The history of Ireland’s media consumption habits is punctuated by a familiar language but with those international twangs: TV dramas from Dallas to Breaking Bad, Sky Sports, latenight US chat shows, and British tabloids – the influence of UK and American media culture is unquestionable. However, this does not mean we exist in an exclusively imperialised or derivative media state, especially when it comes to news. Yet again, this year’s Digital News Report has shown us that domestic radio and TV news consumption remains strong among Irish audiences, and our native newspaper brands’ recognition and reach prevail.
Nevertheless, it is in fluid online spaces, as users scroll through social media feeds, where we always see more fragmentation and blurred social and geographic boundaries. Much of the mainstream conversations around journalism and news consumption in these digital spaces over the past six years has been dominated by two key issues: polarised audiences and misinformation, both of which conjure up a barrage of Brexit and Trumpian examples which brought these issues to the fore in 2016. The temptation may be to map those socio-political experiences from the UK and US onto Ireland, given our exposure to their news media, but this year’s Report provides further evidence for why this is a problematic template to follow – while there are even reasons to be optimistic.
The issue of polarisation has concerned many as audiences seemingly exist in their own digital social silos, built around their own self-selected media choices coupled with algorithms and recommended content continually nudged by technology companies. The effect this has on perceptions of “the other side” is important to understand, and to explore whether audiences really feel that kind of division we hear so much about, and if it translates to news outlets. Respondents were asked about their perception of how politically close together or far apart the main news organisations in Ireland are: 62% of people said either “quite” or “very” close together, suggesting most of the Irish audience do not actually perceive their news providers as ideologically opposed, a stark contrast to only 35% in both the UK and the US who believe news outlets are close together; Ireland is also above the EU average of 51%. Even at a basic level of political ideology, 34% of this year’s survey respondents described themselves as in the centre (compared with 20% in UK and 22% in US): in a European context, only Germany and the Czech Republic had higher for their “centre” categories. When this is expanded to include centre-right and centre-left, this middle ground captures 60% of Irish news consumers.
Regarding misinformation, 2022’s results actually show a seven percentage point annual decline from last year for those who say they are concerned about what is real and what is fake on the internet (58%). Although clearly not a resolved problem, this suggests that audiences are feeling more confident in navigating digital spaces and some of the perils associated with misleading and inaccurate information. Perhaps the post-Brexit/2016 US election “fake news” frenzy, coupled with the questionable Covid information flows that followed, have somewhat settled in terms of public panic.
These two factors of misinformation and perceived polarisation will affect the trust that audiences have in the news as an institution. More than half (52%) of Irish respondents agreed that “you can trust most news most of the time”, which is higher than the UK (34%) and the US (26%), positioning us closer to European neighbours like Sweden, Germany, Belgium, Norway and the Netherlands, which all sit between 50%-56%. Even among specific brands, in Ireland, three in every four people (74%) say they have trust in RTÉ. This collective support or endorsement towards a media institution cannot be taken for granted: in the US last year, the most trusted specific brands were CBS News and ABC News, both at 48%.
These results are just a sample of what is covered in the report, but all point in a similar direction: media culture from the UK and US, and the narratives associated with these social and political contexts, cannot be simply imported into the Irish landscape. This is not to suggest that our media institutions should ever be beyond reproach, but the figures instead reiterate the broad consensus and middle ground underpinning our news-consuming public, which is likely the envy of many countries currently feeling defined by ideological division and politicised news media.
Ireland has a core middle ground and relative cohesion – facilitated and reinforced by a multiparty electoral system – which lies in stark contrast to the binaries and polarisation evident elsewhere. Furthermore, the results from this year’s report serve as a reminder that ideological tensions and conflict which can flourish online do not necessarily translate into fragmented offline media: the tribal nature of many online interactions are not representative of people’s entire media diets, nor do they capture the media habits of the majority, let alone the political values of all.
That said, as audiences have so many options and alternatives, news producers should not take this confidence in them for granted: the skeleton of moderate cohesion underpinning Irish audiences should be fleshed out with responsible and considered news content that avoids fuelling conflict and division, but which a provides fair, verified and responsible critique of those under scrutiny. News producers may be tempted to reach for the extreme edges in some hunt for “two sides” or balance, or to replicate the partisan and ideological hostility which is a staple of US and UK 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.
This essay originally appeared as part of the 2022 Digital News Report Ireland. The full report can be accessed Here.