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What Americans know, and don’t, about how journalism works

People are strikingly unfamiliar with terms that many journalists use, probably without thinking — such as the difference between an editorial and a news story, what the term “attribution” means, or what an op‑ed is.

Consider a few numbers. Fully 50 percent of the public say they are only a little familiar with the term “op‑ed,” or don’t know what it is. Just 28 percent of people say they are highly familiar with the term — which refers to content on the opinion pages of newspapers written by columnists and guest writers. The term originally came from print: An op‑ed was on the facing or opposite page of the editorials in a newspaper. This is a clear case of old newspaper terminology losing its meaning as we move into new formats.

Yet it is hardly the only concept where there is substantial confusion.

More than 4 in 10 adults (43 percent) say they don’t really know what the term “attribution” means in journalism, quite a bit more than the 30 percent who say they do understand that concept.

And most people, 57 percent, say they have little or no idea what the term “native advertising,” means, which is also known as “sponsored content” and refer to paid marketing content that resembles other editorial content in the publication. Just 18 percent say they are very or completely familiar with the term.

For publications that hope to maintain the trust of their audience and rely on native advertising as a major source of funding, this finding suggests a good deal more clarity and explanation might be helpful.

On a list of nine fairly basic journalistic terms, a majority of the public say they are very or completely familiar with just three of them: “political endorsement,” “breaking news,” and the difference between a “news story” and a “press release.”

We asked journalists how well they expect the public to grasp some of these terms, and journalists largely expect the public is even more unfamiliar with these core journalistic concepts.

Key journalistic terms Public who says a little/not at all familiar Journalists who believe public has little/no understanding
Native advertising 57% 87%
Op-ed 50% 56%
Attribution 43% 62%
Analyst vs. commentator 29% 83%
Reporter vs. columnist 28% 65%
Editorial vs. news story 27% 60%
News story vs. press release 21% 60%
What a political endorsement is 19% 30%
What breaking news means 11% 12%

Data Source: Question: “Next is a list of different terms or concepts that sometimes appear in journalism and media but may or may not be familiar to most people. How familiar are you with each term or concept?”
Question: “Next is a list of different terms or concepts that sometimes appear in journalism and media. For each one, please rate how well you think most Americans understand the difference between the terms or the meaning of the concept.”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

As an example, just 33 percent of journalists expect the public to completely or mostly understand what a political endorsement is. Just 12 percent think the public has a strong grasp of the difference between an editorial and a news story. Only 9 percent of journalists are confident the public knows what the term “attribution” means.

Most journalists are also very skeptical about the public’s understanding of other journalism concepts, terms, and processes.

For example, 43 percent of journalists expect the public to have little grasp of what the term “source” means in journalism. More than half of journalists say the public does not understand what an anonymous source is, or understand the First Amendment rights of the press.

Journalists are particularly skeptical that the public knows how they gather information for a story or about the editing process.

Journalistic concepts The public understands this extremely/very well Somewhat well Not very well/at all
What the term "source" means 15% 42% 43%
The First Amendment rights of the press 11% 33% 56%
What "fact-checking journalism" means 8% 30% 62%
Difference between news content and opinion content 4% 21% 74%
How journalists gather information for a story 2% 18% 79%
The editing process for news orgs 1% 8% 91%

Data Source: Question: “How well do you think most Americans understand each of the following concepts of journalism?”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

Most people know what anonymous sources are, but not why journalists use them

The use of anonymous sources has been complicated and controversial for years. Support for anonymous sources has been tracked in surveys by Gallup, Pew, and others. We wanted to go deeper and see what people understand about what journalists are doing with these sources.

By and large, the result here is more affirming than many journalists expected. A slight majority of the public understands anonymous sourcing.

Fully 58 percent of the public say (correctly) that when journalists refer to anonymous sources it means the journalist knows the source’s identity, has checked the information the source provided, and then withheld the source’s name in their news report.

Still, a sizable number of people are confused. The other 42 percent of the public are either unsure what an anonymous source is or believe the journalists themselves do not know the source’s identity. Of these, 12 percent believe journalists just take information from people whose identities they don’t know and then publish it. Another 17 percent think journalists get information from people whose identities are unknown to them, confirm what they are told, and then publish that. Another 13 percent say they don’t know or are unsure.

Definition of anonymous sourcing Percent of public
Journalists take information from unknown people and publish it 12%
Journalists get information from unknown people, confirm it, and then publish it 17%
Journalists know a source's identity and check their information, but do not include the source's name 58%
Don't know 13%

Data Source: Question: “Which of the following best describes your understanding of how journalists use ‘anonymous sources’ in their reporting?”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

We also went one step further and asked people how well news organizations explain all of this — at least for those respondents who identified by name a news organization they rely on heavily.

The results suggest news organizations should be much clearer than they are now.

Only a little more than a third of people, 35 percent, say their favored news organization does a good job (very or extremely well) explaining its use of anonymous sources.

A larger number, 47 percent, say the news organization they rely on does only somewhat well (28 percent) or not too well/not well at all (18 percent) in explaining what is meant by anonymous sources. And another 19 percent can’t say.

News org's explanation of anonymous sources
Extremely/very well 35%
Somewhat well 28%
Not too well/not well at all 18%
Don't know 19%

Data Source: Question: “Thinking of [PREFERRED SOURCE], how well does that news organization explain its uses of anonymous sources?”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

Yet, that is far better than journalists expect from most of the public.

In our survey of journalists, just 15 percent say they think most adults have an extremely or very good understanding of what the term “anonymous sources” means.

How well the public understands Percent of journalists who think this
Extremely/very well 15%
Somewhat well 32%
Not too well/not well at all 53%

Data Source: Question: “How well do you think most Americans understand each of the following concepts of journalism? What ‘anonymous sources’ means.”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

The use of anonymous sources has been a sore point in public opinion data about trust for years, going back to the mid‑1990s. These latest results suggest that while some news organizations try to offer more information about using unnamed sources than they once did, they have quite a distance to go in making that practice clear to people — which strikes us as a basic precondition before you can even get to the issue of whether people approve of the practice.

What people think the term “fake news” really means

Anonymous sourcing is also related to another area where there may be significant confusion between what journalists do and what the public perceives — fake news.

The term “fake news” entered modern public discourse when Craig Silverman, a BuzzFeed News editor, became one of the first to publicly use the phrase as part of a research project in 2014. His definition was “completely false information that was created and spread for profit.”

But more recently, President Trump began using the term to mean a variety of things, including stories that he considered unfair or too critical.

What does the public think the term means now?

To understand what people think fake news is, we asked them to choose among several definitions of the term. Given that a term could mean more than one thing, we offered them the opportunity to select any of the definitions that they think describe fake news.

We found many people now ascribe multiple meanings to the term. While the largest number, 71 percent of the public, think fake news is, “made‑up stories from news outlets that don’t exist,” majorities also think it means other things as well. Sixty‑two percent think it means “journalists from real news organizations making stuff up.” A similar majority, 63 percent, also think fake news refers to “media outlets that pass on conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated rumors,” which has become a feature of some websites on the political extremes.

A smaller proportion of people (43 percent) think fake news refers to news organizations making sloppy mistakes. Just 25 percent call satire or comedy about current events fake news.

Definition of the term "fake news" Percent of public
Made-up stories from news outlets that don't exist 71%
Media outlets that pass on conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated rumors 63%
Journalists from real news organizations making stuff up 62%
News stories from real organizations that are unfair or sloppy 43%
Satire or comedy about current events 25%

Data Source: Question: “You may have heard about ‘fake news’ stories. Which of the following would you call ‘fake news’?”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

There are also notable differences across several demographic groups in what constitutes fake news.

Naturally, political factors like a person’s party affiliation (see the later chapter) or their opinion of Trump makes a big difference.

For example, a majority — 52 percent — of those who approve of the president indicate that news stories from real organizations that are unfair or sloppy constitute fake news, compared to 38 percent of those who disapprove of the president. Finally, supporters of Trump are more likely than those who disapprove of him to say satire or comedy about current events is fake news (31 percent vs. 21 percent, respectively).

Associations with term "fake news" People who approve of Trump People who disapprove of Trump
Media outlets that pass on conspiracy theories and unsubstantiated rumors 61% 66%
News stories from real organizations that are unfair or sloppy 52% 38%
Made-up stories from news outlets that don't exist 65% 75%
Journalists from real news organizations making stuff up 66% 62%
Satire or comedy about current events 31% 21%

Data Source: Question: “You may have heard about ‘fake news’ stories. Which of the following would you call ‘fake news’?”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

All this, however, is largely a matter of terminology. It doesn’t tell us how often people think any of these things are going on. How much do people worry about each of these possible forms of fake news?

To a large extent, people think all of these things are a major problem.

Fully half (50 percent) of people who define fake news as real news organizations making things up believe that it is a major problem for the media today, and 33 percent consider it a minor problem. Just 11 percent think it is not a problem.

A slightly larger group, 57 percent, think fake news organizations making up news is a major problem.

Fully two‑thirds of those who think fake news is news organizations being sloppy consider that a major problem (67 percent).

And 68 percent of those who think fake news includes news organizations passing along conspiracy theories believe that is a major problem.

The point, however, is now clear. Those who wanted to expand the definition of fake news, to give it multiple meanings and less precision, have prevailed.

What journalists think of fake news

Where does that leave journalists? They feel mired in this, overwhelmingly.

Nearly all journalists (a remarkable 97 percent) think the issue of fake news and misinformation is a problem for the news industry. Indeed, 76 percent call it a major problem.

What can they do about it? Journalists think more clarity between opinion pieces and news, and how they use sources in reporting, are important for addressing the fake news problem. (This would also presumably help the basic problem of confusion over news and opinion.)

We offered journalists a list of transparency methods that have been advocated by journalism reform advocates and scholars, and asked what they think of each. They liked most of them in large numbers.

The two most popular are: Nearly 8 in 10 journalists say their news organization should make the difference between news stories and opinion content more distinct. And 7 in 10 say they should be clearer about the identity and credentials of sources.

Way to address "fake news" problem Percent of journalists who say extremely/very important
Make the difference between news stories and opinion more distinct 79%
Be clearer about the identity and credentials of our sources 74%
Seek changes from social media platforms 66%
Be more transparent about reporting process 63%
Write more stories that educate the public about fake news/misinformation 54%
Spend more resources to engage audiences 39%

Data Source: Question: “To address the issue of fake news and misinformation, how important do you think each of the following actions is for your news organization?”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

Transparency as a way of increasing trust

The steps cited above to combat fake news allegations closely relate to another movement gaining force in journalism circles: the idea of journalists making their work more transparent, so that the public can see how the work was done and why they should believe it.

This notion of transparency in journalism is very close, actually, to the original notion of objectivity in social science — which held not that the scientist had no point of view but that their work methods were done in such a way that they could be understood and replicated by others. Transparency ensured that the researcher’s method was objective, not that the researcher was without a hypothesis they wanted to test or a belief that they held.

In the survey, we asked both journalists and the public about various steps journalists can take to make their work more transparent.

Scholars working in the area of journalism have taken care to research on their own whether efforts by journalists at being more transparent will work. We wanted to probe that as well and see if audiences might respond to different efforts and how that compared to journalists’ attitudes.

In general, there is public support for the idea that journalists should explain themselves more.

But some of these efforts resonate a good deal more with the public than others. And the journalists’ views of these efforts matched remarkably closely.

Among the public, two‑thirds of respondents (68 percent) say they think it is extremely or very important for journalists to offer more information about sources or evidence cited in stories. The number of journalists who consider this a critical step to take is almost identical, 66 percent.

Interestingly, that is the only transparency step both groups were asked about that registers with a majority of respondents thinking it is critically important.

The next option on the list, the idea that journalists should explain how the reporting for a particular story is done, is considered critical to 48 percent of the public and 42 percent of journalists.

At the bottom of both lists is the idea that news organizations should offer more information about the background and experience of reporters. About a third of public respondents (36 percent) and a quarter of journalists (23 percent) think that is a critical step in rebuilding trust.

This doesn’t mean these practices are unnecessary or unhelpful, but they may be more useful in the context of some stories than others. It is obvious why some breaking news stories are covered, for instance, and the background of a reporter covering certain kinds of stories may be less pertinent in some cases than others.

Things journalists may do to build trust Public Journalists
Offer more information about sources or evidence cited in a story 68% 66%
Explain any controversial decisions made during reporting Not asked 58%
Explain how the reporting for a story was done 48% 42%
Explain more about the news organization and its policies 44% 48%
Explain why stories are chosen in the first place 40% 26%
Offer more about the background and experience of reporters 36% 23%

Data Source: Question: “There is a lot of talk today about media building trust. How important do you think it is for journalists to do each of the following:”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

The public is somewhat positive about what drives journalists to cover a story

Although the public feels somewhat lukewarm toward journalists and also sees problems of misinformation, they are not entirely cynical about journalists’ motivations. When it comes to what’s important when journalists decide which stories to cover, majorities say that journalists do care about how many people will pay attention to the story (62 percent) but also about how many people will be affected by it (51 percent).

Fewer, 38 percent, say the personal biases or views of the journalists play a key role. Similar proportions think journalists are driven by a desire to help people form their views on issues or solve society’s problems.

Things that may factor into story decisions Extremely/Very important Somewhat important Not at all/Not very important
How many people will pay attention to the story 62% 26% 11%
How many people are affected by the story 51% 34% 14%
A desire to help people make up their minds on issues 38% 42% 20%
The personal biases or political views of the journalist 38% 35% 27%
A desire to help solve problems in society 36% 40% 24%

Data Source: Question: “When journalists are deciding which stories to cover, how important do you think each of the following is in their decision-making?”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

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