Indians concerned about disinformation, role of digital media during elections: Reuters India Digital News Report

Findings from the first ever India Digital News Report 2019, published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism which looks at news consumption patterns, trust in the news, media literacy and views on disinformation

image--Reuters Institute India digital Report on Election-time thoughts of Indians with internet mediabrief

An election-year study of media habits across India reveals that the future of news in India is mobile-first and platform-dominated, and that audiences are mistrustful of news and concerned with disinformation.

English-language Indians with internet access were surveyed for the India Digital news Report, based on a study commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. It documents the concerns people have around disinformation and the role digital media news will play in the election. The India Digital News Report has found that:

  • Smartphones are the primary device for news for most respondents (68%) in our India Digital News Report 2019 – higher than comparable markets
  • Majority find news through platforms, particularly search (32%) and social media (24%), with fewer accessing news directly (18%)
  • More than half (55%) fear that expressing political viewpoints online could get them into trouble with the authorities
  • There are comparatively low overall levels of trust in news, with a majority concerned about disinformation (57%), hyperpartisan content (51%), and poor journalism (51%) – key trends facing the country in this election year

India is a mobile-first news market with an overwhelming majority (68%) identifying their smartphones as their primary device for consuming news, markedly higher than similar global markets like Brazil and Turkey.

Audiences are largely accessing news via ‘side-doors’ such as search (32%) and social media (24%), rather than going directly to sources of news (18%).

In the run-up to the country’s elections, billed by some as the world’s largest democratic exercise, many are concerned that expressing political viewpoints online could affect how friends or family (49%) and colleagues or acquaintances (50%) see them, with a majority worried that doing so could find them in trouble with the authorities (55%).

The report also finds overall trust in news (36%) is lower than other large, comparable markets such as Brazil and Turkey.

A majority (57%) also express concerns over whether online news is real or fake, with many concerned with hyper-partisan content (51%), poor journalism (51%), as well as news that is false (50%).

The report presents a snapshot of how English-language internet users in India engage with news and media, and shows they are embracing a mobile-first, platform-dominated media environment where search engines, social media, and messaging applications play a key role in how people access and use news. It also finds that the respondents have low trust in many news media, high concerns over the possible implications of expressing political views, and are worried about different kinds of disinformation

The report captures some key trends in digital news consumption of India’s English-language news users with internet access.

In the past few years, India has seen explosive growth in Internet access, especially mobile, and subsequent increase in digital media consumption across the country. These developments have not only affected the news and entertainment landscape of the country but also impacted the nature of public debate in the country.

These shifts have and will continue to have a significant impact on the practice of journalism, media organisations and the business of news.

Some  more important findings from the study:

  1. Online news (56%), especially news from social media, has outpaced print media (16%) as the primary source of news for users under 35, while users who are older than 35 consume a mix of both online and offline media.
  2. WhatsApp is the biggest social media platform in the country with 82% of respondents using the private messaging app, while 75% of respondents use Facebook. An equal number of respondents (52%) use these platforms as a source of news.
  3. Our respondents had low trust in news overall (36%) and even the news they personally use (39%). This is lower than respondents in most other countries, however, they express higher levels of trust in news they get through search (45%) and social media (34%) than respondents in many other countries.
  4. A significant number of respondents are ready for more personalised mobile news alerts (12% already use alerts as their main source of online news) and online video. Interestingly, of those who don’t already donate or pay for news , 31% said they are “somewhat likely” to pay, and 9% said they are “very likely” to pay for news in the next year.

Legacy brands most popular with online news consumers

As Indian internet users increasingly turn to online sources of news, they often opt for the digital offerings of legacy brands. NDTV (56% offline, 47% online) and The Times of India (46% offline, 40% online) are far more widely used amongs the respondents than any other brands.

The strong preference for just a couple of news organisations has similarities with Brazil – where Rede Globo’s television and digital offerings have very high reach – and is very different from a market like the United States, where no brands have comparable reach.

Beyond NDTV and The Times of India, other legacy brands like the Hindustan Times, The Hindu, and the Indian Express are among the top ten news websites by reach. Aggregators like Yahoo!, Rediff and MSN are also widely used, and the BBC has significant reach across broadcast (27%) and online (23%) among the English language respondents.

Online, new digital-born media such as Firstpost and Scoopwhoop are attracting a significant percentage of weekly users.

Other new online entrants like the non-profit The Wire (7%) and the news site Scroll (5%) have smaller weekly audiences than the major legacy brands and the most widely used digital brands.

As a clear illustration of how digital and print still supplement rather than supplant each other for many users in India, a number of major English-language In ian newspapers have wider offline reach than online reach – a very different scenario from most other markets covered in the Digital News Report research, where newspapers tend to have far smaller offline reach than online reach.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, co-author of the report, said, “Indians are rapidly embracing digital, mobile, and social media, and advertisers are bound to follow. This will be the end of the era in which Indian news media could expect advertising to more or less alone cover their costs, and means that it is critically important that Indian news media develop new, sustainable business models for online news. The alternative is structural decline, increased reliance on government advertising, or on subsidies from proprietors, all of which could undermine editorial independence and put professional journalism at risk.”

Taberez Ahmed-Neyazi , co-author of the report said: “This is a very important contribution to understand how English-speaking urban middle class use digital media for various purposes and how they engage with news and express themselves online. Given the massive growth in mobile Internet connections, more Indians are now online, which is going to have important implications for politics as political parties and leaders try to target them through their campaigns.”

The report is based on a study commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and conducted by YouGov using an online questionnaire in early January 2019. The methodology is similar to the Reuters Institute 2018 Digital News Report survey. A total of 1,013 individuals were surveyed, and, says the report, the  sample is reflective of the English-speaking population in India that has access to the internet.

As a result, it is skewed towards male, affluent, and educated respondents. As an online survey, the results will further under-represent the consumption habits of people who are not online (typically older, less affluent, and with limited formal education).

The survey filtered out anyone who said that they had not consumed any news in the past month, in order to ensure that irrelevant responses didn’t adversely affect data quality.

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