Open societies and robust institutions – talking points on how we can fight disinformation

Thursday February 22, I gave evidence at a hearing on “preserving democracy in the digital age” organized by the European Political Strategy Centre (the European Commission’s in-house think tank) in Brussels.


Together with four others (Anne Applebaum from the Washington Post/the LSE, Philip Howard from the Oxford Internet Institute, Philip Lelyveld from the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California and Keir Giles from Chatham House), I participated in a private briefing session with Mariya Gabriel, the European Commissioner for Digital Economy and Society and various officials from a range of European institutions, followed by a public hearing.

The hearing was convened to accompany the European Commission’s ongoing public consultation on fake news and online disinformation (I am a member of the high level group working on this, but took part in the hearing in an individual capacity).

We delivered our evidence verbally in a two-hour discussion structured around questions provided by the European Political Strategy Centre — I post my talking points below as they may be of interest to others working on practical and/or policy responses to “fake news” and disinformation and thinking about the broader issues of what democracy might look like in the twenty-first century.

I have added end-notes to my talking points here (hard to do when delivering evidence verbally!) as I have tried to bring some of the available evidence to the discussion (see this open, collaborative bibliography which I help maintain), as well as outlining my personal views on what could be done.

Preserving Democracy in the Digital Age (talking points)

High-Level Policy Hearing, European Political Strategy Centre, Brussels, February 22

The Hearing will last for 2 hours and will be structured around 6 sessions: (1) self-introductions (5 minutes); (2) introductory remarks (25 minutes); (3)-(4)-(5) core questions (25-30 minutes each); (6) concluding remarks (5 minutes).

(1) Self-introductions 5’

(2) Introductory remarks – 25’ – Views on the context (max 5 minutes each)

What are your general views on global trends linked to the emergence of ‘fake news’ and related issues?

  • This hearing is about “preserving democracy in the digital age”, and before we turn to “fake news” and disinformation, I want to be clear—the main challenges to democracy in Europe today are, first, the erosions of some of the institutions (political parties, member based interest groups, news media) that have historically enabled popular government[i], and, second, some ill-intentioned political actors, including foreign states but also sadly some governments in the Europe Union, who are not committed to the fundamental values that define democratic government and open societies.[ii] We have inherited these institutions and these rights from the twentieth century and it is up to us to renew them for the twenty-first. Problems of disinformation must be understood in this context, and the most pressing question is what we collectively can do to confront these wider challenges, not only those narrowly related to disinformation.


  • “Fake news” is a poorly defined, politicized, and misleading term for a wide range of problems of disinformation.[iii] Poorly defined – unless used in narrow sense (false and fabricated, presented as news), politicized – the way it is used by politicians and understood by many citizens (poor journalism and political propaganda), misleading – much of it is neither fake nor news (but content taken out of context, other types of content including opinion, other activities like engagement, amplification, etc.)[iv]


  • Broader problems of disinformation – intentionally misleading and often false or inaccurate information produced for profit or for political purposes – must be understood in its political and media context. The political context is one of low trust in many institutions (including media and politics) and high levels of partisan polarization in many countries.[v] In this context, people don’t know who to trust and resort to motivated reasoning and self-selection. The media context is a move to an environment where people increasingly find news online via platform products and services like social media and search.[vi] In this political and media context, people (1) approach content with “generalized scepticism” and (2) don’t always recognize and remember brands behind information they use.[vii] The results is an often rambunctious public sphere. But that does not necessarily mean it is a threat to democracy. Hate speech and incitement to violence are problems that have to be confronted, but beyond that, no one ever promised our politics would be polite, our public debate genteel. We live in irreducibly diverse and often disputatious societies. The critical issue is to defend our fundamental rights and renew the institutions that help us make good use of them.


  • Narrowly defined as for-profit or politically-motivated demonstrably false news, there is much we don’t know yet, especially about visual forms of disinformation, but the research done so far suggests false news has limited reach, especially on the web, though some false news providers generate significant amounts of engagement on social media.[viii] The amount of disinformation is likely to vary from country depending on the political and commercial incentives for producing it, and the amount of credible news it competes with vary from country to country, depending on political and media context. We need to measure the actual scale and scope of the problems at hand and should be careful to not exaggerate it unnecessarily.


  • More broadly, much disinformation is driven by political actors (foreign and some domestic), some of it is civil society, often in good faith (bottom-up misinformation), some of it is from some news media (clickbait, hyperpartisan opinion) – much of this may be uncomfortable and undesirable, but it is often not illegal, and it is not easily identified in an objective way – it is rarely a matter of simply being true or false, for example. When people want to fight it, we need to consider the possible negative impact of heavy-handed responses to a vaguely defined and inherently ambiguous set of problems, such as the risk of stifling free speech through regulation and the risks involved in forcing private companies to police the boundaries of acceptable speech.[ix]


  • The best response in my personal view is instead a combination of (1) protecting our open societies and (2) renewing the institutions that enable to make the most of them. Open societies are what we are fighting to preserve, they protect fundamental rights and give people the freedom to make up their own minds. Robust institutions produce credible information (private sector and public service media, and though open data initiatives and independent bodies like statistical authorities), make it easily accessible (including through platforms’ products and services), and equip people to navigate it (media and information literacy). Open societies with robust institutions will also be better positioned to withstand the coming flood of new forms of disinformation (manipulated images, video, audio editing, content fabrication powered by AI) and deal with the new ways in which disinformation will circulate (private messaging apps, voice systems, augmented/virtual reality, in addition to websites, search engines, and social media). Open societies with robust institutions will not be free of disinformation and pernicious forms of speech. But they will be able to withstand the problems they create.


(3) Core question n°1 – 30’ Assessment of the scope of fake news (max 6 minutes each)

What has caused the spread of fake news online and what evidence do we have of its impact?

  • Digital media have made it easier to publish and share any kind of information, including disinformation, we need to see the growth in the amount of disinformation circulating in our societies against the backdrop of the general exponential growth in the amount of all kinds of information circulating.[x] Peddlers of disinformation are often using the very same digital media technologies that entirely legitimate publishers and political actors use, extremist groups are exploiting the same platforms that movements like #MeToo and #NeverAgain are using. Any response to problems of disinformation need to keep in mind that the same tools and technologies that empower potentially harmful forms of disinformation also often empower entirely legitimate and benign forms of information, news, and public engagement.


  • The rise of digital technologies is part and parcel of a profound shift in our media systems and political systems and will change our democracies and societies in ways we don’t yet understand well. There are many demonstrable benefits and opportunities ahead of us, but also clear risks. How this will play out will differ from country to country depending on context. The consequences in Bulgaria and Denmark will not be the same. But at this stage, I believe we can identify at least these three impacts of the rise of digital media in my view are the following: First, they have made it easier to publish, leading to greater choice, which in turn is likely to increase the information inequality between those who will use that greater choice to seek out more information about public affairs, and those who will use it to seek out more entertainment[xi], and in highly polarized societies, also potentially increasing polarization along partisan lines.[xii] Second, contrary to fears of “filter bubbles” and the like, while there are clearly serious issues in terms of how some people find and use information online, for most people, the use of the search engines and social media that people increasingly rely on to navigate the digital media environment demonstrably lead most people to more diverse information than they seek out on their own.[xiii] Third, the rise of digital media has existentially challenged the business of news as we knew it in the 20th century, as both audiences and advertisers flock to the products and services offered by large platform companies, many news publishers have to cut costs and reinvent their business, and investment in news – especially locally, in smaller markets, and in member states with no history of robust independent media – is declining as a consequence.[xiv] In short, digital media have made it easier to access and engage with things, allowed many more to raise their voice, led to the emergence of new platform companies as gatekeepers who shape who gets heard and who not and who change the business of media, and is driving a profound institutional transformation in politics and the media that, amongst other things, makes it less profitable to produce professional journalism.


  • There is much we don’t now yet about the scale and scope of problems of “fake news” narrowly and of disinformation more broadly, but at this stage, I would suggest that the main impact of disinformation is that it may sow distrust, intensify polarization around divisive issues, undermine confidence in political institutions, media institutions, and platform companies, and increase confusion around public affairs. These are worrying risks, but we need to document them to understand them and counter them, and in doing so keep in mind that most empirical research so far suggest that “fake news” narrowly defined—as worrying as it is—still reaches only a minority of the population and even for those who consume the most of it make up only a small part of their overall news and media use. Disinformation is clearly a serious issue, and represents problems that should be confronted, but if we exaggerate its scale and scope without evidence, we do ourselves a disservice, misinform the public, and risk becoming complicit with the very information operations that we are concerned about. The Russian opposition, for example, has rightly encouraged Western liberals not to exaggerate the effect of Kremlin’s information operations, presenting those aiming to undermine our open societies and democratic institutions as “an almighty force from a James Bond saga.”[xv] Unless we actually know they are, we should not cast them as such.


(4) Core question n°2 – 30’ Suggestions on how to address fake news (max 6 minutes)

Based on your professional experience and research, which initiatives do you believe are necessary to tackle fake news online and its related issues?

  • From my point of view, we need to focus on the greater good – we want to (1) protect open societies that guarantee our fundamental rights (and sadly some politicians represent a major threat here) and (2) develop robust institutions that enable us to make good use of our rights. That is at the core of what it means to preserve—let’s say renew—democracy in the digital age. Responses to “fake news” and disinformation should start from these first principles. What can we do, then? I’d suggest three areas, one where we should act with great caution, one where we can pursue specific, narrowly defined targeted responses next, and then a set of broader recommendations to strengthen the institutions that will help open societies resist disinformation.


  • First, caution: because “fake news” and disinformation is hard to define clearly and objectively, we should be very careful with vaguely worded legislation, leaving it to judges (or even worse, the executive branch) to decide what may or may not constitute “fake news”, just as we should be cautious with political attempts to outsource the policing of free speech to private companies by forcing them to decide what does and does not constitute legal forms of speech – these types of initiatives are a potential threat to the very open societies we are trying to protect, and both free speech advocates like Article 19 and the UN coalition on platform responsibility have rightly warned against such measures.[xvi] As recognized by the OSCE-coordinated “Joint declaration on freedom of expression and “fake news”, disinformation and propaganda”, free speech protections includes information and ideas that may shock, offend and disturb.[xvii] It is important to consider whether proposed cures are sometimes worse than the disease, a disease which we will know little about because of the dearth of independent, evidence-based, publicly available research.


  • Second, targeted responses: direct interventions in my view should be used to address clearly and narrowly defined problems – in some cases this is primarily a question of enforcement of existing regulations. It is already illegal in many countries for foreign governments to meddle with the political process, just as hate speech and the like is already illegal. Where there is evidence of wrong doing, we need document it, publicize it, and prosecute it on the basis of existing regulation. In other cases, it is about putting constant public pressure on advertisers, ad tech companies, and platform companies to take neutral, unbiased, and transparent steps to reduce the economic incentives to produce false and fabricated potentially harmful disinformation and to constantly monitor and consider the social and political implications of their products and services. Enabling this will necessitate new steps to increase algorithmic accountability, ensure an appropriate level of transparency, and make more data available to third parties. Here, platform companies need to embrace the wider democratic responsibilities that come with their prominence and power.


  • Third, strengthening our institutions: This involves
    • Protecting news and media against governments using political/economic pressures to control them, against organized crime and extremist groups, and against politically-mandated privatization of the policing of free speech. All European Union member states have signed the Council of Europe recommendation the protection of journalism and safety of journalists and other media actors, but so far only Malta has begun to implement the recommendation.[xviii]
    • Creating an enabling environment for news media by reforming existing forms of indirect and in some cases direct support for private sector media (VAT exemptions, state aid/subsides) so they reward the future, not the past, support genuinely independent public service media and ensure they have autonomy and funding to deliver on their remit using all appropriate tools, enable non-profit journalism by streamlining regulation to ease the creation of non-profit news organizations and incentivize supporting them, by making support available for R&D and innovation, and ensuring transparency around media ownership and funding. Strong independent news media, both private sector and public service, demonstrably help produce a more informed citizenry that will be better able to resist disinformation, and policy makers need to create an enabling environment for such news media.[xix] Even in countries with strong, independent public service media, the vast majority of investment in professional journalism comes from private sector news media and it is critically important that policymakers support the industry as it reinvents its business for a digital age.[xx]
    • Creating an enabling environment for journalism by investing in training, life-long learning, up-skilling and by protecting journalists against defamation/libel suits aiming to silence them, as well as by enabling journalists and other third parties through “freedom of information” legislation and open data initiatives, plus support for individual innovation and entrepreneurship.
    • Invest in media and information literacy efforts for citizens at all stages of life.


(5) Core question n°3 – 25’ Assessment of the European Union’s efforts to tackle fake news (max 5 minutes each)

Do you believe the European Commission’s initiatives to tackle fake news online and related issues are sufficient?

  • Before turning to the question of what the European Commission specifically can do, it is important to underline that individual member states will have to lead on much of this and to reiterate that because disinformation and broader issues around the future of our democracies are shared issues, we need shared responses, involving all major stakeholders—political actors, news media, platform companies, civil society organizations.


  • The main things the European Commission can do in my view include
    • First, if we want to preserve and renew our democracies for the digital age, it is critically important to keep up pressure on those member state governments who do not respect fundamental rights and are using political and economic pressure to undermine independent media.
    • Second, investing money and political capital in helping renew our democratic institutions for the digital age (and encouraging member states to do the same). When it comes to news, that means supporting private sector media in their transition from analogue to digital media companies, pushing for public service media to be genuinely independent of government and have autonomy to pursue their remit with adequate funding and using appropriate means, providing support for professional journalists in terms of training, continuing education, up-skilling, and basic protection from interference including strategic and spurious lawsuits, making public data openly available for fact-checkers and other independent third parties, and making sure that platform companies that provide fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory access to infrastructures for free expression are protected from those who would push them to actively distort public debate. Similarly, support media and information literacy programmes for citizen across the union at all stages of life.
    • Third, investing in timely and accessible evidence-based independent research to inform policy- and decision making as we combat disinformation and renew our democracies for the digital age. We fundamentally know very little about the scale and scope of disinformation problems in Europe. If we want evidence-based policy making, including policy making that consider the likely efficiency and potential negative impact of responses being considered, it is critically important that we have independence, evidence-based research to draw on. To my knowledge, there was not a single publicly available independently conducted study trying to measure the reach of “fake news” and online disinformation in Europe till February 2018[xxi] – and despite this dearth of evidence, many are already talking about potentially very heavy-handed interventions that risk having serious negative consequences for freedom of speech. We don’t do public health policy without evidence, and it scares me we are developing policy that concerns fundamental rights and free media without first developing some sort of meaningful evidence. The European Commission directly and through member states and other stakeholders can make a significant difference in this area by supporting and enabling timely independent, evidence-based research on scale and scope as well as similar independent, evidence-based evaluation of the efficiency of steps taken by different actors.
    • Fourth, continually encouraging multi-stakeholder processes in pursuit of shared responses to shared problems and continually reviewing progress and keeping up the pressure on those actors who refuse to take responsibility for their wider, public role, or who do little to lift it.


(6) Concluding remarks – 5’ Speakers’ main ‘take-aways’ (max 1 minute each)

In a nutshell, what is your main message to the European Commission regarding what should (or should not) be done about fake news and disinformation online?

  • We must keep the main goal in mind – renewing our democracies for the digital age. That involves protecting open societies and evolving the institutions that help citizens make the most of them. Digital media are fundamentally transforming our democracies, in beneficial as well as in disturbing ways, but we need to remember that the main threat to democracy remains ill-intentioned politicians undermining fundamental rights and robust institutions. To preserve European democracies, we need to protect them against would-be autocrats and those who are seeking to undermine the institutions—political, legal, and media—that help citizens hold power to account.


  • When we respond to problems of disinformation we should therefore
    • (1) be cautious before we consider responses that either through vague legislating regulating speech or through politically-mandated private policing of acceptable discourse risk undermining freedom of expression and the right to receive and impart information and views without interference from public authorities, as these are among the very fundamental rights we are fighting to protect
    • (2) develop narrow, targeted responses to specific problems of disinformation, including countering foreign states meddling with our political processes and pressuring advertisers, ad tech companies, and platform companies to develop neutral and transparent measures to make false and fabricated information less profitable and less prominent and help surface credible and trustworthy content, and,
    • (3) perhaps most importantly (though this is also long-term and will be hard work), invest in re-inventing the institutions that enable popular government, when it comes to news and information, by supporting private sector news media, genuinely independent public service media, making public data openly available to independent fact-checkers and other third parties, protecting those platform companies that provide fair, reasonable, and non-discriminatory access to open and permissive infrastructures for free expression from those who would force them to restrict public debate, and invest in media and information literacy.


  • Our parents’ generations build Europe into kinder and gentler forms of democratic societies from the ruins of empires, Fascism, and Communism. We are not the descendants of fearful men and women. If we protect our open societies and strengthen the institutions that enable us to make the most of it, we can renew our democracies for the digital age. We should aspire to nothing less.



[i] E.g. Mair, Peter. 2006. “Ruling the Void.” New Left Review, II, , no. 42: 25–51.

[ii] Diamond, Larry. 2015. “Facing up to the Democratic Recession.” Journal of Democracy 26 (1): 141–155.

[iii] Wardle, Claire, and Hossein Derakhshan. 2017. Information Disorder: Toward an Interdisciplinary Framework for Research and Policy Making. Report to the Council of Europe.

[iv] Nielsen, Rasmus Kleis, and Lucas Graves. 2017. ““News You Don’t Believe”: Audience Perspectives on Fake News.” Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

[v] Newman, Nic, Richard Fletcher, Antonis Kalogeropoulos, David A. L Levy, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2017. “Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017.” Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

[vi] Newman, Nic, Richard Fletcher, Antonis Kalogeropoulos, David A. L Levy, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2017. “Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017.” Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

[vii] Fletcher, Richard, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2017. “Navigating News on Social Media: A Four-Country Mixed-Methods Analysis.” Paper presented at the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting in San Francisco, and Kalogeropoulos, Antonis, and Nic Newman. 2017. “‘I Saw the News on Facebook’: Brand Attribution When Accessing News from Distributed Environments.” Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

[viii] This is what we found in France and Italy, see Fletcher, Richard, Alessio Cornia, Lucas Graves, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2018. “Measuring the Reach of ‘Fake News’ and Online Disinformation in Europe.” Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. This is in line with findings from the United States, see e.g. Allcott, Hunt, and Matthew Gentzkow. 2017. “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” Working Paper 23089. National Bureau of Economic Research and Guess, Andrew, Brendan Nyhan, and Jason Reifler. 2018. “Selective Exposure to Misinformation: Evidence from the Consumption of Fake News during the 2016 US Presidential Campaign.”

[ix] Belli, Luca, David Erdos, Maryant Fernández Pérez, Pedro Augusto P. Francisco, Krzysztof Garstka, Judith Herzog, Krisztina Huszti-Orban, et al. 2017. Platform Regulations: How Platforms Are Regulated and How They Regulate Us. FGV Direito Rio.

[x] Neuman, W. Russell, Yong Jin Park, and Elliot Panek. 2012. “Tracking the Flow of Information into the Home: An Empirical Assessment of the Digital Revolution in the U.S. from 1960–2005.” International Journal of Communication 6: 1022–41.

[xi] Prior, Markus. 2007. Post-Broadcast Democracy: How Media Choice Increases Inequality in Political Involvement and Polarizes Elections. New York: Cambridge University Press.

[xii] Stroud, Natalie Jomini. 2011. Niche News: The Politics of News Choice. New York: Oxford University Press.

[xiii] See e.g. Borgesius, Frederik J. Zuiderveen, Damian Trilling, Judith Möller, Balázs Bodó, Claes H. de Vreese, and Natali Helberger. 2016. “Should We Worry about Filter Bubbles?” Internet Policy Review, March, Flaxman, Seth, Sharad Goel, and Justin M. Rao. 2016. “Filter Bubbles, Echo Chambers, and Online News Consumption.” Public Opinion Quarterly 80 (S1): 298–320, Fletcher, Richard, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2017. “Are People Incidentally Exposed to News on Social Media? A Comparative Analysis.” New Media & Society, August, 1461444817724170.

[xiv] Nielsen, Rasmus Kleis, Alessio Cornia, and Antonis Kalogeropoulos. 2016. “Challenges and Opportunities for News Media and Journalism in an Increasingly Digital, Mobile, and Social Media Environment.” Commissioned Report for the Council of Europe. Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.


[xvi] See e.g. statement by Article 19 and Belli, Luca, David Erdos, Maryant Fernández Pérez, Pedro Augusto P. Francisco, Krzysztof Garstka, Judith Herzog, Krisztina Huszti-Orban, et al. 2017. Platform Regulations: How Platforms Are Regulated and How They Regulate Us. FGV Direito Rio.

[xvii] Joint declaration here.

[xviii] See recommendations here.

[xix] Aalberg, Toril, and James Curran, eds. 2012. How Media Inform Democracy: A Comparative Approach. Routledge New Developments in Communication and Society. New York: Routledge.

[xx] Nielsen, Rasmus Kleis. 2016. “The Business of News.” In The SAGE Handbook of Digital Journalism, edited by Tamara Witschge, Chris W. Anderson, David Domingo, and Alfred Hermida, 51–67. Los Angeles: SAGE.

[xxi] Fletcher, Richard, Alessio Cornia, Lucas Graves, and Rasmus Kleis Nielsen. 2018. “Measuring the Reach of ‘Fake News’ and Online Disinformation in Europe.” Oxford: Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.


CfN: 2018 International Journal of Press/Politics Best Book Award


Nominations are invited for the annual International Journal of Press/Politics Best Book Award, to be sent to IJPP editor Rasmus Kleis Nielsen by email no later than February 16.


The International Journal of Press/Politics Best Book Award honors internationally-oriented books that advance our theoretical and empirical understanding of the linkages between news media and politics in a globalized world in a significant way. It is given annually by the International Journal of Press/Politics and sponsored by Sage Publications.

The award committee will judge each nominated book on several criteria, including the extent to which the book goes beyond analyzing a single case country to present a broader and internationally-oriented argument, the significance of the problems addressed, the strength of the evidence the book relies on, conceptual innovation, the clarity of writing, and the book’s ability to link journalism studies, political communication research, and other relevant intellectual fields.


Books published within the last ten years will be considered. Monographs as well as edited volumes of exceptional quality and coherence will be considered for the award. (Books by current members of the award committee are ineligible and committee members will recuse themselves from discussion of books by members of their own department, works published in series that they edit, etc.)


Nominations including a rationale of no more than 350 words should be emailed by February 16 to Rasmus Kleis Nielsen at

The nomination must specify why the book should receive the award by outlining the importance of the book to the study of news media and politics and by identifying its international contribution and relevance. Please include links to or copies of relevant reviews in scholarly journals.

Arrangements should be made with the publishers of nominated books for three hard copies to be sent by February 16 to the Rasmus Kleis Nielsen at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, 13 Norham Gardens, OX2 6PS, Oxford, United Kingdom.

Award committee

The award committee consists of Rasmus Kleis Nielsen (the editor of the International Journal of Press/Politics), Peter Van Aelst (chair of the Political Communication Division of ICA), and Henrik Örnebring (chair of the Journalism Studies Division of ICA).


The award will be presented at the 2018 ICA Annual Meeting and will be announced on the IJPP website.

How much time do people spend with news across media?

How much time do people on average spend with news on a daily basis? A few weeks back, Chris Moran from the Guardian asked this seemingly simply question to which I did not know, but wanted to know, the answer.



There are at least three immediate problems in answering the question. First, people won’t necessarily agree on what precisely constitutes news versus other genres (opinion, sport, culture, etc.), second, we don’t have consistent reliable data across platforms (digital, broadcast, print) and, third, the best available source of consistent data across platforms, surveys, relies on self-reporting, which is notoriously plagued by problems of social desirability bias and inaccurate recall. (Markus Prior compared surveys with behavioural data for TV and found that surveys on average exaggerate news consumption by a factor of three.)

I am going to ignore these three problems here (because we can’t solve them at the moment), as well as the many others that complicate a precise and robust result, and try to give a minimal viable answer to Chris’ rather relevant question. I will offer a high estimate based on generous assumptions and a low estimate based on more conservative assumptions. The figures for the UK in 2016 are, 74 minutes and 25 minutes, depending on assumptions, and for the US 72 minutes and 24 minutes.

stacked bar

I will caveat the estimates further by saying that (1) that time spent does not mean “devote” as in Chris’ original question, as much media use involve multi-tasking, either dual screening with multiple media (about 1/5 of media use according to Ofcom) or using media while also doing something else, and  (2) statistically, we know that “no one is average”, so there will be significant variation most importantly probably by age, interest, and socio-economic class—but I will stick to averages here for a simple overview with simple assumptions.

Enough caveats—here is what the estimates above are based on. First, an estimate of what percentage of time spend on specific media platforms (television, radio, etc.) people spend on news. Second, up-to-date data on how much time people spend with specific media platforms. The high estimates treat the self-reported data as relatively reliable. Third, the low estimate simply divide self-reported figures by three as per Prior’s finding.

The steps then are as follows—


First, the estimate of time spent with news.

The most recent publicly available study based on a single consistent source of data that estimates time spent with news that I know of is from the Pew Research Center in the US. In 2010, they surveyed Americans to learn how much time they spent with news on various platforms, including television, radio, print, and online. Using data from this study on the number of minutes Americans said they spent with news on various media platforms and data from eMarketer on how much time American spent in total with the same various media platforms allow us to calculate the percentage of time spent with news on each platform—e.g. in 2010, Pew finds that people on average spend 32 minutes with television news on a daily basis, and eMarketer reports people spend 4 hours and 24 minutes watching television, so television news accounts for 12 percent of viewing time.

So here is what we get. In 2010 in the United States in, the average time spend with news by medium was—

32 minutes of television news (12% of 4:24 average viewing time)

13 minutes of digital news (7% of 3:14 spent with digital media across desktop, smartphone, and tablet)

10 minutes of print news (20% of 0:50 spent with print)

15 minutes of radio news (16% of 1:36 spent with radio)

70 minutes in total (about 11 % of the 10 hours and 42 minutes eMarketer estimated Americans spend with media daily in 2010).


Second, up-to-date data on time spend with specific media platforms.

For this, I use Ofcom’s Digital Day study from 2016 for the UK and from eMarketer for the US. If we use the percentages calculated above as a reasonable approximation of how much time spend with a particular medium is spend specifically with news on average, we can calculate the average time spend with news by looking at people’s media use in 2016. (Strong public service media in the UK may mean that the US percentages are too low, as public service media tend to program more news at peak viewing times (documented by Toril Aalberg et al.) and reach wide audiences online.)

The estimates then look as follows—

UK 2016, based on data from Ofcom

38 minutes of TV news (12% of 5:13 viewing time)

19 minutes of digital news (7% of 4:27 spent with digital media across desktop, smartphone, and tablet)

5 minutes of print news (20% of 0:26 spent with print)

12 minutes of radio news (16% of 1:15 spent with radio)

74 minutes in total (this too is about 11% of the 10 hours and 52 minutes Ofcom estimated Brits spend with media daily in 2016).


US 2016, based on data from eMarketer

29 minutes of TV news (12% of 4:05 viewing time)

23 minutes of digital (7% of 5:25 spent with digital media across desktop, smartphone, and tablet)

6 minutes of print (20% of 0:28 spent with print)

14 minutes of radio (16% of 1:27 spent with radio)

72 minutes in total (so about 10% of the 12 hours and 5 minutes eMarketer estimated Americans spend with media daily in 2016).


The high estimates based on generous assumptions stop here.


Third, the low estimates in the figure above

These are based on more conservative assumptions by factoring in Prior’s finding, that people on average over-report by a factor of three (young people, rich people, and people with kids tend to over-report more than that—in some demographics by a factor of eight). The factor may be different in the UK but Prior’s estimate is the best I know of.

Looking specifically at the figure for digital, other sources based on tracking data rather than recall would support that. While the self-reported measures from Pew suggest that people in 2010 on average spent 7% of their time with digital media with news, tracking data from Nielsen suggest that the actual figure in 2011 was much lower, reportedly just 2.6%. This is close to the figure one would arrive at if factoring in Prior’s average over-reporting (2.3%). And some figures for how much time people spend with news across digital media are lower than that. (In the absence of robust data, I have not tried to account for possible difference in the share of news that people consume as part of various ways of using digital media, e.g. difference between desktop and mobile, or difference between news as a share of browsing on the open web versus as a share of time spent with social media—if people know of good data I would like to see it so I can update.)


So what?

Beyond giving high and low estimates of how much time people on average spend with news on a daily basis, these calculations also draw attention to a basic feature of the structural move from analogue to digital media: news is a much, much smaller share of what we do with digital media (at most 7% on average) than it is of what we do with older offline forms of media, including print (20%), radio (16%) and even television (12%). The move to a digital media environment with far fiercer competition for our attention is thus a move to an environment in which people spend more time with media, but almost certainly will spend less time with news—and this would be even more so if it wasn’t for products and services like search engines and social media that in their current form demonstrably drive incidental exposure to news when people use them for other purposes.

The powerful driving forces behind this shift are technology, which vastly expand supply, and our relative preferences, which determines the demand. And as Prior has shown in previous work on the move to cable television, while almost everyone is interested in news, most of us have many other things we are more interested in, so the more we get to choose from, the bigger the gulf between those who are most interested in news and those who are less interested in it. Media choice is good in many ways, but it also increases information inequality. And no media environment has ever offered us as many choices as we have today with digital media.

I am grateful to Richard Fletcher for his comments, suggestions, and assistance.

Why is political communication research absent from current public+policy debates and what can be done about this absence?

I’ve written a short essay “No One Cares What We Know: Three Responses to the Irrelevance of Political Communication Research” for The Forum in Political Communication.

In it, I examine why academics working in the field of political communication research have been largely absent from recent important and high-profile public and policy debates around political-communication related issues like fake news, propaganda, and surprise election results (Trump, Brexit, Corbyn/May). I offer different ways of responding to our current irrelevance, academic purism (redoubling efforts to produce more precise and reliable work answering questions that arise from our past work), scholarly conservatism (reproducing the current mode of work), or intellectual pragmatism (reform oriented towards more context-driven, problem-focused, and interdisciplinary forms of knowledge production premised in part on engagement with the big, public issues of our time, a style like that pursued by some of the founders of our field, such as Paul Lazarsfeld). I personally favor the third, but I am interested in a debate about how we move forward as a field and as a community.

As part of the article, I also briefly sketch out different ideal typical “styles” of engagement for scholars interested in increasing the impact of their work — engagement here is not about sounding off about one’s opinions or chasing media attention for media attentions’ sake, but about thinking about what combination of strategy (inside or outside) and stance (partisan versus impartial) is worthwhile. The figure below capture the ideal types.


The full article is available here and the abstract below. A pre-publication version is here.

Abstract: Public discussions around the role of different forms of political communication in influencing various political outcomes in for example the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and UK EU Referendum suggest that political communications research is largely marginal to these public discussions. We might think we have epistemic authority over our object of analysis, but no one cares what we know. The result is that substantially important public (and policy) discussions of issues at the core of our field are dumber than they could have been, in part due to our absence, an absence that is in turn in part due to the ways in which we as a field do our work. In this essay, I identify some of the external and internal factors that help account for this and suggest that we as a community debate whether we want to do something about our irrelevance and the internal norms and institutions that contribute to it. I offer three possible responses, labelled academic purism, scholarly conservatism, and intellectual pragmatism, and different styles of engagement, and ask whether we should aim to be a more active part of the “rough process” of public discussion, or simply leave it to others and accept that no one cares what we know.

Thanks to Michael Wagner for the invitation to write it, to Danna Young for our discussions, and to Matt Powers and Lucas Graves for their comments on an earlier draft.

What is journalism studies studying?

I’m at the 2017 Future of Journalism conference in Cardiff, one of the most important academic journalism studies conferences in the world, with more than 200 participants from Europe, the US, and beyond. Over 150 papers will be presented, many of them will later be published in some of the field’s top journals.

All these papers are work-in-progress, fresh, recent, up-to-date work by a wide range of academics studying journalism from a range of perspectives, from a range of background, from a range of countries.

In combination, they provide a basis for at least a partial answer to the question of what journalism studies is actually studying today.

So I did a quick and subjective categorization of all the paper titles by topic. (This is not a formal content analysis, and I did this on my own. For a more rigorous recent meta-analysis of the field, see this piece by Laura Ahva and Steen Steensen.) The results are below. I categorized the 150+ papers by their title, and collapsed all topics with less than 5 papers into “others”.

I found the results quite interesting – in part as a reminder how where academic research overlaps with pressing civic, professional, industry, and policy-maker concerns (and where it does not), in part as an illustration of how the academic community collectively gather around certain topics in bottom-up ways with little in terms of explicit, coordinated discussion of what “the field” “should do”.

FoJ for blog

The bulk of the presenters and the bulk of the presentations are from and focused on high income democracies, so there are a whole range of issues around state censorship, freedom of expression, violence against journalists, media capture, and other very pressing issues that are largely absent.

Given the focus on high-income democracies, a couple of stand-outs from me—

  • Lots of discussion of post-truth and fake-news, from what I have seen presented so far often critical of how these terms are used, but also a case of academics latching on the fashionable terms. (It is interesting that there is relatively little audience research in general, and on this in particular–though Irene Costera Meijer and Tim Groot Kormelink had interesting data and analysis.)
  • Discussion of social media, search engines, and messaging apps is primarily focused on what news organizations and ordinary users do with platform companies’ products and services (especially social media) (lot’s of Twitter buzz around Shannon MacGregor‘s presentation–I did not hear it myself), and not on what platform companies do to the wider media environment (discussions of digital intermediaries).
  • Much work is being done on new journalistic formats and practices (data journalism, fact-checking, use of analytics, virtual reality, etc.) and growing body of work on digital-born news organizations—this is important and encouraging, work by Jane Singer, Valerie Belair-Gagnon and others.

Conspicuous absences, in my view—

  • The business models that funded most of journalism as we knew it are being fundamentally challenged by the move to digital media, the proliferation of choice for both audiences and advertisers, and the rise of platform companies, and in my view the question of new funding models is one of the most important ones today—yet we see, at least at this conference, very little work on it. One paper on willingness to pay, two on native advertising. (Richard Fletcher and I have done some work on this, I have a handbook chapter here, Jay Hamilton’s more than ten years old book remains a classic as is work of Robert Picard.)
  • Beyond that, the question of innovation and entrepreneurship, of constant organizational change in legacy and digital-born news media seems of central importance to me, and has been the subject of a fair amount of work in the past, but little at this conference. (I look to Lucy Kung for work on this, have also done some with Alessio Cornia and Annika Sehl on some of these issues, see various reports here, here, and here.)
  • Similarly, the way in which platform companies are part of a structural transformation of our media environments, for good, for ill, in all its nuance and complexity, is a monumental change with profound consequences for journalism and news media, but one we, at least here, see little academic research on. (Sarah Ganter and I have done some work on this and more to come, Jose van Dijck, Tarleton Gillespie and Frank Pasquale are among my go-to sources outside journalism studies).

Finally, a couple of classic and important topics that have seen quite few papers at least at this conference—

  • I saw only one paper title on television news. Less important than in the past, surely, and historically always under-researched in journalism studies, but still incredibly important and widely used, especially by older people (who can decide elections! See Trump and Brexit…) I like Stephen Cushion’s work on this as well as older work by Russ Neuman and colleagues.
  • Two papers on public service media. Given the estimated the estimated annual investment of about €16.6 billion in public service provision across Europe alone, their importance, widely varying performance, different challenges including political pressure and need to develop digital offerings, that seems like a topic worth a bit more investigation.
  • One paper on inequality. Given the a development where many societies are more and more unequal in many ways, and given that we have reasons to believe that the move from a low-choice to a high-choice media environment may increase already significant information inequalities as people (often affluent and highly educated) who are very interested in news consume more and more, and those less interested (often less affluent and with less formal education) may consume less and less as other offerings catch their attention, this bears more work it seems to me.

So, much interesting work being presented, some interesting absences, which presents opportunities for important research in the future.


People have asked for a break-down of the 34 percent categorized as “other” in the pie chart. Below is a bar chart where topics addressed by only one paper are collapsed into “other” but the remaining parts are broken out by topic. Note, as explained above, some of the categories above are already aggregates, e.g. “new journalistic practices” include work on bots, automated content, computational journalism, data journalism, VR, and newsroom use of audience analytics.

FoJ 34 percent

Professor of Political Communication

oxford-logoI’m happy and proud to share that I’ve been named Professor of Political Communication at the University of Oxford.

Titles are strange things. Entirely immaterial (“That and a dollar will get you a cup of coffee”) and at the same time deeply meaningful. Academic work is about being part of a community of inquiry, and titles are one of the ways in which our communities recognize valuable work.

That recognition means a lot to me. I am primarily driven by my own curiosity (and occasional contrarian impulses) and my individual professional and personal priorities, all of which are so well aligned with the mission of the work we do together at the Reuters Institute. But it makes me happy to see the work I have done on that basis recognized as valuable by others.

My core interest is in the important and imperfect social and political institutions that enable democracy and make it possible for people to be citizens.

I am interested in these institutions (with warts and all)—how they arise, what their preconditions are, what their implications are, and in how they change and sometimes disintegrate. Substantially, this has led me to study political campaigns, social movements, technology companies, and especially news media in a range of ways, drawing on theories and methods from political science, sociology, and media/communications research. (My appointment is in a department of politics, but I consider myself an interdisciplinary social scientist with a particular interest in news media and communication.) Because I want in real-world variation over time and across different contexts, I have pursued a fair amount of international, comparative work on the role of digital technology as part of processes of institutional and organizational change, especially in journalism and news media–often pushing back against the tendency in some quarters and some times to assume their implications are the same everywhere.

In line with my commitment to problem-oriented social science and my ambition to make the research I am involved in speak to some of the important issues of our time, I have prioritized engagement with relevant stakeholders in political life, the public sector, and private enterprise by publishing through both academic and non-academic channels, by engaging with journalists, and by speaking frequently at both academic and professional conferences and events all over the world.

I like to say that it is important for me that I can explain the value of what I do to my mom (a more demanding version of the proverbial man on the street), the people I study (ordinary people, journalists, technologists, political professionals), and to my academic colleagues (across the social science and beyond)—and the title of professor is one of the most tangible expressions of recognition that the latter community offers, and one I particularly appreciate because I know my interest in news media, my preference for interdisciplinary work, and my commitment to problem-oriented research and public engagement set me apart from many other social scientists who have different priorities—that these colleagues see the value of what I do is very encouraging.

To receive this recognition from the University of Oxford, with its 900+ year history of excellence and truly global reach—and as its first professor of political communication—is an extraordinary privilege and an honor I will try to live up to. I know I have gotten to where I am from a privileged starting point—I am a white man from a peaceful and prosperous country—but I also feel like I have travelled a long way, from the small town in the countryside I grew up in, as the first of my family to go to college, and as a migrant working in a second language for most of my adult life.

I try to show my gratitude to all the many people who mean so much for me and who help and support me in so many ways on a regular basis, but I would like to highlight a few here. (No names, you know who you are.) My wife and my family for their unflagging support despite the strange and often unintelligible nature of much of what I do. The community of faculty and fellow graduates of Columbia University from whom I have learned so much and who remain such an inspiration. A group of contemporaries from across the academic fields I traverse who are such models of academic professionalism and personal integrity and who continue to be both close friends and a source of intellectual stimulation (including the occasional vigorous disagreement). The many impassioned professionals from across journalism, the media world, the technology industry, and politics and policymaking who find time to talk to me about their work even as they are busy trying to do often very difficult things in an uncertain and rapidly changing environment. My Oxford colleagues and friends, from across the Department of Politics and International Relations, the School of Government, the Oxford Internet Institute, and Green Templeton College. And, especially, everyone at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism itself—the staff, researchers, journalists, and others who gather here make it a truly special place and one I am proud to be part of.

(Note: I will continue to work full-time as Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.)

RISJ summer school underway

20170911_144625How can comparative qualitative research on journalism and news media help us understand and tackle the big issues of our time?

At our Reuters Institute Summer School we are trying to find out, with a great group – thanks for good discussion today on day one to participants Martha Palacios Dominguez, Jacob Nelson, Raul Ferrer Conill, Kiki De Bruin, David Cheruiyot, Julieta Brambila, Sandra Banjac, Ruben Arnoldo Gonzalez, Jennifer Henrichsen, Tim Neff, Laurens Lauer, Chang Zhang Matt Powers & Sandra Vera Zambrano.

Thanks also to the home team of Lucas Graves and Annika Seh, and sorry to miss Falk Hartig who was accepted for participation but couldn’t join us.