News in the age of Covid: Older brands garner trust

Where do you get your news? Your reaction to that might be: Well, it depends what kind of news you mean. Ok, so where would you go if you wanted to know how prevalent Covid-19 was in your area, or when you’re likely to be called for your vaccine? And would you use the same source if you wanted to know what people think of Harry and Meghan’s latest business enterprise?

In our new digital era we cast our net wide in the search for information and entertainment, so that newer media brands like Facebook and Twitter rub shoulders with established, more traditional brands like the BBC, itv, Channel 4 and newspaper titles. In the midst of this media, another source has jostled for place over the past year: the government. They all fulfil a variety of information needs, but the pertinent question in relation to Covid news has become: which is the most trustworthy?

With infection rates and social restriction rules in constant flux, people are thirsty for news and guidance. However, a survey we conducted found two thirds of people felt government measures to tackle Covid-19, with frequently changing slogans and rules, have been confusing. Meanwhile, social media feeds, while full of useful information, have also contained false claims and misleading advice. At a time of crisis, people have chosen to turn away from complicated government guidance and ungoverned forums towards traditional news brands instead.

The most-used source of news and information about Covid-19 has been traditional media – newspapers and public broadcasters. PAMCO found that, in the UK, combined print and digital audiences for newspaper brands grew 20% between summer 2019 and the same period in 2020, and that there was a huge spike in readership at the very start of the pandemic. We conducted a survey in the UK and the US to find out why, and found that 21% of people trust news brands more than they did before Covid-19 struck; 37% said newspaper brands have more reliable information about coronavirus than social media. Although they might need to fact-check across traditional media, the consistency of information helps people calibrate their opinions and makes them feel well informed and confident of passing on the right information to others. We also found there were certain needs that have increased during the pandemic, including connection, learning new things, participation and debate; with trustworthy information at their disposal, people feel happier using traditional media’s digital platforms as a place to fulfil those needs.

While people might not have thought so much about the trustworthiness of their news sources before the pandemic, this crisis has thrown into stark relief the difference between long-standing, more tightly controlled media and newer, more organic brands. There is a need for expert curation and editorship, and while social media offers a wide range of views, the reassuring fact-checking element just isn’t there.

This is great news for older, traditional papers and broadcasters, whose trustworthy reputation provides a strong foundation on which to build their brands in an age when facts and authenticity are harder than ever to come by. It might also be a wake-up call for newer media, which excels at connecting people but for whom it is crunch time on how to deal with the uncontrolled unleashing of opinion over facts.