The ongoing coronavirus pandemic has seen a surge in demand from audiences for the latest news, advice and guidance to protect themselves from the virus.
The latest viewing figures reported by the UK Broadcasters’ Audience Research Board (BARB) show that between 16 and 22 March, the week that the UK government began introducing measures to slow the spread of covid-19, six of the top 10 most viewed programmes were news bulletins - all by the BBC.
Data from BARB
This surge in viewership across all platforms is both a challenge and an opportunity for public service broadcasters at a time when they have been struggling, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, director at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, explained.
"This situation has some parallels to the situation that’s facing the NHS, in the sense that the case for investing in a public resource and providing a public service is in part about the day-to-day routine provision.
"However, it is also about whether as a society we have the institutions in place to help it handle extraordinary situations. It seems to be the case that this crisis will remind much of the public that content providers like the BBC are institutions that can help society be resilient in the face of a crisis."
Although there has been an important growth in engagement and reach of news content in recent weeks, Nielsen pointed out that people seem to be turning to broadcasters and platforms that they already have some trust in rather than seeking new sources of information.
"There is a very clear tendency in countries where much of the public trust some news providers that, even if they don’t trust all news providers, they turn to those providers in moments of crisis using all available channels.
"We don’t have detailed evidence yet. What I can say is that the vast majority of the public trust the BBC, but there is a significant minority who really don’t.
"I’m not sure that a crisis like this will change their minds about that quickly, so I would expect that a lot of the increase is from casual users becoming more loyal during times of crisis, and loyal users even more so."
Last year’s Digital News Report found that 32 per cent of global audiences switch off from news coverage, with a large proportion of UK readers and viewers trying to avoid Brexit news. Describing the current crisis as a "defining moment for journalism as a profession", Nielsen advised reporters to avoid alienating audiences with constant coronavirus coverage to prevent a similar phenomenon.
"Much of the public will very soon be sick and tired about reading about coronavirus all the time because they’ll feel that a lot of the material that is put in front of them is not material that helps them in their lives and makes them anxious, worried and feel helpless."
He suggested that one way to prevent this is using solutions journalism in covid-19 coverage.
Actionable coverage that connects with the lives of audiences and tips that empower people to live their best life in lockdown can help keep retain readers and viewers' attention.
"I would expect that to be far more welcome for much of the public than a running commentary on country X which, as important as it is, is quite remote if you’re stuck in your flat in Oldham worrying about the future of your job."
Nielsen also said that reporters should recognise that not everything in the world may have gone wrong over the last 24 hours and that it is worth highlighting examples of positive work or events.
When the crisis finally passes, he added, some news organisations should have a moment of reflection about their coverage in the run-up and during the crisis, and ask whether a ‘business-as-usual’ approach was appropriate to deal with such a situation.