Americans Feel Overwhelmed by the News. Here’s How They Adapt.

Journalism / Article

Update: On Nov. 9, 2020, Gallup updated the report “American Views 2020: Trust, Media and Democracy,” to correct a methodological error. The changes do not alter the underlying integrity of the data nor the conclusions. However, specific numbers have changed for a range of results, and have been updated in this post. Learn more.

Americans often feel overwhelmed by the volume of news, saying they are frequently unable to sort out the facts and discern what is important, most commonly as a result of the nature of online news. They adapt in a variety of ways — from picking a few news sources to focus on, to abandoning the effort and disengaging from the news entirely.

These findings are based on the latest Gallup/Knight Foundation study, American Views 2020: Trust, Media and Democracy, which includes more than 20,000 interviews collected between November 2019 and February 2020.

Americans Feel Overwhelmed by the Volume and Speed of News, Particularly Online
Americans are slightly more likely to say it is harder (60%) rather than easier (38%) to be well-informed because of all the sources of information than they were in 2017, when 58% said it was harder to be well-informed and 38% said it was easier. Republicans (69%) are more likely than independents (64%) and Democrats (50%) to say it is harder to be well-informed.

For those who feel overwhelmed, the biggest culprit is having news and non-news items mixed together on social media and online sites, which they say contributes “a great deal” (39%) or “a fair amount” (29%) to these feelings. Six in 10 (61%) say the pace or speed of reporting and the increased number of news organizations reporting the news (63%) contribute to making them feel overwhelmed. People are less likely to feel overwhelmed by technological advances that promote universal news access.

Responding to the Deluge, Americans Tend to Pick a Few Trusted News Sources
In response to feeling overwhelmed by the news environment, a plurality of Americans, 39%, say they only pay attention to one or two trusted sources, while 30% try to consult a variety of sources to see where they agree.

About 1 in 6 Americans, 18%, opt for the most extreme response, saying they stop paying attention to news altogether, while 9% rely on others to help them sort out what they need to know. Those most inclined to stop paying attention to news altogether include political moderates (19%), political conservatives (18%) and White Americans (19%). Conservatives (25%) are less likely than moderates (32%) and liberals (33%) to consult a variety of sources to discern the facts, perhaps in part due to their lower esteem of the media in general.

Older Americans are more likely than young people to pick one or two sources, and younger Americans aged 18-29 are just as likely to consult a variety of sources (32%) as they are to pick just one or two (31%) — the only age group for which that is the case. Younger people are more likely than older Americans to stop paying attention to the news altogether and to consult family and friends.

Bottom Line
Technological advances have created a range of new opportunities to access the news, but also have created several challenges. Among them: Most Americans say it is harder to feel well-informed in today’s media environment. Social media sites and apps pose a particular challenge to Americans’ ability to sort out the truth due to the spread of false information and the failure of some platforms to distinguish between news and non-news items. The current study also established that the spread of inaccurate information online is the most problematic among many concerns Americans have with the media. And previous Gallup/Knight studies have shown a modest majority of Americans would prefer that internet technology companies rather than government establish policies to regulate such content , suggesting there is more work to be done by internet technology companies to strike the balance between free expression and online harms.

About one in six Americans who feel overwhelmed say they are opting out of news consumption altogether. This most extreme option threatens the health of a democracy, as news consumption is associated in numerous studies — including Knight’s own — with increased civic and political engagement. Those most inclined to tune out of the news include about one in five younger Americans, and one in five moderates, both key segments of the American electorate to engage to promote greater voter participation and civic engagement.

 Images created by Valerio Pellegrini. Photo (top) by Warren Wong on Unsplash.

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