The latest study from Gallup and Knight Foundation shows that a majority of U.S. adults turn to at least one public individual as a source of news and information. Considering the continued decline in trust in the news media more broadly, we explored whether these individuals fill a gap or need that Americans feel is no longer met by U.S. news organizations.
The data show that Americans report turning to their top public individual most because they like their personality (80%) or they trust them (79%). The next most cited reason for following their top public individual is, “They offer me a perspective I can’t find in traditional news outlets” (74%). Both personal appeal and a sense of trust outside of formal news organizations appear to be driving many Americans toward public individuals for information. However, there are important differences in why certain Americans turn to these individuals depending on age and political party identity.
Younger Americans more likely to turn to public individuals because they find them entertaining than older Americans.
The most cited reasons Generation Z adults (18 – 26 years old) report turning to their top public individual is because that person offers them a perspective outside of traditional news outlets and they find the individual entertaining (82% “agree” or “strongly agree” for both). Of all generations, they are the most motivated by these two factors. In fact, Gen Z is over 20 percentage points more likely to be driven to their top public individual by entertainment value than baby boomers (58 – 76 years old) and the Silent Generation (aged 77 or older).
Younger Americans are also more likely than older generations to care about the points of view of their top public individual. In fact, Gen Z is more likely than older generations to be motivated both by the individual having similar and differing points of view than their own. Adults who are 58 years or older are least likely to follow a public individual to get exposure to beliefs and opinions different than their own.
On the other hand, older Americans are much more likely to report that they follow their top public individual because the individual works for a trusted company or organization. Fifty-seven percent of baby boomers and 63% of the Silent Generation are motivated by trust for the organization the public individual works for, compared with 38% of Gen Z.
Republicans and independents say they look to their top public individual for perspectives they can’t find in traditional news outlets.
Eighty-six percent of Republicans and 74% of independents report turning to their top public individual because that person offers a perspective they don’t find in traditional news outlets. This is the most frequently cited reason among Republicans and independents, though independents also just as frequently report personality and trust as motivations for following (74% each). Sixty-seven percent of Democrats report that getting a perspective outside of traditional news outlets is a reason they follow their top public individuals.
Distinctly from Democrats and independents, Republicans most frequently report turning to their top public individual because they work for an organization or company they trust (59%, compared with 49% of Democrats and 41% of independents). Representation also matters more for Republicans than for Democrats and independents. While 79% of Republicans report “because they represent me or people like me” as a reason for following their top public individual for news and information, 63% of Democrats and 58% of independents say they do so.
Across all political party groups, however, trust of their top public individual remains central. It is the top factor for Democrats and independents, and second most cited among Republicans (coming just two points under “perspective I can’t find in traditional news outlets”).
Gen Z is more interested than older Americans in turning to public individuals with perspectives different than their own.
More than half of Americans care about being represented (66% overall) and hearing from individuals whose views and opinions are aligned with them (65%) when following public individuals for news and information. Only 15% of Americans who follow public individuals seek views and opinions different than their own.
Yet, this percentage is much higher among America’s youngest adults (26% of Gen Z and 21% of millennials; 16% of Gen X, 8% of baby boomers, and 6% of the Silent Generation). Black (19%) and Hispanic Americans (18%) are also slightly more likely than White Americans (14%) to seek exposure to different views when following individuals for news and information. Finally, independents are more likely than Republicans and Democrats to report following a public individual “because their beliefs/opinions are different than my own,” by four points each.
Americans report a variety of reasons for consuming content from their most frequently followed public individual. The relevance of these reasons varies in particular depending on age and political party affiliation. That said, the data make clear that whether based on personality, organizational association or the perspectives they share, Americans trust in the one public individual they follow most. Technological advances in communication coupled with wide-spread distrust of national news organizations has created an ideal environment for a decentralized, pluralistic model of news consumption. Tracking which public individuals Americans turn to most often and why provides researchers and practitioners insight into the diverse ways the public gets information today. How might legacy news brands capitalize on the popularity of their most followed journalists or hosts? How might partnerships between news organizations and public influencers draw in new audiences? These are important considerations for the future of the news industry.
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