Media diversity is not just a question of the quantity and quality of media content available on the media market. Diversity, pluralism, has ultimately become one of the most important guiding principles for thinking about the media because behind this thinking lies a vision of an informed citizen, aware of the facts of public life, able to weigh up different points of view, and able to participate in democratic dialogue and decision-making. Obviously, without a diversity of offerings, this vision cannot be achieved, but diversity of offerings alone does not make an informed citizen. The functioning of democracy requires an effort from everyone. Such an effort includes the effort to be informed.
The Mérték Media Analysis Workshop has been conducting a survey on news consumption and information habits since 2013 (the results of previous surveys are available on mertek.eu under Freedom of the Press). Each time, the survey was conducted in cooperation with the Median Institute for Public Opinion and Market Research. A specific feature of the Hungarian media situation is that over the years the titles of the most read daily newspapers have disappeared from the list, the radio market has been replaced and many of the high reach media have undergone changes of ownership that have completely overwritten previous editorial trends. Repeated surveys also give an accurate picture of how sensitive and how quickly audiences react when the news sources they use present the day's events in a significantly different tone to the one they used to hear. The lesson is that market changes are much faster than changes in consumer habits.
The survey data provide convincing evidence that not only the choice of news sources, but also the interpretation and evaluation of news is significantly influenced by the respondent's partisan affiliation. While pro-government voters clearly prefer and find more credible pro-government media, they also interpret daily events in line with the government's narrative. Even if they encounter news sources that contradict the government narrative. The polarisation of Hungarian society is clearly visible in patterns of news consumption and news interpretation.
2020 was also an unusual year for news consumption. The COVID-19 epidemic has significantly increased the demand for news and has brought the measures taken to deal with the epidemic to the centre of political discourse and debate. Recent data show an increase in interest in politics and public life, on the one hand, and an increase in the value of online and social news sources to quickly meet news needs, on the other. The key question for the period ahead is whether these patterns will be consolidated or whether, as the pandemic subsides, there will be a return to television-centric news consumption with a moderate openness to public affairs.
By 2020, the role of television in informing the public will have clearly declined and that of the internet will have increased. All previous surveys have clearly and overwhelmingly shown TV as the number one source of political and public news. Now, however, its importance has declined considerably and that of the web has increased considerably, with almost as many people now using the latter regularly for political information. And for the three quarters of the public who have access to the internet and use the web, the internet is by far the most important source of news - 71% use it regularly, compared to 50% of respondents who use television. However, the role of radio and print media in keeping people informed has remained largely unchanged since 2014.
This does not mean that the generational divide in internet use has completely levelled out, with 74% of people under 50 regularly using the internet, 65% between 50 and 59 and still only 28% of people aged 60 and over. All this relates to political awareness, and this picture is nuanced by the fact that young people are slightly less interested in public affairs: the youngest age group has the highest proportion of people with little or no knowledge of politics (28% under 30, 8% over 60).
Television is on the other side of the scale. It is still used regularly for political information by 84% of those aged 60 and over, but this proportion falls steadily in the younger age groups, and only 30% of those under 40 can be classified as such. The oldest age group also leads in the use of the printed press, i.e. daily and weekly newspapers, as a source of information.
RTL Klub (now just RTL) has been ranked first among regular sources of public information in all surveys since 2014. According to the 2020 survey, TV2 is the second most frequently chosen news source, followed by Retro Radio. Neither of these is primarily a news medium, but their role in informing the public is precisely because public news is presented among other, entertainment content and reaches viewers and listeners who are less active in seeking public information. The full list for 2020 is available on the Mérték website.
The part of the research that looked at the reliability of individual news sources highlights a serious problem in the Hungarian public sphere. The list of media outlets that are trusted and untrusted by government and opposition voters is almost a mirror image of each other. The news sources most trusted by pro-government voters are the least trusted by opposition voters, and vice versa. The political divide is thus now so strong that on public issues, pro- and anti-government voters make their own decisions on the basis of completely different information. It is not that they do not have access to and use the news sources of the 'other side', but that what they see, hear and read there is rejected out of hand. They don't see it as a basis for debate, they don't seek common themes, common words and ultimately common solutions.
At the time of the 2020 survey, two-thirds of respondents had a Facebook account and 56 percent of users encounter political and public policy posts on a daily basis. In 2018, 22 percent never encountered such posts, a figure that had fallen to 8 percent in 2020. A quarter of respondents said they always check the original source of articles they open on Facebook, 42 percent usually do, and a third of respondents never or almost never. Facebook had therefore become a dominant source of public information by 2020, although it was not used as intensively by political actors then as it was in the run-up to the 2022 elections. At the same time, there is a strong suspicion that for many, "Facebook" is a source of news without the user being aware of the origin of the information being shared. This clearly encourages the spread of unreliable or even untrue information.
The Hungarian media system is constantly changing. Since the 2020 survey, the most important change is precisely the political valorisation of social media. But in 2020, we could not yet examine the importance of Telex in news consumption, Klubrádió had just lost its frequency, and Partizán, Magyar Hang and Válasz Online were also very new players. Methodologically, the study of public information is becoming increasingly difficult. News sources have become fragmented, some YouTube channels or Facebook feeds have become the dominant points of reference for their followers, while others, and in some cases ourselves, have never heard of them. What is more, we can be sure that most voters use a lot of information sources in parallel, including some they disagree with, but we do not know what they do with this information, how they interpret it, how they incorporate it into their own understanding of the world. These are the difficulties that Mérték and Median are facing in preparing the 2023 survey, the results of which will be published in May 2023.