The history of media consumption habits in Ireland is punctuated by colloquial language, but with these international overtones: TV series from Dallas to Breaking Bad, Sky Sports, late-night American talk shows and British tabloids – the influence of British and American media culture is indisputable. . However, this does not mean that we exist in an exclusively imperialized or derivative media state, especially when it comes to news. Again, this year’s Digital News Report showed us that consumption of national radio and TV news remains strong among Irish audiences, and that the recognition and reach of our indigenous newspaper brands predominates.
However, it is in fluid online spaces, when users browse social media feeds, that we increasingly see more fragmentation and blurred social and geographic boundaries. Much of the mainstream conversation about journalism and news consumption in these digital spaces over the past six years has been dominated by two key issues: polarized audiences and misinformation, both of which conjure up a barrage of examples of the Brexit and Trump who brought these issues to the fore. before in 2016. The temptation may be to map these socio-political experiences of the UK and US onto Ireland, given our exposure to their news media, but this year’s report provides further evidence of why this is a problematic model to follow – when there are even reasons for optimism.
The issue of polarization is of concern to many, as audiences seem to exist in their own digital social silos, built around their own curated media choices coupled with algorithms and recommended content continually pushed by tech companies. It’s important to understand the effect this has on perceptions of “the other side” and to explore if the public really feels this kind of division that we hear so much about, and if it translates to the media. Respondents were asked about their perception of political proximity or remoteness from the main news outlets in Ireland: 62% of respondents said they were ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ close to each other, suggesting that most of the Irish public don’t actually perceive their news providers are ideologically opposed, a stark contrast to just 35% in the UK and US who think the news outlets are close to each other ; Ireland is also above the EU average of 51%. Even at a basic level of political ideology, 34% of respondents to this year’s survey describe themselves as being at the center (compared to 20% in the UK and 22% in the US): in a European context, only Germany and the Czech Republic had more for their “centre” categories. When this is expanded to include centre-right and centre-left, this middle ground captures 60% of Irish news consumers.
When it comes to misinformation, the 2022 results actually show an annual drop of seven percentage points from last year for those who say they’re concerned about what’s right and wrong on the internet (58% ). While this is clearly not a solved problem, it does suggest that the public feels more confident in navigating digital spaces and some of the perils associated with misleading and inaccurate information. Perhaps the post-Brexit/2016 ‘fake news’ frenzy in the US, coupled with the dubious Covid news flows that followed, has subsided somewhat in terms of public panic.
These two factors of misinformation and perceived polarization will affect the trust that the public has in the news as an institution. Over half (52%) of Irish respondents agreed that “you can trust most information most of the time”, which is higher in the UK (34%) and the US (26% ), positioning us closer to Europe. neighbors such as Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Norway and the Netherlands, all of which are between 50 and 56%. Even among specific brands, in Ireland three in four people (74%) say they trust RTÉ. This collective support or endorsement of a media institution cannot be taken for granted: in the United States last year, the most trusted specific brands were CBS News and ABC News, both at 48%.
These findings are just a sampling of what is covered in the report, but they all point in the same direction: the media culture of the UK and the US, and the narratives associated with these social and political contexts, do not cannot simply be imported into the Irish landscape. That’s not to say that our media institutions should ever be above reproach, but rather the numbers reiterate the broad consensus and common ground that underpins our news-consuming audience, which is likely the envy of many countries. currently feeling defined by ideological division and politicized news. media.
Ireland has a central common ground and relative cohesion – facilitated and reinforced by a multi-party electoral system – which contrasts sharply with the binaries and polarization evident elsewhere. Furthermore, the findings of this year’s report serve as a reminder that the ideological tensions and conflicts that can flourish online do not necessarily translate into fragmented offline media: the tribal nature of many online interactions is not representative of people’s entire media regimes, nor does it capture the media habits of the majority, let alone the political values of everyone.
That said, given that the public has so many options and alternatives, news producers should not take this self-confidence for granted: the skeleton of moderate cohesion that underlies the Irish public must be fleshed out with responsible and thoughtful news content that avoids fueling conflict and division, but provides fair, verified and responsible criticism of those under scrutiny. News producers may be tempted to reach the extreme limits in a hunt for “two sides” or balance, or to reproduce the partisan and ideological hostility that is a staple of American and British news; the risk is that in doing so, they overlook – and potentially isolate – the majority of their audience.
Dr. Dawn Wheatley is an assistant professor in the School of Communications at DCU. The Digital News Report Ireland 2022, sponsored by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland (BAI), is available at bay.ie.