Consuming news in turbulent times

Findings in a new IMS audience survey offer valuable insights on Sri Lankan’s choices of local, national and international sources for news and the role of public trust in news sources.

Most Sri Lankans still turn to television and radio for news, but digital media use is on the rise and media users are devising their own strategies to separate facts from fake news, finds a new IMS audience study from Sri Lanka.

Broadcast media, especially television, is where most Sri Lankans get their news and current information, a new country-wide study of media audiences has revealed.

Across all demographics, 96% of respondents said they regularly watch domestic television channels for news. Radio came second at 55%, but listening patterns vary. More middle aged or senior citizens, and those living in rural areas, tune into radio for news.

Next to broadcast sources, 54% rely on the trusted inner circle of family and peers for news. Colleagues, neighbors, spouse, relatives and parents (in that order) are the individuals most people turn to.

Newspapers are no longer a key news source, with only 39% turning to them regularly. The use of e-papers and newspaper websites was statistically insignificant in the random sample of 2,014 persons in all 25 districts of Sri Lanka who took part in the survey, which was carried out during September and October 2019.

Four out of 10 persons (or 40%) said they go online for news, with most (93%) using their own smartphone to do so. Social media dominates as sources of news online: 31% of the full sample said they get news from social media. The use of gossip websites and news websites is still low, but growing.

“These findings have disproved one hypothesis we investigated, whether media consumers in Sri Lanka increasingly preferred social media (and Facebook in particular) as a source of news and current information,” says Ranga Kalansooriya, Asia advisor for IMS.

“The dominance of ‘word of mouth’ – either in person or through phones – over social media shows how inter-personal communication still matters in this era of mass media and social media.”

Ranga Kalansoorya

IMS conducted the study with the help of a local market research company. The study sought to understand how people from different geographical, demographic, cultural and educational backgrounds in Sri Lanka consume news and current information.

The study offer valuable insights on Sri Lankan’s choices of local, national and international sources for news, the role of public trust in news sources, and audience perceptions about biases in both state owned and corporate owned media.

When analysing focus group feedback and survey answers, it becomes clear how most Sri Lankans have devised informal strategies to discern facts from distortions or falsehoods. For example, many people regularly refer two, three or more news sources trying to guard against being misled by media biases or manipulation.

“Many audience members have a good sense of what good journalism means, and are critical of superficial, sensational and sometimes unethical coverage of news events,” says media advisor Emilie Lehmann-Jacobsen.

Easter Sunday terror attacks

The survey also probed news consumption patterns in the immediate aftermath of the Easter Sunday terror attacks on 21 April 2019. Contrary to a popular assumption, most Sri Lankans did not flock to social media or online outlets for breaking news. Instead, television was the most preferred media – it was also where two thirds (67%) first heard about the attacks. Television remained the medium of choice for most people (86%) in days following the attacks.

“At a time of rapid transformation in the media sector, it is crucial for media policy makers, media owners, media professionals and media activists to better understand how audiences perceive news and current information; in what different ways content is consumed; and how much – or how little – audiences trust their sources of news,” says media analyst Nalaka Gunawardene who led the study.

The study contains 16 recommendations for consideration by the media industry, media professionals, media regulators and media educators.