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Americans and the News Media: What they do — and don’t — understand about each other

This research was conducted by the Media Insight Project — an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research

A key factor in the erosion of Americans’ trust of their news media is a failure to communicate — we have a public that doesn’t fully understand how journalists work, and journalism that doesn’t make itself understandable to much of the public.

This fundamental pattern emerges from a new study by the Media Insight Project. We conducted twin surveys of both the public and journalists, asking each group parallel questions about the public’s understanding of journalistic concepts, the public’s interactions with journalists, and how all of that affects people’s assessment of the news media.

The findings released today reveal problems of miscommunication, as well as opportunities. They highlight shared ideals: for example, the public and journalists want the same things from the press — verified facts, supplemented by some background and analysis. But they also reveal dissatisfaction: many Americans think what they see in the news media looks largely like opinion and commentary — not the carefully reported contextualizing they hoped for.

Moreover, the public is confused by some basic concepts of news. Half do not know what an “op‑ed” is. More than 4 in 10 do not know what the term “attribution” means, and close to 3 in 10 do not know the difference between an “editorial” and a “news story.”

Journalists we surveyed expect some of these results. They think the public has an even lower opinion of journalists, are less able to grasp basic concepts, and are more passive in their news consumption.

Despite the fact that the individual journalists we surveyed say they are aware of, and even overestimate, the level of the public’s misunderstanding of their craft, the broader news industry still has to act on that knowledge — through steps such as transparency, labeling, eliminating jargon, and letting the public participate in the news.

The good news is that progress seems achievable. In addition to shared ideals, the survey finds a substantial desire on the part of both journalists and the public for more transparency.

The public is especially interested in hearing more about sources and individual story decisions. For example, even though a majority of Americans understand what anonymous sourcing is, most also think that even their favorite news organizations should better explain their use of unnamed sources.

People also generally are more frequent, deeper, and more active news consumers than journalists give them credit for. And the public trusts their favorite sources of news and individual reporters more than journalists think they do.

The bottom line: The public is ready for a relationship with more understanding and trust, if news media can take the right steps to earn it.

Key trends at a glance

The public and journalists share some expectations
63% of people prefer news coverage with mostly facts and some analysis
  …and 66% of journalists expect this is what the public wants
But the public doesn’t see what it expects
42% think the news veers too far into commentary
35% have a negative view of news organizations
People are confused over some basic news concepts
50% are not sure what an “op-ed” is
43% do not know what the term “attribution” means
42% do not understand how anonymous sourcing works
But, the public and journalists do agree on ways to increase trust
68% of people say the media should offer more information about sources
  …and 66% of journalists agree
48% of people say journalists should explain how a story was reported
  …and 42% of journalists agree
44% of people say news organizations should explain their policies better
  …and 48% of journalists agree

These are some of the findings in this unusual pairing of surveys of journalists and the public. We explored several different and more nuanced dynamics that come into play in trust, familiarity, news literacy, and transparency.

  • Generally, the public and journalists agree on what kind of journalism they want — verified facts, supplemented by some background and analysis. The public (87 percent) and journalists (99 percent) agree that most of all the press should verify the facts. When asked what kind of news is most useful, a majority of the public says news reporting that mostly provides facts but also combines some background and analysis to give audiences context.
  • But many Americans think what they see in the news media looks like opinion mongering. The largest proportion, 42 percent, think most of the news reporting they see is opinion and commentary posing as news reporting — and another 17 percent say news coverage includes too much analysis. Just a third say most of the reporting they see is striking the right balance.
  • There is also 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. Just 28 percent of adults feel comfortable they know what an op‑ed is; 30 percent feel confident they know what attribution means in journalism; less than half know the difference between an editorial and a news story. Only 18 percent say they know the term “native advertising.”
  • As low as these numbers are, journalists expect even worse. For example, 15 percent expect the public to know what an op‑ed is, and just 9 percent say the public knows what attribution means.
  • Anonymous sourcing deserves more explanation. A majority of Americans, 58 percent, accurately describe what anonymous sourcing in journalism involves. Just 35 percent say even their favorite news organizations do a good job of explaining it.
  • Trust in preferred news organizations is rising. And while 56 percent of Americans think journalism is on the wrong track — and 44 percent trust it less than they did a year ago — those numbers look strikingly different when you ask people about the news organizations they use most often. When asked about their favorite news organization, fully 32 percent of Americans trust it more than they did a year ago.

We spotted other interesting trends as well. For example, in a current political context where President Donald Trump’s rhetoric on “fake news” is broad and far‑reaching, the meaning of that term to the public includes a range of definitions — everything from fake news organizations making things up, to real news organizations making things up, to all kinds of news organizations passing along unsubstantiated conspiracy theories.

Political polarization is clearly another big challenge to building trust. Republican trust in the media is lower than that of Democrats or independents, and that correlates strongly with Republicans’ feeling that the press covers them inaccurately. In this sense, the challenge is partly a journalistic one.

The trust challenge is also complicated by age. Younger Americans who grew up within a disrupted media landscape are also more skeptical of the media, almost as skeptical as Republicans. Most adults age 18 to 29 view the news as fairly inaccurate, while most age 30 and above consider it fairly accurate.

Implications

Several implications for the news industry emerge from this report.

The predominant view among the public that news veers too far into commentary and opinion suggests that journalists should reassess their attempts to interpret the facts they are presenting. While majorities do prefer news that is mostly facts with some background and analysis, many think most news actually seems like opinion.

In addition, the study shows that the public is open to trusting the media more — and to achieve this the media can increase transparency, clarity, and explanation of sources. Those efforts also could be essential in addressing fake news and misinformation, which both the public and journalists consider a major problem.

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.

Efforts to increase media literacy also suggest a way forward. We see in the survey results that public respondents with personal media experience — especially those who have taken a course on the topic or participated in media at their schools — have a better understanding of journalistic terms, more positive views of several types of media, and in many cases an easier time differentiating news and opinion. However, they have similar levels of trust and views about the direction of the news industry.

So journalism education correlates with deeper understanding, but even educated news consumers see flaws in today’s journalism. This underscores even further that efforts to verify the facts, increase transparency, and provide more clarity may help close the communication gap between the news media and the public.

About the study

The two surveys in this study were conducted by the Media Insight Project, an initiative of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press‑NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. The general population survey of 2,019 adults using NORC’s AmeriSpeak® Panel was conducted from March 21 through April 17, 2018, via the web and telephone. The survey of 1,127 journalists was conducted from March 1 through April 12, 2018, via the web. The study was designed to reach a representative sample of newsroom personnel with editorial or reporting responsibilities. To reach this target population, we drew a sample across different types of outlets and job titles, using a database of media contacts maintained by Cision Media Research. The sample was drawn along three dimensions — job title, outlet type, and whether the outlet was a national or local organization. Poststratification weighting variables to adjust for nonresponse included media outlet and whether the outlet the respondent worked for was considered a national or local organization. The overall margin of sampling error for the general population survey is +/‑ 3.0 percentage points, and for the survey of journalists it is +/‑ 3.5 percentage points. The detailed methodology is found at the end of this report.

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