What 2018 has taught us about building a stronger future for American democracy

Sam Gill is vice president of communities and impact at Knight Foundation. 

A strong democracy requires access to information. America’s founders believed that, and so did Knight Foundation benefactors Jack and Jim Knight, who led what was, at one time, the largest American newspaper company. The American founders and the Knights also understood that we could not take free and open access to accurate information as a given. As Jack Knight once said, “The Knight newspapers have a deep and abiding faith in our rich heritage of precious freedoms which can be preserved only to the degree that the public is at all times fully informed of the forces which seek to destroy them.”

Throughout our nation’s history, those passionate about advancing this ideal have encountered obstacles. Misinformation, propaganda, and mistrust in institutions of all kinds, are not new. At the same time, we are confronted with a new information environment, fueled by technology, which, along with immense benefits, has brought with it familiar problems at unprecedented scales.

In an effort to better understand these challenges and inform solutions, this year Knight Foundation announced a research partnership with the Gallup organization to better understand Americans’ evolving opinions, perspectives, and expectations of the news media—with a particular focus on trust in news as an essential part of our democracy.

The research is part of a larger initiative on Trust, Media and Democracy, launched by Knight in 2017, which includes a high-level commission established in partnership with Aspen Institute that is exploring the impact of eroding trust in news media on our democracy.

Launched in January 2018, the first report in the Gallup-Knight series, one of the largest on this topic, included detailed findings from a survey of 19,000 American adults. Eight additional reports were released during the course of the year exploring American views through web-based behavioral experiments, and a series of self-administered online surveys.  

Today, as we are publishing the closing report of the series for 2018, we want to take a look back at some of what we’ve learned in the past year. Each report explored a different facet of this challenge, and the insights were correspondingly diverse.

First, even as the news media – like other democratic institutions – enjoys historically low levels of trust from the public, strong majorities say they believe that the news media have an important role to play in a democracy.  They also believe that role is not currently being performed well.

Part of the challenge is technology. At a time when more information is available than ever before, people feel less informed. Mostly, they just don’t trust information online. We found that Americans believe 80 percent of what they see online is biased, and 64 percent is inaccurate.

But digital technology isn’t the only challenge. Americans also believe 62 percent of the news they encounter on TV, newspaper, radio and social media is biased, and 44 percent is inaccurate.

What is driving this? An overriding theme that we discovered is the way in which deepening polarization seems to be shaping views of the media. Over and over, we found that news consumers—otherwise known as “citizens”—encounter news with their side already staked out. And they deeply distrust the media when they see it as some other, opposing side.

This came out not just in polling, but in a series of live experiments we conducted on a purpose-built platform to test views on news. When people were asked to rate stories – with some seeing a source and some not – we found that the ideological affiliation of sources had a significant effect on perceived trustworthiness. Put simply, Democrats view perceived liberal sources, such as the New York Times, as more trustworthy, and Republicans view perceived conservative sources, such as FOX, as more trustworthy.

These trends are a scourge for an informed society. Why? Because the premise of an informed society is that the facts impact our opinions. We might have preexisting beliefs and values, the theory goes, but in an informed society we look at a common set of facts as the basis for our political debate. If our entire view of what the facts are is shaped by our prior beliefs, we’re no longer an informed society—we become a dogmatic society.

So what can be done? The good news is that our research shows signs of hope.

First, misinformation can be corrected. When we tested a source rating tool with live individuals, we found that it could actually influence their views. Sources rated as more credible by journalists elicited greater trust, and those rated as less credible engendered diminished trust. And we found this was true, even when the source provided information contrary to an individual’s preexisting ideological affiliation. That is, credible information – rated explicitly as credible – broke through.

Second, most people say that trust can be regained and point to a consistent set of practices to get there. What audiences gravitate toward is a sense of transparency—a better view into where a source is coming from, and some assurance that mistakes will be corrected.

Third, people embrace reform of systems that they blame for diminishing trust. This was particularly true in the brave, new online world that has citizens feeling less informed and overwhelmed. When we asked about the role of social media and steps social media companies might take to stem misinformation, we found broad support for less targeted content, better efforts to stem the flow of information and more consistency in the sources of news and information pushed to users. This included support for regulation to effect some of these outcomes—an idea now moving into the mainstream.

Fourth, like much of the report series, today’s release provides a strong warning to journalists, social media companies and others. The report showed that, in a live experiment, those who share news stories have higher trust in the content they are sharing, but those who research news stories to learn have lower trust in the content. 

That’s intuitive. 

But the social media news ecosystem is built for sharers. Sharing is incentivized, encouraged and enabled. Researching is not, and skeptical readers have few tools within the system to check it. It may be time for news creators and distributors to explore how to encourage the skeptics along with the sharers, and enable people to become better consumers of news.

Taken together, these surveys showed that the challenge of declining trust in media is akin to the broader challenge of declining trust in democratic institutions of all kinds. People value the role of journalistic institutions, but don’t feel they are getting what they need. Meanwhile, the pace and complexity of changes in how people are getting information continue to accelerate at breakneck speeds.

But this is just the tip of the iceberg. If the decline of trust in news has been a crisis decades in the making – and it has – then rebuilding the informed society will take time as well. Improving the data and the knowledge with which we diagnose the challenges and propose new solutions must be an essential part of that process.

Image (top) by Steve Harvey on Unsplash.

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