From Institutions to Individuals: How Americans are now Looking to Public Figures for News and Information
This article is the first article in a three-part series. Read the second article here and the third article here.
The American public’s trust in institutions continues to erode – particularly confidence in organizations that provide news and information. Yet, a new study from Gallup and Knight Foundation finds that many Americans turn to individuals with public platforms for information and place a great deal of trust in these individuals.
According to Gallup trends, average confidence in institutions, including business, religion, the U.S. court system and schools, dropped to the lowest on record in 2022. More Americans reported no confidence at all in the news media than any or even little confidence for the first time in 2022 after 50 years of tracking. A recent Gallup/Knight report shows this distrust runs deep — many Americans feel national news organizations intend to mislead or persuade the public and do not care about their audiences. In that same study, Gallup and Knight Foundation found that about two in five Americans believe official government accounts of events can’t be trusted (43%) and that the opinion of ordinary people is worth more than that of experts or politicians (40%).
If Americans don’t trust traditional news outlets, the government or experts to provide them with reliable information, what is the alternative? Data from a 2021 Gallup/Knight study provides a hint: When more than 10,000 U.S. adults were asked to write in their top sources of news, about 6% of respondents wrote in the name of an individual person.
Gallup/Knight’s October 2022 survey of more than 3,800 U.S. adults aimed to better understand the extent to which people turn to individuals for news and information. The survey used the phrase “public individuals” to distinguish those with public recognition or platforms from individuals Americans know personally, defining the term as follows:
Public individuals are people who have public influence, for example, a celebrity, journalist, academic expert, show host, online influencer or business leader.
Results from that survey show that the majority of Americans follow at least one public individual for news or information across a variety of platforms and channels. Our two subsequent articles (second and third) examine why Americans turn to these individuals for news.
Nearly nine in 10 Americans follow at least one public individual to get information.
An overwhelming majority of U.S. adults (89%) report following at least one public individual for news or other information. When presented with a list of 11 common “types” of public individuals, more than half say they follow scientists or experts, journalists and politicians or leaders in elected positions to get information. Forty-three percent say they follow hosts of a show or program, and 36% follow activists or community organizers.
Americans often turn to public individuals for commentary on the news or political and social issues.
Americans report getting a wide variety of information from the public individuals they watch or follow, ranging from news to commentary to topics related to interests or hobbies. As one might expect, those who follow journalists almost unanimously report doing so for news and current events (92%), and 65% of those who follow politicians turn to them for news. Nearly 50% or more of Americans who follow scientists or experts, hosts of shows or programs, activists or community organizers, business leaders, or social media influencers say they get news and current events from these individuals. However, those who follow business leaders, show/program hosts and activists report turning to them for commentary and analysis more than for pure news. This is also true for those who follow comedians; 72% report getting commentary from them, compared with 39% who say they get news and current events.
Americans who follow actors, athletes or social media influencers report getting information about careers, hobbies and other interests at much higher rates than getting news or commentary. Nevertheless, nearly half of those who follow social media influencers report getting news, and nearly three in five say they get commentary on news from these individuals.
When asked how much news they get from public individuals, many Americans report getting at least some of their news diet from them. More than two in five Americans say they get “some,” and nearly one in five say they get “most” of their news and current events from these individuals.
Americans mostly follow public individuals for information through TV, newspapers and social media platforms.
Americans who follow public individuals for information do so across a variety of mediums and platforms. Most report following public individuals on cable or streaming TV, newspapers (print or online), social media platforms and radio.
Only about a third of Americans who follow public individuals are actively seeking information from them by going to their channels or shows directly, while 46% are getting information from them while scrolling, watching or encountering other kinds of content broadly.
Nearly one-third of Americans trust public individuals more than news outlets to report news and current events.
When it comes to trust, 68% of the public say they trust news organizations or outlets more than public individuals to report the news. Conversely, more than three in 10 Americans say they trust public individuals more than news outlets.
The trust dynamic shifts further toward public individuals for other types of information. When it comes to commentary and analysis on news or political and social issues, the American public is roughly split on whom they trust more — 52% say news organizations, and 47% say public individuals. For non-news or non-political information — i.e., hobbies, career, other interests — public individuals are substantially more trusted.
A majority of Americans follow public individuals as sources of news and current events, for commentary on political and social issues, and for other types of information. Although public individuals who could be categorized as more traditional, reliable sources of news — experts, journalists and politicians — are the most common “types” of individuals followed, a significant portion of U.S. adults also follow hosts of shows and programs, social media influencers and comedians (among others) for news and commentary on important topics facing American society today. What’s more, a portion of the American public says they trust public individuals more than news outlets to report the news. These findings hint at the amount of power individuals with public platforms have today in informing — and potentially persuading or even misleading — the public.
A note on methodology:
Gallup/Knight conducted a series of interviews to test the terminology used to study whether Americans follow individuals who have public profiles or platforms for news and information. Two terms were: “public figures” and “public individuals.” The testing found that “public figures” biased respondents to think narrowly about politicians rather than journalists, experts, social media influencers or other types of individuals we suspected were widely followed. When we tested “public individuals,” respondents had less of a preconceived notion of what types of individuals were meant.
Therefore, we opted for the latter rather than the former. We also tested different definitions of “public figures” or “public individuals.” Adding a definition seemed to present a heavier cognitive load on the respondent when paired with “public figures,” as redefining an existing term (with existing connotations) proved more difficult and imprecise than inventing and defining a new term. When “public individuals” was paired with our definition, all respondents tested understood the concept as intended clearly.
Using the phrase “watch and follow” was another important tool for clarification for respondents. When asked just about who they “follow,” many thought about online platforms or mediums exclusively. By including “watch,” respondents had a greater understanding that the inquiry included whether they turn to a television show for information, for example, because of the individual journalist or host rather than the organization or channel. This seemed to resonate well with respondents. The definitions and terms used throughout the rest of the survey were similarly tested and optimized for general comprehension.
Turning to the Names We Know: Show Hosts and Journalists Top Individuals Followed for News
This article is the second article in a three-part series. Read the first article here and the third article here. Recent data from Gallup and Knight Foundation show that about nine in 10 Americans follow at least one public individual for news and information (see additional findings and full methodology statement here). To dig deeper, […]
 Lorenz, A., Schmitt, C., McGregor, S. C., & Malmer, D. (2022, August 3-6). “CNN CAN KISS MY AS$”: Describing hyperpartisan U.S. news consumption and consumers from a 10k sample [Presentation – extended abstract]. Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication 105th Annual Conference, Detroit, MI.
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