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Eric Freedman

Eric Freedman

Too Much Information? Not Enough Trust?

February 16, 2018

It sounds counterintuitive that a majority of Americans claim that the “plethora of information” around us makes it increasingly difficult to be well-informed citizens. After all, there’s a 24/7 flow of information from mainstream and legacy media – think CBS News, the Wall Street Journal, Associated Press and National Public Radio – to cable news giants Fox and CNN to reputable easy-to-access international media – BBC and the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. among them – to magazines, e-zines, blogs, alternative weekly papers, websites and Internet platforms such as Facebook, Yahoo and Google.

But by a 58 percent to 38 percent margin, that’s what our citizenry claims. In other words, most assert that having more information isn’t conducive to being informed.

Whether that makes sense or not, that’s what the new “American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy” Gallup/Knight Foundation survey found.

On the positive side, 83 percent said they felt “very knowledgeable” or “somewhat knowledgeable” about important issues that the United States faces – although the figure was two points lower for Midwesterners. The national figure was 72 percent for issues facing their local communities.

We political and policy groupies may have more simpatico confederates across the country than we thought. Thirty-one percent of those surveyed “very closely” follow news about events in Washington and political leaders. One-quarter “very closely” follows issues affecting their own communities. The comparable figures drop to 20 percent for international news, 18 percent for sports news, 16 percent for state government news and only 11 percent for business and financial news.

Of course, not all information is created equal: equal in accuracy, equal in context, equal in credibility and equal in fairness and balance.

Half of those surveyed – down from 68 percent a generation ago – expressed confidence that they’ve got enough sources of information to separate facts from bias in news reports.

Two-thirds asserted that most news media “do not do a good job of separating fact from opinion.”

How easily can the public detect the difference between information and misinformation? As for their own ability to make that type of separation, only about a quarter felt “very confident” that they themselves can identify when sources present factual news rather than opinion or commentary.

Trust the press to be impartial? Not for many.

The survey found 43 percent hold a negative view of the media, and only one-third hold a positive view. Here in the Midwest and in the South, the average score on media trust was lower than on the West and East coasts.

“Those holding favorable views are much more likely than those with unfavorable views to believe more information makes staying informed easier,” the report found.

Only 44 percent could name a news source that they believe reports objectively. Among those who could do so, Republicans overwhelmingly named Fox News, while Democrats, young adults, Blacks and Hispanics were more likely to name CNN first.

TV news programs remain the most popular news sources, followed by Internet news websites. But popularity isn’t synonymous with trust. Respondents reportedly place the greatest trust in national TV network news and in national and local newspapers.

As for “fake news,” – like beauty – it’s in the eye and mind of the beholder.

The survey gave this straight-forward definition to survey participants: “Inaccurate information presented as an objective news story and designed to deceive people in some way.” It then asked whether the following four situations fit that definition: knowingly portraying false information as true; journalists reporting stories before verifying all the facts and sources for accuracy; slanting stories to promote a particular viewpoint; and accurate stories that negatively depict political groups and politicians.

Here, too, the results showed partisan differences.

For example, 42 percent of Republicans but only 17 percent of Democrats said that accurate stories that portray political leaders and groups in a negative light are always “fake news.” They were closer to consensus on whether knowingly presenting false information as true always constitutes “fake news”: 43 percent of Democrats, 50 percent of independents and 52 percent of Republicans.

Overall, 56 percent of those surveyed considered fake news to be a “very serious” threat to democracy, including two-thirds of Republicans and half of Democrats.

There are lots of variables in assessing the attitudes of 19,000-plus respondents. They include political leaning, level of education, household income, age, race and whether someone lives in a large city, rural area or suburb. Each of those 19,000+ women and men has a unique combination of those and other relevant variables.

Thus statistics such as these can tell only part of the story about Americans, trust, the press and democracy – but they can teach us lessons about the critical need for journalists and news organizations “to fulfill their democratic responsibilities of informing the public and holding government leaders accountable,” as the Gallup/Knight Foundation report puts it.

And while the citizenry believe the news media still have an essential role in our democratic society, the press must strive to convince them that it’s fulfilling that responsibility.

Eric Freedman, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, is professor of Journalism and director of Capital News Service and the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.

February 15, 2018 · Filed under Freedman


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