The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on how media is distributed and accessed in 2020. As news consumption increased around the world in the wake of the coronavirus crisis, our news habits evolved, carving out a few losers and several unlikely winners in the post-COVID media landscape.

Research commissioned by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which surveyed approx. 80,000 people globally in an effort to gauge news consumption habits around the world, found that most news sources—traditional as well as digital—gained traffic amid the pandemic, providing traditional media a temporary respite from its recent declines, as the use of online and social media platforms—and particularly, the adoption of mobile messaging apps—continued to surge ahead.

According to the report, television, which has been faltering steady in recent years, saw upticks of five percentage points as a news source among global respondents during the month of April. Social media also five gained five percentage points and online media inched up two percentage points, closing the digital/traditional gap that has been shrinking in the last several years and further positioning digital news to overtake TV as the most frequently-used news source. Use of radio, meanwhile, gained two percentage points.

No such rebound can be attributed to print, however, which has continued its downward spiral, losing two additional percentage points in April, a decline no doubt further attributed to the fact that lockdowns around the world prevented the physical distribution of printed newspapers and magazines to consumers.

On the other hand, the report discovered “significant increases” in payment for online news sources, particularly in the United States (up four percentage points) and Norway (up eight percentage points).

WhatsApp gains ground

WhatsApp now stands as the third-most-popular social media networks—behind Facebook, and YouTube—claiming weekly use by 48 percent of the global population surveyed (compared to only 17 percent in 2014). The smartphone instant messaging service saw the biggest usage gains of any platform in 2020, with year-over-year increases of around ten percentage points in some countries.

The report found that in April alone, about a quarter (24 percent) of global respondents said they used the app to find, discuss or share news about COVID-19.

In terms of overall popularity, Facebook and YouTube continue to lead as the most dominant social networks (used by 63 percent and 61 percent of the global population, respectively). WhatsApp is followed by Messenger (38 percent) and Instagram remains near the middle of the pile, with more than a third (36 percent) of respondents claiming they use that platform weekly, sitting above Twitter (23 percent) and Snapchat (13 percent).

Instagram becomes news source

Another unexpected development is the discovery that photo-sharing site Instagram has now become an unlikely destination for news. In fact, according to the Reuters Institute’s report, virtually the same percentage of users now turn to Instagram for news as Twitter (11 percent vs. 12 percent, respectively). By comparison, in 2014 only two percent of respondents said they relied on Instagram as a news source.

Instagram now ranks fourth among the social networks for news, beating out Snapchat and Messenger to run neck-and-neck with Twitter. Facebook retains the top slot for news—though its standing as a news source has dipped considerably since 2016—followed by YouTube and WhatsApp. The use of Instagram as a news source has risen globally, but particularly in Brazil (30 percent), Chile (28 percent), Italy (17 percent) and Spain (17 percent).

Proportion of global respondents that used each social network for news in the last week (2014-2020)
Proportion of global respondents that used each social network for news in the last week (2014-2020).

COVID-19 has played a part in this as well, as Instagram has become a popular hub—particularly among younger audiences—for celebrities and influencers sharing coronavirus-related news updates as well as health and wellness tips. About one-in-four 18-24-year-olds in the U.S. and U.K. (26 percent and 24 percent, respectively) reported using Instagram as a news source in the last week. In Germany and Argentina, those percentages are even higher (38 percent and 49 percent, respectively).

What’s causing these shifts? The report noted that both Instagram and WhatsApp were designed specifically for smartphone use, which gives these platforms an advantage in today’s mobile-first media environment, particularly among younger users. More than two-thirds of respondents (69 percent) said they now use a smartphone to read the news every week.

Reuters Institute’s “Digital News Report 2020” surveyed respondents in 40 markets across six continents. Research was conducted by market research firm YouGov using an online questionnaire. An additional post-COVID-19 survey was conducted in six countries (Argentina, Germany, Spain, South Korea, the U.K. and the U.S.) in collaboration with the Oxford Internet Institute to gauge the pandemic’s impact on media consumption