Université Laval’s Colette Brin brings digital news research to Ryerson

By Ben Cohen

After working at Ryerson for most of February, visiting professor Colette Brin is gearing up for a talk on digital news Mar. 1 where she discussed new findings on trust in media, donation models for newsrooms and generational differences in news consumption.

Brin worked on last year’s Reuters Institute Digital News Report, an annual survey that looks at how people in 37 countries consume digital news. She was responsible for the summary and analysis of Canada’s data.

The report, which is based on research from 74,000 individuals, focuses on how people use online news platforms, whether they prefer legacy or emerging sources, what devices they use, as well as how big of a role social media and ad-blockers play, Brin said.

Canada more trusting of news, less likely to use Google Home

The report found that Canada “isn’t the most advanced country in terms of using Google Home devices or Apple Watches or things like that for news,” says Brin, who is the director of the Centre for Media Studies at Université Laval.

“In the U.K. and the U.S. studies, they seem to be more interested in asking tech-oriented questions, but (those questions) aren’t as significant in Canada.”

Many Canadians don’t own those sorts of gadgets, she said. And even if she had a device like a Google Home, Brin said she couldn’t see herself using it to browse the news

The study also found that Canadians are far more trusting of media and government compared to other countries – especially the U.S. and France.

Canada’s high trust scores stem from attachment to local and national publications, she said. However, Brin notes the concern that Canadians, along with the rest of the world, are becoming less trusting toward journalists and news media.

Age group differences

The biggest differences were between age groups.

“Younger people, of course, use social media more and follow news less,” Brin said.

“But they’re not more trusting of social media, they’re more sceptical overall of news media.”

Brin says this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it bleeds over into how people pay for news.

Young people are less likely to pay for news, but seem to be more open to donating, she said. Questions about donations to media were fairly sparse on last year’s survey, she said, but will become more detailed and expansive in the future. This is especially relevant now, as the federal government is opening the door to charitable status for news outlets, allowing for the public to receive tax incentives to donate to them. The mechanisms for this are still being fine-tuned at press time.

“The problem is that we’re not sure young people are going to donate to a large newsroom, where you don’t really know where the money’s going to go,” says Brin.

“It could go to management, to marketing, to very high salaries, but how much of is going to go to the actual reporting work?”

“If you’re donating to a media organization, it has to be one whose work you feel very strongly about,” she added.  “It may be more of an incentive to donate if it’s going to work people really care about, like investigative reporting or projects involving climate change.”

Anglophone, Francophone differences

Brin, who conducts the study out of Quebec, compared and contrasted anglophone and francophone news consumers.

She found that French news consumers tend to be a bit more trusting of media. She said Francophones also tend to use Canadian media much more, and American media less than Anglophones.

Brin notes their survey system isn’t perfect.

“When you ask these questions, you always have to wonder how people perceive and respond to them,” she says.

“When you look at certain countries in Asia, they tend to be less trusting (of media) in general, so their answers are very low on trust, but sometimes you wonder if maybe there’s this big cultural gap that we’re not aware of. The comparisons are limited, in a sense, because trust might mean something completely different (to them).”       

What’s next?

When asked what she would like to focus on more in the next survey, Brin pointed to social media.

“A lot of very inflammatory debate happens on social media now,” she said. “That was probably something we should have looked at more in our last study.”

Brin thinks the biggest current problem is making journalism work in the digital and the social media environment.

“Because there are issues of funding, there are issues of polarization and of fake news,” she said.

“For years we’ve been telling journalists ‘just keep doing your work, work on facts, do your work responsibly and ethically, and it’ll all work itself out,’ but that’s not a good business model. If you’re being ethical and factual, you’re not going to get those clicks.”

“But, on the other hand, if you’re doing whatever it takes to get those clicks, well, you’re not being a journalist,” she said.     

Some of Brin’s other projects include an upcoming report on local news, which she spoke about at the June 2017 conference Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future, hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre, and a collection of essays on fake news written and compiled by Laval’s Centre for Media Studies. She’s also working on a project on justice and media, where her team will be conducting a series of interviews with judges to gauge how they perceive their relationship with journalists.

Brin held a lunch and learn with the RJRC on March 1 in the Rogers Communications Centre.  Her talk was entitled “Understanding News Users: Rebuilding journalism from citizens’ perspectives.”