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Technology and truth debate


Has social media swallowed the Swiss news?







Social media influence on the news in Switzerland is rising - and this is proving to be both a friend and enemy to Swiss media companies.

Media researcher Linards Udris says that social media is needed to reach a younger audience, but it brings no financial rewards. Soft news and emotional reporting are becoming more popular.

Most Swiss media companies - including swissinfo.ch - are on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. This has affected how the news is reported and distributed. For example, because Facebook favours video, many media outlets have been upping their video reporting. And additional time is required of journalists to engage with readers on social media.

There are grumblings: earlier this summer, Katharine Viner, editor-in-chief of the British Guardian broadsheet, wrote that “social media has swallowed the news, threatening the funding of public-interest reporting and ushering in an era when everyone has their own facts”.

For this latter point, she gave the example of the Brexit vote. “This was the first major vote in the era of post-truth politics: the listless remain campaign attempted to fight fantasy with facts, but quickly found that the currency of fact has been badly debased,” she argued.

Could this also be the case - or soon be the case - in Switzerland? Does social media affect political debate as well?

Increased influence

Social media is certainly becoming more important in Switzerland, but at the moment its impact is “neither especially strong nor especially weak compared with other countries,” said Udris, deputy director of the Research Institute for the Public Sphere and Society at the University of Zurich.

He pointed to the Digital News Report for Switzerland 2016 which found that only 8% of news consumers said that social media had become their main source of journalism.

“This number is likely to grow because for the younger generation, it’s already the main source of news for 22%,” Udris explained.

A Swiss survey published earlier this year also found that social media had become more important to 95% of journalists, although it didn't go into what this meant in practice, Udris said.

“Frenemy”

There is an economic impact too. “Swiss news organisations are in a difficult situation because social media is the ‘frenemy’ - a friend and enemy - so if they want to reach a younger audience, of course they have to be on Facebook or put their videos on YouTube. But this is not where the money is.” 

Numerous evaluations of social media trends have shown that Facebook's users are becoming older. Teens are actually shying away from the social media giant in favour of platforms such as Snapchat, Instagram or YouTube. 

Profits at Tamedia, Switzerland’s largest media company, typically come from non-news related activities such as directory services and flat finding listings.

“Another problem is that the soft news providers get much more attention on Facebook than the more serious news providers,” explained Udris.

Soft news site 20 Minutes - a freesheet which is the most widely read newspaper across Switzerland - on a typical day gets around 16,000 shares, likes or comments on Facebook with its posts, whereas the more hard news sites like the Neue Zürcher Zeitung or Tages-Anzeiger both get around 600 – around 20 times less, he said. 

News coverage in general tends to be more emotional and include scandals and exaggerations, Udris remarked. Even traditional news providers are jumping on the bandwagon in this respect.

Facts, democracy

In terms of facts, half-truths in political campaigns, where some important context information is missing, do crop up, he underlined. But outright lies or denials are not really common in the Swiss media,” he said.

The emotional-news trend forms part of an overall move towards polarisation in Switzerland which started back in the 1990s, with the rise of the conservative right Swiss People’s Party, so before social media.

But what about people who read the news on Facebook, with its filters offering more of what you like rather than balanced views? This is a situation that needs to be observed, Udris said. 

He gives an example: during pre-vote times – under Switzerland’s system of direct democracy the population is called on to vote on various issues several times a year – the debate becomes polarised and the diversity of topics shrinks on social media.

“As for the top ten news articles from Swiss media that have been liked and shared most often on Facebook this year, three articles about direct-democratic votes make it onto this list. But they are all about one vote, i.e. the People’s Party enforcement initiative [to automatically deport foreigners who commit certain crimes (rejected on February 28)].

“None of the other votes we’ve had this year, for example, the basic income proposal, triggers these reactions.”

Social media is not going away, so what could be done to ensure quality journalism? Publishers should look at ploughing some of their profits back into journalism, suggested Udris. 

He says a quality journalism buffer is still offered by public service broadcasters like the Swiss Broadcasting Corporation, swissinfo.ch’s parent company, and this is helped by a licence fee that every resident must pay.

Some responsibility also lies with the news consumer. Studies show that people are simply unwilling to pay for journalism - so there still is a “free lunch culture”, for online news, said Udris. 

Newspaper readership first half of 2006

20 Minutes, the freesheet in German, French and Italian, has the highest readership in Switzerland both in print (2 million) and online (1.3 million).

The tabloid Blick has more readers online, 714,000, than in print 617,000. But this is unusual the sector. Broadsheets Neue Zürcher Zeitung and Tages-Anzeiger both have more readers in print than online (263,000/158 000 NZZ; 474,000/242,000 Tages-Anzeiger). In the French-speaking part of the country it is the same story: Le Matin has for example 275,000 readers for print and 117,000 online. Regional newspapers, like Neue Luzerner Zeitung, tend to have far more print readers (303,000) than online ones (40,000).

Source: WEMF AG für Werbemedienforschung Total Audience first half of 2016 

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