MEDIA

In our increasingly digital, social media, social distanced world, Americans feel overwhelmed by the sheer volume of news from traditional – and nontraditional – media.

And, as it becomes increasingly challenging to sort fact from fake from online new. We cope by picking a few news sources – or disengaging from the news entirely. 

TODD SMITH

TODD SMITH

A recent  Gallup/Knight Foundation study, American Views 2020: Trust, Media and Democracy, which includes more than 20,000 interviews collected between November 2019 and February 2020 reinforces these views.

For the 2020 American Views survey, Gallup and Knight polled more than 20,000 U.S. adults and found deepening pessimism and further partisan entrenchment about how the news media delivers on its democratic mandate for factual, trustworthy information.  

Many Americans feel the media’s critical role of informing and holding those in power accountable is compromised by increasing bias. As such, Americans have not only lost confidence in the ideal of an objective media, they believe news organizations actively support the partisan divide. At the same time, Americans have not lost sight of the value of news – strong majorities uphold the ideal that the news media is fundamental to a healthy democracy.

Gallup and Knight publish these sobering findings at a moment when America’s media landscape is increasingly shaped by a cyclical economy – and when journalism, like other democratic institutions, is growing more vulnerable to polarization and eroding trust.

As evidenced in this study, party affiliation remains the key predictor of attitudes about the news media. Republicans express more negative sentiments on every aspect of media performance compared to Democrats and independents. Attitudes also differ by age – likely a reflection, in part, of generational differences in news consumption, as the study documents a concerning negative trend in young Americans’ opinions of the news media.

 

Americans Feel Overwhelmed by the Volume and Speed of News, Particularly Online

Americans are slightly more likely to say it is harder (62%) rather than easier (36%) to be well-informed because of all the sources of information than they were in 2017, when 58% said it was harder to be well-informed and 38% said it was easier. Republicans (70%) are more likely than independents (66%) and Democrats (54%) to say it is harder to be well-informed.

For those who feel overwhelmed, the biggest culprit is having news and non-news mixed together on social media and online sites, which they say contributes “a great deal” (43%) or “a fair amount” (29%) to these feelings. Six in 10 (63%) say the pace or speed of reporting and the increased number of news organizations reporting the news contribute to making them feel overwhelmed. People are less likely to feel overwhelmed by technological advances that promote universal news access.

 

Responding to the Deluge, Americans Tend to Pick a Few Trusted News Sources

In response to feeling overwhelmed by the news environment, a plurality of Americans, 41%, say they only pay attention to one or two trusted sources, while 31% try to consult a variety of sources to see where they agree.

About one in six Americans, 17%, opt for the most extreme response, saying they stop paying attention to news altogether, while 8% rely on others to help them sort out what they need to know. Those most inclined to stop paying attention to news altogether include political moderates (19%), white Americans and Hispanic Americans (both 18%). 

Conservatives (25%) are less likely than moderates and liberals (both 34%) to consult a variety of sources to discern the facts, perhaps in part due to their lower esteem of the media in general.

Older Americans are more likely than young people to pick one or two sources, and younger Americans aged 18-29 are just as likely to consult a variety of sources (33%) as they are to pick just one or two (32%) – the only age group for which that is the case. Younger people are more likely than older Americans to stop paying attention to the news altogether and to consult family and friends. 

Technological advances have created a range of new opportunities to access the news, but also have created several challenges. Among them, according to the survey: 

  • Most Americans say it is harder to feel well-informed in today’s media environment. 
  • Social media sites and apps pose a particular challenge to Americans’ ability to sort out the truth due to the spread of false information and the failure of some platforms to distinguish between news and non-news items. 
  • The current study also established that the spread of inaccurate information online is the most problematic among many concerns Americans have with the media. 
  • And previous Gallup/Knight studies have shown a modest majority of Americans would prefer that internet tech companies rather than government establish policies to regulate such content, suggesting there is more work to be done to strike the balance between free expression and online harms.

About one in six Americans who feel overwhelmed say they are opting out of news consumption altogether. This most extreme option threatens the health of a democracy, as news consumption is associated in numerous studies – including Knight’s own – with increased civic and political engagement. Those most inclined to tune out of the news include about one in five younger Americans, and one in five moderates, both key segments of the American electorate to engage to promote greater voter participation and civic engagement.

 

Americans still value the media’s traditional roles in society, such as providing accurate news and holding powerful interests accountable for their actions. Here are some of those key findings:

  • The vast majority of Americans (84%) say that, in general, the news media is “critical” (49%) or “very important” (35%) to democracy.
  • Americans are more likely today to say the media’s role in democracy is “critical,” up five percentage points since 2017.
  • Large majorities say it is “critical” or “very important” for the news media to provide accurate and fair news reports (92%), ensure Americans are informed about public affairs (91%) and hold leaders accountable for their actions (85%).
  • More Americans say the media is performing poorly rather than well in accomplishing these goals than did in 2017.

The public sees increasing levels of bias in the news media, and majorities see bias in the news source they rely on the most:

  • A majority of Americans currently see “a great deal” (49%) or “a fair amount” (37%) of political bias in news coverage. The percentage seeing a great deal of bias is up from 45% in 2017.
  • Most Americans see bias in their go-to news source; 20% see “a great deal” and another 36% see “a fair amount” of bias in the news source they rely on most often.
  • Given the choice, however, more Americans say they are concerned about bias in the news other people are getting (69%) than say they worry about their own news being biased (29%).
  • Nearly three-quarters of Americans say they see too much bias in the reporting of news that is supposed to be objective as “a major problem” (73%), up from 65% in the 2017 study.

» TODD SMITH is co-founder, president and chief executive officer of Deane | Smith, a full-service branding, PR, marketing and advertising firm with offices in Jackson. The firm – based in Nashville, Tenn. – is also affiliated with Mad Genius. Contact him at todd@deanesmithpartners.com, follow him @spinsurgeon and like the ageny on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/deanesmithpartners, and join us on LinkedIn  http://www.linkedin.com/company/deane-smith-&-partners. 

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