Colleen Murrell: Long Live Television – a trusted COVID-19 source of news

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In her essay Long Live Television – a trusted COVID-19 source of news, Professor Colleen Murrell highlights the Reuters Digital News Report’s (DNR) findings that there has been a marked increase over the last year in the number of people turning to television as their main news source.

41 per cent of those polled reported that they rely on television for their daily news, an eight per cent increase on the previous year. But will this increase last or, Murrell asks, “is it just a momentary blip in an otherwise downward trend in which Irish news consumers continue to withdraw from television and move online over time?”

As the national public broadcaster, RTÉ certainly hope not. The DNR found that RTÉ News was the most trusted source in Ireland, with 78 per cent of respondents relying on them for trustworthy information in a time of crisis. This is perhaps a little unsurprising considering that as the state broadcaster, RTÉ is duty-bound to prioritise things like Government announcements, HSE updates and NPHET briefings. This is backed up by the DNR data, which shows that the Taoiseach’s St Patrick’s Day speech in March of 2020 was watched by 1.6 million people. The subsequent RTÉ Nine O’Clock television news bulletin was watched by 1.3 million, a 200% increase on the previous year. 

Murrell also highlights the increase in news consumption among younger demographics. When comparing March 2019 to March 2020, daily viewing of evening news bulletins was up 20% overall. In the ‘youth’ category (15- 24), viewing was up 44% and in ‘young adults’ (25-34) it was up 53%.

While the figures are indeed encouraging, is this the start of a major shift or just a temporary blip? Have more people been watching the news simply out of boredom during lockdown rather than an interest in current affairs? This, Murrell says, is a key question to consider for RTÉ. 

With an estimated €50 million in lost revenue from non-payment of TV licence fees and a further €60 million worth of internal cuts on the horizon, the state broadcaster is now pushing for what they call a ‘device-independent media charge’ which would see all households paying a fee, regardless of whether they own a television or not. This would secure funding but not necessarily the all-important viewers. To do that, Murrell tells us, RTÉ will “need to keep refreshing its online platforms and reaching out to audiences via social media if it is to profit from this sudden renewed interest among the young.”

Professor Murrell’s essay and the rest of the Reuters Digital news Report can be viewed here.

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