)

Of course, much remains the same, but there’s also a sense that the news media are struggling to adapt to this new world, and may not always be as capable of holding politicians to account at a time when they have less control over what eventually reaches the public.

Journalists, politicians, academics, and other observers have offered a range of opinions on what the media should do in response, but the views of news audiences are rarely solicited – something that seems odd given that many news organisations have become increasingly audience focused in recent years. Few would argue that audiences should completely dictate journalistic practice, or the policy of the technology platforms, but what they think still matters – because journalism exists within the context of the audience.

In this section we present data on what the audience thinks about three key issues: (i) whether the media should report false statements from politicians, (ii) whether politicians should be able to advertise on platforms, and (iii) whether platforms should fact-check political adverts.

Somewhat unusually, we tend to find clear answers to these questions – both across countries and across different demographic groups. Most people think journalists should report false statements from politicians even if it gives them unwarranted attention, and most people think that platforms should block political adverts that contain inaccuracies even if it ultimately means the platforms become the arbiters of truth. However, whether or not people think political parties should be allowed to advertise on platforms in the first place seems to depend on the current rules governing political advertising on television.

Most of the time, and in most countries, there is a consensus on these issues that stretches across the left-right political spectrum. But we see different views when we look at people with different levels of interest in politics – with the most interested tending to prefer more open political communication environments that reflect the status quo.

A Note on the Questions

The issues covered here are complicated, so designing questions to tap people’s views on them is challenging. To simplify them for our respondents, we framed them as either/or issues by asking people to select one of two options (plus a don’t know), and worded them in a way that hinted at the underlying concerns. Of course, there is an infinite number of alternative wordings, some of which may produce different results.

A common reaction from journalists and academics to issues such as whether the news media should report false statements is to say that ‘it’s too complicated’ or ‘it depends’, and to conclude that it’s impossible to generalise across different situations. That may be partly true, but it is important to understand that – rightly or wrongly – most people are able to do this. Around 80–85% of people express a clear view to the questions included here, with the rest saying they don’t know. Don’t know responses are less common among those with higher education and higher political interest, so it seems unlikely that people ‘don’t know’ because it’s too complicated – rather, most are likely from people who don’t have strong views one way or the other.

People Want the Media to Report Potentially Dubious Statements from Politicians

A key concern for many media organisations across the world is how to cover politicians who have a reputation for consistently making false statements. Some worry that repeating false statements – even if they are fact-checked and clearly labelled as such – still gives politicians the attention they crave. In March 2020, some US media pundits similarly questioned whether it was right to live broadcast President Trump’s COVID-19 press conferences given that they might contain misinformation about the virus.1 On the other hand, some might argue that news organisations have a duty to report what politicians have said, regardless of whether it’s true or false.

And it’s this, it seems, that comes closer to what most people would prefer. In almost every market, people say that, when the media has to deal with a statement from a politician that could be false, they would prefer them to ‘report the statement prominently because it is important for the public to know what the politician said’ rather than ‘not emphasise the statement because it would give the politician unwarranted attention’.2

In Sweden, where the difference is very large, 62% of people would prefer the statement to be reported prominently, compared to just 10% who think the statement should be downplayed. We see the same pattern in the US and the UK, and indeed, in almost all other markets. Only in Chile is there some evidence that the opposite might be true, with 48% saying statements should be downplayed, and 40% saying they should be reported.

We might expect this preference for reporting to be even stronger if statements are reported as false, but it is important to understand that there are many situations where this is simply not possible. What’s clear, though, is that most people are uncomfortable with the idea of the news media hiding information from the public – even if they think it might be for the greater good.

As well as being consistent across almost all countries, this general view appears to be consistent across a range of different socio-demographic groups like age, gender, and political leaning. Even in the US, where some might assume partisan differences due to different political styles, a majority of those on the left (58%) and right (53%) would prefer potentially false statements to be reported prominently – though perhaps for different reasons.

However, if we look at differences by interest in politics across all markets, we see that, as interest goes up, people are more likely to take a view (as opposed to saying they don’t know), and that view is more likely to be that the news media should report what politicians have said. Those with the highest levels of political interest are around twice as likely to prefer potentially false statements from politicians to be reported.

People Less Comfortable with Politicians Advertising on Social Media

Recent debates about the role of the media in society have also focused on political advertising. Some countries have long had strict rules dictating how politicians and political parties advertise on television, but in many cases these rules have not been extended to social media. Furthermore, the potential for micro-targeting on some social networks, together with a lack of transparency over what each person sees on their feed, has led some commentators to question whether any form of political advertising should be permitted. In October 2019 Twitter announced that it would ban all forms political advertising, shortly after Mark Zuckerberg ruled out the possibility of a similar ban on Facebook, and in November, Google said it would no longer permit campaigns to micro-target voters with certain ads based on political attributes.

What do people think about this issue? Across countries, around half of all people surveyed (50%) think that politicians should be able to advertise on TV, but people are more sceptical about political advertising on platforms – which has 41% approval.

But in a sense, this misses the point, because the picture varies a lot by country, and in turn, the existing rules within that country. Support for political advertising on television tends to be lower in European countries like Germany, Denmark, and Norway, where regulation is already quite tight. Support in the US – where there are few restrictions – is much higher at 68%, and higher still among those on the right (83%).

This is important because if people approve of political advertising on TV, they normally approve of advertising on platforms too. Across all markets, 69% of those that approve of political advertising on television also approve of it on platforms. Similarly, 81% of those that think advertising on television should be banned also think that it should not be permitted on search and social either. The thinking seems to be, ‘if it’s OK for them to advertise on television, why can’t they advertise on social media too?’

This pattern also applies at the country level. If we plot national support for political advertising on television against support for political advertising on platforms we can see that the two go hand in hand.

People Want Technology Companies to Block Dubious Political Adverts

Of course, this view may be based on the assumption that political advertising on platforms will be held to the same standard and will work in broadly the same way. But we know that advertising on platforms differs quite strikingly, in terms of the transparency of the underlying technology, the ability to target certain groups, and the opportunity to disseminate thousands of adverts with different messages. A study by First Draft during the recent 2019 UK General Election found that a significant number of adverts from all political parties contained statements that had been flagged as (at least) partially incorrect by independent fact-checkers.3 This prompts important questions about the veracity of claims made in political advertising on platforms – and if and how it should be policed.

Assuming that most platforms continue to allow political advertising in some form – thus allowing them to sidestep the crucial issue of what counts as ‘political’ – then some might argue that they are responsible for ensuring that the information they contain is true. Others might have serious concerns about allowing technology companies to be the ones who decide between true and false.

Despite this, in all but a handful of countries, most people say they want technology companies to block advertisements from political parties that could be inaccurate, because they have a responsibility to ensure that information on their platform is accurate. The word could is important here, because it suggests that people would prefer platforms to err on the side of caution, and that people overwhelmingly want platforms to block adverts that are unquestionably false. Either way, there is little evidence of widespread concern over letting technology companies make decisions about what to block and what to allow. In particular in polarised and political disputes, platform companies may not want to be ‘arbiters of truth’ – and politicians may not want them to be either, at least when on the receiving end of content moderation – but much of the public seems to have no principled opposition to the companies taking on this role, at least for political advertising.

However, support for platforms stepping back from making decisions about veracity starts to grow if we focus on those with higher level of interest in politics. Those most interested in politics are twice as likely to favour platforms allowing political adverts that may contain inaccuracies. To connect this with an earlier finding, it seems that those most interested in politics have a stronger preference for more open environments for political communication, with fewer actors responsible for censoring information – even if it means that more falsehoods circulate.

However, unlike the previous question about whether the media should report potentially false statements, left-right partisanship does matter in some countries. In Germany, both left and right would prefer to see platforms block political adverts that could contain inaccuracies, but in the US, those on the right think they should be allowed.

The data cannot tell us why those with high political interest prefer the news media to adopt a more laissez-faire approach to politics. It may be because they feel better equipped to navigate a media environment like this and find it difficult to imagine the problems others might face, or perhaps because they feel better served by the status quo – where in most cases the media report false statements by politicians, and platforms do not fact-check political adverts.

Of course, media companies should not necessarily change their practices just to meet the preferences of the audience. These are difficult questions, and no response can satisfy everyone. We have focused on political claims here, but potentially inaccurate claims about coronavirus, for example, can have a direct human cost – and surely require a different approach.

But if the way politicians and political parties use the media is fundamentally changing, then the media may have to make some changes too. No amount of data on audience preferences can tell us exactly how, but it can highlight some of the problems with simplistic solutions. For example, it is sometimes said that the way to deal with politicians who lie is simply to stop reporting what they say. But no one likes to feel that things are being kept from them. So, are those who say this really describing a media environment they themselves would like to inhabit – or just one they would prefer other people to live in?