January 22, 2020 – Public distrust in the media has taken on another dimension in the digital age.
A poll from the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and USAFacts confirms this new skepticism.
The main findings are dismaying: almost half of all Americans say they have a hard time discerning if information is true, regardless of their political leanings. Nearly two-thirds say they often come across biased information, and 6 in 10 report they see conflicting stories about the same set of facts from different sources.
The poll discovered the skepticism runs deeper than just the media. Readers also question information from the government, scientists, academics and politicians.
So how can citizens cut through today’s noisy digital information ecosystem to get to the truth?
ASU Now turned to Kristy Roschke for answers. Roschke is the managing director of the News Co/Lab, a Cronkite School initiative aimed at helping people find new ways of understanding and interacting with news and information. She recently discussed the findings of the AP news poll and offered remedies for readers who want to stay media literate.
Question: I recently watched a documentary called “Mike Wallace Is Here.” It contained a clip from the 1980s where a broadcaster talked about lack of public trust in the media. This seems to be an ongoing theme in American culture, but this latest AP story/poll seems to have some real bite. What’s your reaction to the story?
Answer: The story and poll results didn’t surprise me at all. It’s yet another example of the forces working against public trust. As you mentioned, public trust in the media has been on the decline for decades. There are a variety of reasons for this, including the 24/7 news cycle created by cable news, the explosion of online news and the increase in partisan news outlets, notably Fox News.
It was easy to accept information from the media in a time of news scarcity — we had no other options. In today’s noisy digital information ecosystem, however, most people are not loyal to specific news brands. The information that helps us shape our worldviews comes in pieces: a social media post here, a TV news segment there. Information is consumed without regard to the source, and because there is so much junk out there it is easy to lump it all together and say “the media” aren’t trustworthy. The same thing is happening to other major institutions, including higher education and science.
Painting the media with a broad brush is not a new phenomenon. What’s different now is that we have a confluence of events — an overload of choices, bad actors manipulating information and platforms, public officials pushing a narrative of “fake news” and the steep decline of the business of journalism — that have significantly upped the stakes.
Q: The AP story states that almost half of all Americans say they have a hard time figuring out if information is true because of one-sided reporting and conflicting stories on the same subject. Is there any truth to this?
A: Our information environment is so saturated that trying to find credible information can feel overwhelming. There is a growing body of research that speaks to people’s difficulty discerning quality information and, yes, there are more viewpoints on certain topics than ever before. But this is much more a function of the amount of information readily available and the digital platforms where we find much of this information than it is a change in the way journalism organizations report news.
In the digital environment, all “news” can look the same. What we’re finding is that people don’t have a clear understanding of how credible journalism organizations gather and report information. For example, the terms used to describe an opinion-based piece — editorial, op-ed, analysis, etc. — are not necessarily familiar outside of the opinion section of a printed newspaper. So when opinion stories regularly show up in a Facebook feed with unclear or no labels, it can seem to the user that a lot of the news is one-sided. But it may be that the news feed is filled with opinion pieces on the same event from several different news outlets.
News organizations could do a much better job explaining their process and standards. This alone won’t solve the problem, but it can help to separate ethical, fact-based news outlets from others. Transparency helps people know what standards to look for in their search for credible information.
Q: Bias seems to have seeped into the reporting of news. How is it possible to get news outlets to simply report the straight news like the AP or the Wall Street Journal?
A: I disagree with the premise of this question. I won’t argue that credible news organizations don’t at times show bias. This happens at every news organization, and I would go as far as to say that it doesn’t have to be a bad thing. Bias toward the importance of vaccinations, for instance, is not only appropriate, it is imperative to protecting our public health.
I don’t think it’s particularly constructive to try to compare news organizations based on a perceived level of bias or partisan leaning. For one, broadcast news is an entirely different world from print/digital. Cable news stations fill much of their 24-hour news cycle with punditry and analysis, which is inherently opinionated. You just can’t compare that to the mix of news the Washington Post puts out daily. And the New York Post and Breitbart News are very open about their bias and agenda.
You mention the Wall Street Journal as a reporter of “straight news,” for instance, but its opinion section leans conservative. So some people have the idea that the WSJ is a conservative publication, not understanding that editorial is separate from news.
Q: The impeachment hearings seem to be a good example of this quandary. If you listen to CNN, you’d think that any day now, Donald Trump is on his way out. But if you listen to Fox, you’re being told the hearings are a farce and he’ll be voted back into office in 2020. What’s the best way for a viewer to take in the information to make an informed decision?
A: It’s been well documented that people will gravitate toward news and news sources that confirm their existing beliefs, and the internet makes that very easy to do. What Fox News means to me may be entirely different even to members of my own family. I don’t see an easy way around that and, frankly, it’s not the best use of anyone’s time to argue about it. But increasing people’s knowledge about how corporate ownership, business models, special interests, representation, shrinking newsrooms and other issues impact news coverage is a very worthwhile endeavor, and is part of what media literacy education aims to do.
One benefit of the internet is that it exposes us to multiple views on a subject, and research has found that people who consume news online are exposed to a wider range of sources than ever before. The key is to give people some tools to make quick decisions about a piece of information as they encounter it. The best method I’ve found for helping people discern credibility comes from Mike Caulfield at Washington State University Vancouver. He calls it SIFT, and at its core is using simple search tools to trace the source of news and corroborate claims by finding different reliable coverage.
Informed news consumers should expect that CNN and Fox will have different takes on the impeachment hearings. When we come across claims that make us feel something — anger, vindication, skepticism — we need to check those claims against different sources. If we can find multiple sources with the same report, we’ve done our due diligence and can comfortably make an informed decision. People simply don’t have time for a multipart checklist to assess the credibility of every piece of information. The students I’ve shared SIFT with like it because it’s quick and simple, and gives them a better feeling of control of their information use, regardless of if it comes from traditional news outlets, YouTube or social media. In my teaching experience, that’s the best way to get people to adopt new habits.
Q: Using the term “fake news” as a once-size-fits-all dismissal seems to hurt everyone involved. How can the media combat this and how can consumers not fall prey to using this term?
A: I try to avoid it as much as possible. It’s meaningless and harmful to journalists doing their best to hold the powerful accountable for their actions. The misinformation landscape is so much more complex than news that is demonstrably false. I’d like to see journalists and news consumers alike stop using the reductionist term and instead more clearly characterize the information.
Q: Given this new shift in the digital age, what’s the responsibility of the individual citizen to become news literate and not simply dismiss good reporting that doesn’t match their political beliefs?
A: There are several important initiatives researching the changing threat of mis- and disinformation and training journalists on how to spot it, how to not be fooled by it and how to cover it without amplifying it. This is critical at a time when newsrooms are shrinking and reporters are asked to do more with less while keeping up with trends in this space.
In addition to training information providers, news users also have a responsibility to equip themselves with tools to manage information overload and find credible information. Admittedly, it can be a hard sell. Most Americans already regularly use the internet for news — so what’s there to learn? Teaching media literacy to people who have been consuming massive amounts of media their whole lives might seem unnecessary. However, in most cases, we’ve learned to use digital media tools on the fly. We don’t typically receive training when we upgrade our phone or a website or app gets a new interface. We simply adapt the best we can, which has led to a conflation of technology use and technological expertise, and media consumption with media literacy. So it should come as no surprise that people have difficulty discerning different types of information.
The problem is we don’t know what we don’t know. Research indicates that we overestimate our ability to spot misinformation. As public awareness of misinformation grows, though, more people are wanting help. So for me the key is not to focus on what divides us, but rather to start from a place of common ground: Our digital media worlds are overwhelming and confusing, and there are things we can do to help that, but we must make the effort. This is especially important because of the power we have to amplify information on social media. It’s critical that we verify before we share information. And we should help our families and friends be better at this, too.
Q: What are some things you’re doing at the News Co/Lab to educate readers on media literacy?
A: News Co/Lab founders Dan Gillmor and Eric Newton and I have individually been advocating for media literacy for many years. The News Co/Lab has allowed us to advance media literacy with news, education and technology partners.
On the journalism side, we’ve partnered with several newsrooms around the country to increase transparency and engagement to help their communities better understand the news process. We’ve found that greater transparency in reporting increases credibility and trust, and community engagement decreases perceptions of bias. We’ll be expanding our newsroom work, including a newsroom do-it-yourself tool kit, in 2020.
Dan and I teach an online digital media literacy class for the Cronkite School. Our course covers techniques for spotting misinformation and verification, in addition to going deeper on how digital media operate, the factors that influence why we choose and believe certain sources and how we can create media with integrity. I’ve also developed a series of modular lesson plans that can be used in other disciplines, particularly science. We’ve piloted these in several undergraduate and graduate science classes at ASU and will introduce them to more classes next year. We have other education initiatives in the works that we look forward to announcing soon.
We are also currently working on a related project on journalistic corrections, for which we’re developing a web-based tool for newsrooms to increase the effectiveness and reach of corrected information. We believe this form of transparency can play an important role in reducing misinformation and encouraging users to help correct the record within their own social networks.