The State of the Media in 2021 – what did you miss?

I recently joined one of the panel sessions at virtual #CommsCon21, an event run by Cision to help PR and comms professionals gain knowledge and inspiration on how to meet the challenges to come in the industry. ‘The State of the Media in 2021’ featured a great panel of speakers – from Tortoise Media, Daily Mirror, Channel 5 News, Yorkshire Evening Post and PA Media – and was hosted by Ian Murray from the Society of Editors.

As well as looking at the influence of the pandemic on media and journalism, the discussion touched on some key debates happening in the industry and provided some top tips for PR specialists hoping to engage with these publications.

So, without further ado, here’s my round up of the ‘need to knows’ from Cision’s ‘State of the Media 2021’ webinar.

How did the pandemic affect journalism and media outputs?

A general trend emerged from the speakers:

1. Readership spiked massively at the start of the pandemic, with the public constantly seeking reliable, easy-to-understand explainers of what was happening and how it would affect them; this generated a huge demand for data journalism, with readers keen to see trusted information displayed in simple yet visual graphics and have these explained to them in simple terms.

2. Then came the news fatigue and ‘doom and gloom’ as readers decided not to keep checking the daily death toll, or the number of cases in their area – we were sick and tired of being surrounded by the negativity that came with a global pandemic.

3. This made way for a wave of positive, human interest stories and efforts to put out ‘good news’, as readers look for distractions from the daily pandemic struggle. However, as Amanda Nunn from C5 News commented, sometimes we can’t escape the pandemic – “every story at the moment is in some way touched by COVID” – so although we can’t avoid it, people are trying to find the best in it.

How has the pandemic affected our perception of regional press?

We all know that the regional press has been struggling in recent years, with falling readership numbers and revenue, however, according to Laura Collins of the Yorkshire Evening Post (YEP), the events of the last year have had a positive impact on her publication, making it “more relevant than ever”. The unique advantage of local titles is that they are tailored to their readers, which played out extremely well in the pandemic as people were looking for the most accurate information about cases in their area, or their local tier restrictions. For the more light-hearted human interest pieces, regional press “came into its own, championing communities and highlighting the actions of local heroes and those who have made a real difference”.

Trust in the media

This topic has engulfed the media in recent years, and it could be said that the pandemic has exacerbated the issue, with some publications accused of “sensationalising”. We all know about the problem of fake news, and with so many more news sources than we’ve ever had before, it’s increasingly hard to distinguish fact from fiction.

Although trust in local press is at around 70%, fairly high for the industry, Laura Collins from YEP noted this is the first time she’s seen the industry as a whole come under such fierce criticism and attack: “journalists are defending their trade like never before”.

Katie Vanneck-Smith from Tortoise Media made the good point that trust has to be earned and not given, observing that media used to be a “de facto trust institution”, but that has been in decline for a number of years. Media must be built on transparency and honesty, something that Tortoise Media strives to do by openly collaborating with its members (what it calls “IP at grand scale”) to ensure they cover the news stories that matter to them. Interestingly, this led on to another discussion point about the diversity and representation in the industry – “if the reader can see themselves represented in the news, you start to earn that trust back” as Katie said.

Representation and diversity

“It’s business critical” – Katie Vanneck-Smith, Tortoise Media

This was the third major talking point of the discussion, and all panellists were in agreement that greater diversity is needed within media and journalism, and it seems that many are already taking steps to achieve this (Reach Plc has a Diversity & Inclusion Officer, Tortoise Media has open editorial forums). The problem lies in the fact that news has been delivered by the same, single group of people for years, but this needs to change. If publications want to earn the trust of their readers, they must be reflective of the audience and society in which they operate, meaning that these readers need to be able to see their experiences reflected in the stories published. Laura Collins suggested that journalism should be a two-way dialogue, with readers able to provide feedback and advise on the stories that matter to them – thereby avoiding this ‘top down’ approach to news reporting.

And this of course goes for public relations too – as the gatekeepers for our clients, we need to be leading the charge in promoting diversity in the spokespeople we offer for interviews and commentary.