Viewers Still Watch Foreign News on TV, Not Online

April 26, 2013 • Digital News • by

Old fashioned evening television bulletins are still more popular than websites for foreign news, and audiences are more interested in foreign news than they believe they are, according to research by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

The report highlights the importance of carefully selected television news at a time when social media networks have been criticised for spreading misinformation over major international events such as the bombings during the Boston Marathon. Even The Associated Press, a major news wire that prides itself on verifying information, apologised after hackers broke into its official Twitter account and sent out a fake message saying there had been explosions at the White House.

The study: “The Public Appetite For Foreign News on TV and Online” analyses how audiences and readers have responded to the BBC’s coverage of international news in 2010-2011, a year when there appeared to almost be a surfeit of foreign news.

The biggest foreign news stories of the year followed three patterns. Some of the events, the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the overthrow of Col. Gadhafi in Libya represented a seismic shift in the global political situation. Others, like the earthquake in Haiti, the destructive tsunami in Japan and heavy floods in Pakistan fit into a more conventional pattern of disaster reporting. The rescue of the Chilean miners provided, by contrast, a heart warming human interest story with a happy ending.

The study refutes conventional wisdom that audiences are not interested in international news, and that a strong focus on foreign reporting will deter viewers. A major international event can add 20 per cent to a programme’s average audience and even less compelling foreign stories rarely lose more than 10 or 15 per cent of the audience.

The report’s three authors, Richard Sambrook, professor of Journalism at Cardiff University, David Levy,  director, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, and Simon Terrington, a former visiting fellow, Reuters Institute for Study of Journalism have mapped out how viewers of the BBC’s two main evening news bulletins engaged with these foreign news stories, compared with readers of the BBC news websites. They also looked at whether editorial decisions over running order, length and prominence of the stories affected audience numbers.

The authors took data from the BBC Pulse Surveys, a regular survey carried out by an independent research agency that asks viewers how closely they follow local, regional and international news. They also delved into BARB figures which provide official figures for UK television audiences on a minute by minute basis, and studied data on page views of online news, and recorded how the figures changed during major international news events. The authors also looked at the editorial decision the BBC made in covering the international news events: where they were placed in the running order, how long each segment lasted.

The report shows that online audiences for international stories are on average, (even when aggregated) lower than those of the two main BBC TV news bulletins, broadcast at 18.00 and 22.00 every evening.

It also showed that the BBC, a state financed public broadcaster, was willing to cover foreign news events before its viewers developed an appetite for the story, and that these bold editorial choices did not deter audiences.

“The question we wanted to answer was: do you lose audiences when you dominate your program with foreign news,” said Levy. “With a glass half full view, it’s encouraging to see that television news can still put important foreign news stories in front of audiences and not lose viewers. But it’s a glass half empty situation that when people go online, they only read stories they want to read.”

The BBC reported the Tunisian uprising in 2011 in considerable detail, even though there was very little initial interest in the story. As the BBC persisted with the coverage viewers began to show an interest in the story, and stayed interested as the unrest spread across the Middle East. By contrast, readers of BBC online did not choose to read stories on Tunisia, even when it was a major part of television news bulletins.

Online audiences became more engaged in the Arab Spring by the time the revolution spread to Egypt, but even then, they lagged behind television news viewers. TV bulletins offered coverage of the initial protests in Egypt a full day before the online readers for the story really started to rise. The report’s authors found no evidence of online coverage driving TV viewing. Encouragingly, Sambrook, Levy and Terrington say the figures “may illustrate the value of professional editors filtering events and promoting those of public interest before the self-selecting online audiences reach them.”

The study also shows that once an audience develops an appetite for a story, it will find it anywhere, but also decide just how far it wants to engage with the story. Traditionally, the 18.00 BBC news bulletin has focused on domestic news while the 22.00 bulletin carries more international stories. But if a story captured viewers interest they would seek it out in either news bulletin.

In addition, where TV programmes offered very extended coverage of the biggest stories, audiences tended to switch away after 15 -20 minutes rather than remain for the full menu of angles and analysis. TV editors may have decided Japan’s Tsunami or Mubarak’s resignation merited a full programme of coverage – viewers tended to disagree and decide for themselves when they’d seen enough.

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism is EJO’s partner in the Uk.

Photo credits: Scorpions and Centaurs / Flickr CC




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