Trust in news sources: It’s complicated

A 2018 study by the Pew Research Center found that most Americans expect the information they get from a news organization to be accurate. So why does the same study show that most people also believe that news organizations don’t admit their mistakes?

First, a look at those numbers: The study found that 71% of Americans trust the accuracy of the national news they consume. Yet “about two-thirds of Americans (68%) believe news organizations try to cover up mistakes. That’s more than double the number that trust news organizations to admit mistakes (30%).”

So does the public think that news outlets are reliable and transparent, or not?

Addressing errors has long been a bedrock value and crucial measure of responsible journalism. The Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics states, “Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently.”

However, Pew respondents might be right to doubt that reporters faithfully follow this ideal. An “accuracy audit” of 122 newspapers in 2005 found that the rate of corrections was dismal. And that was long before the online landscape transformed the news media.

The authors of  that study, “Accuracy Matters: A Cross-Market Assessment of Newspaper Error and Credibility,” suggested a few reasons reporters might not own up to their errors. First, they might not realize they have made an error because many sources and readers who see inaccuracies never contact the journalist or news outlet. More alarming, researchers said, newsrooms often ignored requests for corrections.

In an era of declining trust in news, the corrections situation, clearly, needs correcting.

In its 2019 report Crisis in Democracy: Renewing Trust in America, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Commission on Trust, Media and Democracy urges news outlets to update their practices on correcting errors, including sending corrections “along the same online pathways that the original mistake traveled.”

Chasing errors in the ether might not be easy, as evidenced by this attempt to append a correction to a story everywhere it appeared. Still, making the effort is one way to regain trust. 

Even diligent reporters make errors, as then-executive editor of Gizmodo Media Group John Cook told media critic Jack Shafer: “There are a million ways for good-faith reporters to make good-faith errors, which is why good news outlets have a culture of correction.”

That’s a culture the public likely can appreciate. 

The Pew finding is based on a nationally representative survey of 5,035 U.S. adults ages 18 years or older conducted from Feb. 22 to March 4, 2018. 

College students embrace news in theory, anyway

Following the news is a civic responsibility, agree 63% of U.S. college students. Furthermore, 82% say that news is necessary in a democracy. 

“Yes!” you think. “The kids are all right! They know that an informed populace is key to a healthy society.” 

But what Project Information Literacy also learned (PDF) is that when these young adults think of “news,” they are envisioning the highest ideals of reporting — and they’re not happy with what they often see. One overall finding: “Tension exists between idealized views of journalism and a distrust of news.”

The nonprofit research institute surveyed more than 5,800 students at 11 campuses to understand what young adults think about the role news plays in their lives and how they determine what to believe, finding both support and ambivalence.

College students appreciate “the long-standing core principles of journalism — truth, accuracy, independence and fairness.” But 68% also agree with this statement: “The sheer amount of news on any given day is overwhelming.” And 45% believe this: “It’s difficult to tell real news from fake news.”

Several factors drive the students’ dissatisfaction. One is the “fake news phenomenon,” especially “its far-reaching impact on people’s ability to distinguish truthful and accurate news coverage from misinformation and outright lies.” Another is social media’s “avalanche of news that appeals to news consumers’ emotions rather than conveying credible facts.” Students pointed to newsfeeds that mix fact and opinion in pieces whose sources were unknown or unclear, along with headlines and memes that lack nuance and are often followed by torrents of heated reaction.

And they worry about bias, too.

The researchers offer six recommendations for educators, journalists and librarians to consider for this “generation that has clearly grown skeptical of the pretense of media authority” — but that also believes that following the news is a civic responsibility.

The Project Information Literacy study How Students Engage with News: Five Takeaways for Educators, Journalists, and Librarians was published in October 2018 and based on responses from January to June 2018. It was commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Association of College and Research Libraries.

Trust starts with understanding but when it comes to basics, that’s lacking

Half the public is unaware (or only slightly aware) of what “op-ed” means.

That on its own isn’t necessarily a problem. What is a problem is what that and other results from a June 2018 Media Insight Project survey reflect: the chasm in understanding between newsrooms and the public on some basics of journalism.

The Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, starts with the premise that the public’s trust of journalism is based on an understanding of how journalism works, including its language. 

It tested this premise through two surveys: one for members of the public and one for journalists. One question for the public was about their familiarity with specific newsroom terms or concepts; journalists were asked whether they thought Americans understood those terms or concepts. 

The results showed “substantial confusion on major concepts. On a battery of nine core journalism terms, a majority of Americans are very familiar with only three of them”: what a political endorsement is, what breaking news is, and what the difference is between a news story and a press release. 

Only 28% of people queried said they were completely or very familiar with the term “op-ed.” Journalists gave the public even less credit; only 15% of journalists thought the public would understand it. (The term is from print journalism and refers to the placement of opinion pieces on the page opposite the editorial page.)

The study’s authors suggest that the news media should better explain itself. And they note: “The low opinion journalists have of their audience may be a major underlying factor that gets in the way of winning back trust. As journalists and their news organizations pursue strategies to improve their relationship with the public, it’s worth noting that the public’s views and behaviors may not be as simplistic or dim as journalists make them out to be.”

Native advertising: Big money, but potential problems

Every industry has its jargon. Lawyers might throw out “prima facie” and expect to be understood; doctors might say ECG and EEG without bothering to explain what they mean.

Journalism has its own words, too. But it’s a worse problem when journalism, an industry whose survival depends on being trusted, uses terms that its customers don’t understand.

In its 2018 study Americans and the News Media: What they do — and don’t — understand about each other, the Media Insight Project asked nonjournalists about several news industry phrases and practices. Among the findings: 57% of the U.S. public say they have little or no idea what “native advertising” is. And only 18% say they are very or completely familiar with the term, which is what journalists call the “sponsored content” that resembles a news article but is paid for by someone trying to sell something. 

Worse: People seem unfamiliar with the practice. “Native advertising” is designed to look like  news, so people can be tricked into reading what they think is straight reporting. But sponsored content has become a moneymaker for outlets, which means that such marketing is here to stay.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code pulls no punches: “Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Prominently label sponsored content.” 

But how? In a 2018 article for Nieman Reports, a publication of Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation, Jake Batsell — a former journalist and an associate professor of journalism at Southern Methodist University — offers guidelines for steps the industry can take to maintain trust with its audience when it comes to ads that might look like real news articles.  

Batsell visited media outlets to learn how they explain these ads to their audience. Labeling, it seems, is a good answer: The content that is most clearly labeled as advertising actually often performs better than content that is more vaguely identified. Batsell also suggests attaching a “What’s this?” link so that visitors can click through to learn that the item is, in fact, a marketing piece. 

The Federal Trade Commission has its own rules in place, last updated in December 2015, though Batsell laments that the rules are rarely enforced. 

Clear labeling is best, said Sara Catania, who edited JTrust, a “pop-up newsletter” about trust and journalism in 2017 and 2018. She told Batsell that publishers may worry that they will lose public trust “if they reveal the degree to which advertising influences editorial” — but that, “in fact, the opposite is true. If they don’t reveal it, they will be found out, and that’s much worse.”

Separate news and opinion, says the public and clearly label them, say journalists

Amid accusations that their work is biased, journalists largely agree on one fix that might help: Most think that their news organization should clearly mark what is news and what is commentary.

The finding was part of a 2018 study (PDF) by the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, which sought to assess the gaps in understanding between journalists and the public and offer ways to fill those gaps with trust. The study surfaced strong opinions from both journalists and nonjournalists about bias and accuracy in reporting.

One of many questions asked of news consumers was how easily they could tell the difference between news and opinion in the news outlets they most frequently read, watched, or listened to.

The study, titled Americans and the News Media: What they do — and don’t — understand about each other, found that 75% of the general public said it was “very” or “somewhat” easy to distinguish news articles from opinion pieces in the news outlet they rely on most often. But only 43% said they could easily tell the difference on Twitter or Facebook. 

Those who subscribe to a newspaper seem more knowledgeable than nonsubscribers: The study reported that 70% of subscribers to local papers said they could easily tell the difference between news and opinion, while fewer than half (49%) of nonsubscribers said they were able to do so. 

Which means a lot of people are confused. And confusion can lead to mistrust. 

The study’s authors then “offered journalists a list of transparency methods that have been advocated by journalism reform advocates and scholars” to build trust with readers, viewers and listeners. The top answer: Nearly 8 in 10 journalists said that their news organization should make the difference between news and opinion more distinct. 

The study goes into some detail about the movement toward transparency (the need for journalists to explain themselves and their work more clearly) — for example, it could be something as detailed as showing journalists’ work methods or as simple as always putting a label on opinion pieces. As the authors wrote: “The public is ready for a relationship with more understanding and trust, if news media can take the right steps to earn it.”

Unsurprisingly, it’s hard to define ‘fake news’

The main agreement Americans have when it comes to “fake news” is that it’s a threat — a very serious one, say 56% of those polled for American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy, a 2018 report from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

But exactly what “fake news” means varies, according to the report, which analyzes the results of the 2017 Gallup/Knight Foundation Survey on Trust, Media and Democracy. 

“People knowingly portraying false information as if it were true”? Yes, that’s always “fake news,” say 48% of those surveyed (46% said that “sometimes” that is the case).

“Journalists reporting stories before they check all their facts and sources to be sure they are accurate”? Yes, “fake news,” agree 35% — although nearly 60% conceded that they would consider that to be “fake news” only “sometimes.”

One startling finding: 28% of those polled said that, yes, “accurate stories casting a politician or political group in a negative light” are always “fake news.” And 50% said they would “sometimes” consider that to be “fake news.” 

Adding to the plethora of meanings, the study provided its own: In setting up that question for those polled, it described “fake news” as “inaccurate information presented as an objective news story and designed to deceive people in some way.” The authors also wrote: “The research community often defines ‘fake news’ as misinformation with the appearance of legitimately produced news but without the underlying organizational journalistic processes or mission.”

Perhaps it’s best to avoid the phrase for the reasons given in 2017 by Claire Wardle and Hossein Derakhshan in their report, Information Disorder: “We refrain from using the term ‘fake news’, for two reasons. First, it is woefully inadequate to describe the complex phenomena of information pollution. The term has also begun to be appropriated by politicians around the world to describe news organisations whose coverage they find disagreeable.”

Wardle, now the executive chair at First Draft, a nonprofit that “addresses challenges related to truth and trust in the digital age,” is also the host of “Misinformation,” a lesson in NLP’s Checkology® virtual classroom, in which she outlines five types of misinformation.

People agree across the globe: Lies can be weapons

According to the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer (PDF), 73% of people worldwide are concerned about “fake news” and false information being used as a weapon. The online survey in 27 markets on six continents included 33,000 respondents, which means that there are a lot of worried people. That 73% of the public is an increase from the findings in the 2018 Trust Barometer (PDF), when nearly 70% of those surveyed wereconcerned about the weaponization of false information.

What exactly does “fake news as a weapon” mean, though? After all, there is no single definition of “fake news”it could mean disinformation, a flawed news report that requires a correction, or even a demonstrated fact with which someone disagrees. A 2017 Edelman “special flash poll” attempted to home in on a meaning;responses included “bad reporting,” “name-calling” and “legitimate threat.”

And “weapon” is just as unclear. For example, hate and misinformation that was spread on social media in Myanmar led to bloodshed and deaths — resulting in a Facebook-sponsored “special human rights assessment” into its presence in the country (PDF). By contrast, Americans live in a country where “weapon” is more likely to mean propaganda, rather than armed mobs — as terrible as the results are in both cases.

To explain the danger Americans might feel, Edelman’s president and CEO referred to Gresham’s Law. As Richard Edelman wrote in January 2018: “Gresham’s Law, based on the 18th century observation that debased currency drives out the good, is now evident in the realm of information, with fake news crowding out real news.”

But there is hope, too, in Edelman’s written piece, for the nearly three-quarters who are concerned about the effects of “fake news”: “People’s concern about fake news and their willingness to listen to experts show that they yearn for knowledge. … Every institution must play its part by educating its constituents and joining the public debate, going direct to the end-users of information. That means taking the informed risk to join the battle for truth so that facts triumph over fears.”

YouGov measures the difference in perceptions of bias by age, medium

Adults who rely more on the internet than on television to get their news skew younger, and those who get news primarily from TV are older — findings from a YouGov.com poll in June 2018 that, frankly, aren’t very surprising.

However, a related finding raised a more head-scratching point: 43% of adults who rely on TV to stay informed admit that they sometimes fall for “fake news” versus 33% of those who rely on the internet.

In its 2018 questionnaire, YouGov — a London-based global market research company with clients in both politics and sales  — sought to understand the “divide between people who prefer the television to keep up to date with the news and people who rely on the internet,” as well as differences in perceptions of news by age.

Consider the statement “News organizations tend to provide only one side of the story depending on who owns them or funds them.” Agree, or disagree? It seems that 74% of internet users believe that, versus 66% of TV watchers. Some 70% of the general public holds that belief.

That addresses the perception of bias by medium; what about perception of bias by age?

Given the same sentiment — “News organizations tend to provide only one side of the story depending on who owns them or funds them” — older and younger believed that to be true in the same proportion: 71% of those ages 65 and older, and 71% of those 18 to 34, thought news reporting was influenced by owners or funders.

A little less cynical were those ages 35 to 49 (67% agreed), and those 50 to 64 (69% agreed).

YouGov did not attempt to interpret the findings. It creates nationally representative online samples from its 2 million online participants in the United States (and global samples from its more than 6 million participants worldwide) and conducts surveys on a variety of topics. As its co-founder and CEO said in an interview in 2018, details like those his company provide “matter a lot both for political decision-making and for making commercial campaign decisions.”

Young or old, they’re honest in admitting they fall for ‘fake news’

“I admit it: I sometimes think fake news is real, only to find out later it was incorrect.”

You have to hand it to the people who answered that YouGov question in June 2018. By their own admission, they came up short in the news literacy department. In assessing their own habits and foibles, 41% of U.S. adults ages 18 to 34 and 44% of those age 65 and older said that yes, they believed something that they saw online that they later realized was false.

By comparison, that was the case for 37% of those ages 35 to 49 and 38% of those 50 to 64.

That means that those most likely to fall for fraudulent information are either older — or younger — consumers of news, according to YouGov.com, which creates nationally representative online samples from its 2 million online participants in the United States.

But as we look more deeply at whether and how age is related to credulity, the matter may be more complicated when it comes to falling for the false. For example, a BuzzFeed News article published in April 2019 examines how an aging population is grappling with understanding the technology that younger people have grown up with. The studies it cites include (and reinforce) the findings of one published in January 2019 in Science Advances: that during the 2016 presidential campaign, people 65 and older on Facebook shared nearly seven times as many articles from fake domains as those ages 18 to 29.

“It is possible,” the authors of that study wrote, “that an entire cohort of Americans, now in their 60s and beyond, lacks the level of digital media literacy necessary to reliably determine the trustworthiness of news encountered online.”

Believe it or not: Partisan news sites have an unhappy reinforcing effect

What are you going to believe: yourself or the facts?

According to a 2016 study, you might believe your existing notions — even when you know that the facts disagree. 

The study opens with this (jaw-dropping) context: 1 in 4 Americans — 25% — believe that the sun orbits the earth.

Now focus on two major portions of that group: 

  • Almost 37% admit that they don’t know the science. 
  • About 26% know that scientists say the Earth circles the sun — yet still think the opposite.*

In their study, the authors — all communication scholars — sought to learn how partisan outlets influence news consumers’ political beliefs to the point that they can stick by their convictions even while knowing the facts

Respondents to surveys conducted in the weeks before and immediately after the 2012 presidential election were asked about their knowledge of and beliefs in four common misperceptions — two held by liberal-leaning citizens, and two by conservative-leaning citizens. The researchers concluded that “individuals sometimes hold beliefs that contradict their own knowledge of the evidence.” 

Why? It appears that the very existence of partisan media plays the biggest role. 

That’s why R. Kelly Garrett, an associate professor of communication at Ohio State University, titled the study Driving a Wedge Between Evidence and Beliefs: How Online Ideological News Exposure Promotes Political Misperceptions.” 

It’s not that we all live in online echo chambers, which the study disputes, and it’s not that news sites peddle completely wrong information. Rather, Garrett said in a press release accompanying publication of the study, “The more people use these [partisan] sources, the more likely they are to embrace false claims, regardless of what they know about the evidence.”

He continued: “It is a crisis of critical thinking. Examining the evidence for ourselves too often means allowing our own biases to influence how we evaluate claims. And ideological news sources encourage us to do that.”

*Of the others who believe that the sun revolves around Earth, 25% mistakenly think that scientists believe that, too, and 12% say scientists are split on the matter.

Most Americans mix it up when it comes to news consumption

Good news when it comes to worries about echo chambers and filter bubbles (that is, the fear that people tune in only to viewpoints they agree with): Most Americans say they read, watch and listen to a mix of liberal and conservative news.

That’s according to a 2017 Gallup poll, published in American Views: Trust, Media And Democracy. a 2018 report (PDF download) from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. The exact statistic: 71% of Americans report receiving a mix of liberal and conservative news.

(An asterisk to consider before continuing: Those who were queried got to decide whether an outlet was “liberal” or “conservative.” As the report put it, “The slightly greater reliance on liberal sources may be based on the perceptions that more news sources are left-leaning than right-leaning.”) 

Respondents were asked “How much of the news you read or watch comes from news organizations that are generally liberal in their point of view?” and “How much of the news you read or watch comes from news organizations that are generally conservative in their point of view?”

Almost half (46%) of Democrats said that they got “most” of their news from liberal sources, and 42% said they got “some” from conservative sources.

Of Republicans, 37% said they got “most” of their news from conservative sources. The same percentage said they got “some” of their news from conservative sources. Almost a quarter (22%) said they got “most” of their news from liberal sources. 

Then there are the 16% who get all or most of their news from liberal sources (and little or none from conservative sources), and the 12% who get all or most of their news from conservative sources (and little or none from liberal sources). In other words, more than a quarter (28%) admit to getting news from only one perspective. 

But the smart habits of the 71% show in one other finding from the poll: 60% of all respondents say they believe that it is a “major problem” for people to choose only news sources that share their own views.

Results of the 2017 Gallup/Knight Foundation Survey on Trust, Media and Democracy are based on mail interviews collected between Aug. 4 and Oct. 2, 2017, from 19,196 adults, ages 18+, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia.