How Americans really feel about the media
By David Askenazi
David Askenazi is Director/Learning and Impact at Knight Foundation.
“Trust in media at all-time lows” is a headline we have, unfortunately, become accustomed to. As a foundation that cares about creating more informed and engaged communities, it’s also unacceptable. So earlier this year, Knight Foundation, as part of a larger initiative, partnered with Gallup to look at Americans’ changing opinions of the Fourth Estate.
We started in January with one of the largest surveys to date on American adults’ views of the media. Thankfully, Americans do believe that the news media have an important role to play in our democracy. They just don’t see that role being fulfilled. They believe that much of what they read is biased — a majority can’t name a trusthworthy news source. And with the deluge of information they come across each day, they feel less informed.
To inform problem-solving and help journalists and others discover what is driving these changes in attitudes, we needed to dig deeper. To this end, we worked with Gallup to design additional surveys and an experimental, news-aggregating platform that tracks user behavior.
Each of the surveys were completed by between 1,400 and 2,100 respondents, using the Gallup Panel of U.S. adults, and the experiments have had as many as 11,600 active participants.The research has been taking place since February and will continue through July.
Separately, the news-aggregating platform allows users to rate the trustworthiness of an article, depending on factors such as the content, the sources used or an image affiliated with the article. The findings highlight how a person’s personal attributes, like their political affiliation, might influence people’s perception of the news.
Over the next few months, Knight will release a series of reports on these surveys and experiments, examining many of the details and new questions that came out of the initial, January survey. The first two — “American’s Views of Misinformation in the News and How to Counteract It” and “Perceived Accuracy and Bias in the News Media” — are being published today, and have interesting insights into people’s perceptions of misinformation and biases in news stories. In fact, they see bias and inaccuracy throughout the news media and they are ready for action to mitigate the effects of misinformation online, including through the regulation of technology platforms.
Americans believe 39 percent of the news they see on television, read in the newspapers or hear on the radio is misinformation; and they estimate that nearly two-thirds of the news they see on social media is misinformation.
With regards to biases and inaccuracies in the news, Americans believe 62 percent of the news they see on television, read in newspapers and hear on the radio is biased. In addition, Americans tend to think the majority of news reporting is accurate, but they still believe a substantial percentage of it, 44 percent, is inaccurate.
Forthcoming reports will focus on additional perceptions of the media environment, current challenges within it, and some potential solutions.
Addressing the challenges faced by journalism in the age of proliferating misinformation and declining trust is more important than ever. Taken together, we hope the insights drawn from these reports will help journalists, news organizations and the people and organizations passionate about the role of a free press in our democracy tackle this problem head on.
Recent years have seen a rise in concern about the spread of misinformation, frequently referred to as “fake news.”
Concern about misinformation — which can be defined as stories that are made up or cannot be verified as accurate but are presented to readers as if they are accurate — is not confined to one political party.
Gallup and Knight Foundation’s 2017 Survey on Trust, Media and Democracy found that Americans believe the news media have a critical role to play in U.S. democracy but are not performing that role well. One of Americans’ chief concerns about media is bias, and Americans are much more likely to perceive bias in the news today than they were a generation ago.
An April 2018, Gallup/Knight survey experiment of U.S. adults sought to test the effectiveness of a news source rating system designed to bolster online news consumers’ ability to identify misinformation, or so-called “fake news,” meaning false or misleading content. The system identifies news organizations as reliable (by showing a green cue) or unreliable (using a red source cue) based on expert evaluations of their work, funding and other factors.
Online news outlets and social media platforms are key sources of news consumption today, yet how consumers evaluate the trustworthiness of this content remains underexplored. Gallup, in partnership with Knight, built an online platform to assess trust in the media. The first cycle of experiments conducted on the platform show a statistically significant decline in overall trustworthiness in conditions that reveal the news source. Gallup also confirmed that perceived trustworthiness of news content depends on how one views the news source.
The spread of misinformation or strongly biased news has been enabled, at least partially, by digitally based techniques that strategically target news content at consumers. The methods provide news consumers with stories based on the story’s popularity in the general public or with a certain group of people, or because of the consumer’s past online behavior. The use of opinion- or behavior-based metrics such as trust ratings, as well as the use of algorithms, may not only direct some Americans to less-than-credible stories but also could lend these stories unwarranted credibility.
How this reality interacts with another long-standing media trend — the decline in Americans’ confidence in the media — is not entirely clear. This report hopes to contribute to this overarching issue by reviewing the results of an experimental study that measured how the use of opinion- or behavior-based metrics influenced study participants’ levels of trust in the media.
Major internet companies such as Google®, Yahoo® and Facebook® have millions of users who visit their websites or apps frequently to find information or connect with others. Given the reach of major internet companies, the content they show people can have a profound impact on the public’s views of the U.S. and the world.
As part of its ongoing Trust, Media and Democracy initiative, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation partnered with Gallup to ask a representative sample of U.S. adults for their views on the news editorial functions played by major internet companies.
From a broad perspective, Americans credit major internet companies for connecting people and helping them become better-informed. At the same time, they are concerned about their role in spreading misinformation and in potentially limiting exposure to different viewpoints.
The news media, like many other major U.S. institutions, has suffered from a decline in public confidence in recent years. A key question for the future of the news media, as well as for U.S. democracy, is whether that trust is lost for good. In this report, Gallup asked a representative sample of U.S. adults to discuss key factors that make them trust, or not trust, news media organizations.
These results indicate that attempts to restore trust in the media among most Americans may be fruitful, particularly if those efforts are aimed at improving accuracy, enhancing transparency and reducing bias. The results also indicate that reputations for partisan leaning are a crucial driver of media distrust, and one that may matter more for people themselves than they realize.
Originally published at knightfoundation.org.