Americans Struggle to Navigate the Modern Media Landscape

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The FINANCIAL — As the information available to news consumers has expanded greatly in recent decades, Americans believe the media landscape is becoming harder to navigate. They say the increase in the information available today makes it harder (58%), rather than easier (38%), to be well-informed because people have to sort through lots of information to determine what is true or important.

This finding comes from a new Gallup/Knight Foundation survey on trust, media and democracy. The large-scale mail survey of more than 19,000 U.S. adults was conducted Aug. 4-Oct. 2, 2017.

Americans’ sense of information overload varies by partisanship. Less than half of Democrats (47%) say the increase in available information makes staying well-informed harder, whereas clear majorities of Republicans (69%) and independents (61%) believe it does, according to Gallup.

Perceived Bias Blurs Pursuit of Objective Facts

Americans are also more likely to say it is hard to sort out the facts in news reporting than they were in the past. Fifty percent of U.S. adults believe that, despite some media bias, enough news sources exist to allow people to sort out the facts, whereas 47% say there is so much bias it is often difficult to determine what is true. Americans’ confidence that people can discern the truth is down from 66% in a 1984 mail survey conducted by MORI Research for the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

The trend toward Americans’ saying it is harder to sort out the facts is consistent with their increased perceptions of news media bias.

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Seventy-two percent of Democrats, compared with 46% of independents and 31% of Republicans, are confident that enough sources exist for people to discern the facts. Education also makes a difference in perceived ability to navigate political bias in the media. Those with a postgraduate education are most likely to say enough sources exist to allow people to sort out the facts (61%), followed by college graduates (52%) and those with less than a college degree (47%).

Notably, these educational differences are apparent among Democrats and independents but not Republicans. Democrats and independents with college degrees are roughly 10 percentage points more likely than Democrats and independents without college degrees to believe there are enough news sources available for people to sort out the facts.

Roughly One in Four Americans Are Very Confident News Media Navigators

When asked about their own ability to distinguish fact from opinion in news reporting, most Americans are confident but not overly so. Roughly one-quarter of adults, 27%, describe themselves as “very confident” and another 49% say they are “somewhat confident.”

Democrats and postgraduates are most likely to say they are very confident in their ability to distinguish fact from opinion. Four in 10 Democrats with a college degree are very confident. Again, education does not influence Republicans’ level of confidence, which overall is slightly lower than Democrats’ confidence.

Those with stronger ideological views — who describe themselves as “very liberal” (45%) or “very conservative” (41%) — are much more likely than other ideological groups to be very confident in their ability to separate fact from opinion. By comparison, 33% of those who describe their views as “liberal,” 23% of those who are “conservative” and 23% of “moderates” are very confident.

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Americans are less confident now than they were three decades ago that people can sort out the facts in news stories, perhaps because of their increased perceptions of bias in news reporting. And rather than helping citizens by making more sources available to them, Americans see the increase in available information making matters worse, presumably because there is more news, much of it biased, to sort through.

Both of these findings — Americans’ skepticism that more information is better and their expanded perceptions of bias — are significant in that they can contribute to an erosion of media trust. Nevertheless, Americans continue to believe the media can serve as a vital democratic institution that informs citizens and can help them participate fully and effectively in the democratic process.


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