Apr 27, 2017

From the Archives

Media Habits in the Age of “Fake News”

The media world is rapidly changing. Traditional news organizations are struggling to find their footing as financial challenges, technological shifts and quickly changing consumer behaviors force them to reinvent themselves—and often. Free content is disrupting traditional pay-models, the increasing use of smartphones is opening up new channels for consumption, the low barriers to entry for content producers have overpopulated the news space, and younger audiences are overturning reliable indicators of consumer behavior. Add to this a growing suspicion about institutions and the ongoing assault on truth (or, at the least, on facts), and you have a recipe for a volatile relationship between “the media” and “the audience.”

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What role does news media play in informing the public? Which outlets are earning trust (and clicks)? And what on earth do Americans make of “fake news?” Drawing from a number of Barna studies, here’s a look at this complex media moment in history.

The Truth About “Fake News”
Misreporting or making up stories has always been a dark, occasional reality of journalism. But in the past year, “fake news” quickly emerged into the public vernacular, particularly in connection to Facebook’s inability to keep misleading articles and conspiracy theories from going viral, including the infamous “Pizzagate” story, the widely circulated report that Pope Francis endorsed Donald Trump for president or the Democratic claim that Ireland was welcoming disgruntled Americans fleeing a Trump presidency.

Alarm over these extreme examples contributed to a sometimes unfounded public skepticism of all media. As a result, during and after the 2016 election, accusations of reports being “fake” became a political weapon, wielded from all sides, further fueling media mistrust. As of September 2016, even before many of the scandals that defined the election, almost four in 10 (38%) believed the media were at least inconsistent in their coverage. Despite this skepticism, however, most people admit the news media had a decisive influence over their personal choice to support a certain candidate (60%), especially compared to other types of media like T.V. (50%), social media (40%), campaign advertising (39%) and political commentators on radio (34%). Post-election, the indiscriminate application of the term “fake news” has made its meaning and sources difficult to discern, drawing battle lines among politicians, pundits and the public alike.

So, what do Americans really think fake news is? It appears its divisive nature may have more to do with its own muddy definitions than media’s clear deceptions.

For the most part, people attribute the fake news phenomenon to reader error.

For the most part, people attribute the fake news phenomenon to reader error, not a problem of made-up stories or of factual mistakes in reporting itself; about three in 10 (31%) say the problem lies in “misinterpretation or exaggeration of actual news on social media.” From there, the blame shifts toward the left; nearly a quarter (24%) say the source is mainstream liberal media, while just 13 percent overall point the finger at mainstream conservative outlets. Nearly one-fifth (18%) say they “don’t know much” about fake news, while 9 percent fault bloggers and independent journalists. A small minority (5%) don’t think it’s an actual problem.

Many segments— particularly the unemployed (41%), Millennials (38%), non-white Americans (37%), Catholics (36%) and women (35%)—blame a misinterpretation of news via social media as the primary issue.

Evangelicals (51%), Republicans (46%), practicing Christians (40%) and Elders (37%) feel strongly that liberal journalism is the trouble. This isn’t surprising given that these groups are generally more conservative and were more likely to have voted for Donald Trump, whose administration has simultaneously expressed animosity toward non-conservative press and acceptance of its own “alternative facts.” What is surprising is that Democrats (20%), liberals (23%) and those of no faith (22%) are not quite as willing to similarly blame rightwing media; the top response from each of these groups was that fake news stems from mishandling of information on social media. Further, they are more inclined to examine the culpability of liberal coverage than their conservative peers are to think critically of their like-minded media camps; for example, just 6 percent of Republicans say fake news is a problem in mainstream conservative media, while 11 percent of Democrats say it occurs in mainstream liberal media.

The Sources Americans Trust
As the fake news discussion indicates, it is increasingly difficult for credible voices to cut through the noise in the new democratic, fast-paced digital age. Yet, despite very real levels of distrust, people still turn to traditional media outlets for new information. T.V. news (69%) remains the most trusted source for getting information about what is going on in the world (even for Trump), followed by local (50%) and national (44%) newspapers. Trump himself seems to trust some sources, especially Fox News, so it’s not a stretch to assume that public opinions about dishonest media are aimed only at some news outlets, while leaving room for others.

It’s more difficult for credible voices to cut through the noise in a fast-paced digital age.

Rates of reported usage of internet searches (44%) and reading online news / content sources (42%) prove that web-based content is competing with local and national papers as a trustworthy source. Granted, almost all national and local papers now have an online presence, so there is likely some significant overlap in these categories.

When it comes to gaining perspective or information on moral and religious issues, however, American adults look to their family members, especially over online sources. For these kinds of topics, they are more likely to trust their parent (66%) than Google (34%), or to listen to a relative (61%) over a friend (39%). In addition to family, traditional sources still pull an eager audience; for example, most American adults turn to a book (85%) over a medium like YouTube (15%) when learning about more complex topics of morality and religion.

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The Media Americans Consume
So, that’s how Americans feel about the news available to them—do their feelings align with their actual media consumption habits?

Live broadcasts remain the news media Americans are most likely to consume (54%), with traditional reporter-written articles not too far behind (44%). Social media posts are popular among one-third of Americans (34%), proving the increasing influence of these platforms.

As content is now being delivered and shared through multiple platforms, two-thirds of American adults (66%) use social media to get the headlines, and one in five (20%) use social media web sites like Facebook or Twitter throughout the day to “learn something new or get new information.” For the most part, Americans are just finding what they need across the web: One-third (33%) use specific websites on an ongoing basis to glean fresh information, and one-quarter (24%) scroll their mobile or smartphone for this purpose.

While podcasts have picked up in popularity in recent years, their heyday has perhaps not yet arrived; six in 10 (61%) say they never even listen to them.

Interestingly, even though T.V. news was the strongest influence over decision-making for the election, and live broadcasts continue to be a popular format, Americans spend much less time actually watching T.V. than browsing the web. For example, only 14 percent of American adults watch cable television, and only 12 percent watch network television to learn something new or to get new information throughout their day. With streaming services and highlight reels being shared on social media, having a physical television to consume—or critique—T.V. news is perhaps less of a necessity. In other words, people are watching television news on their computers and phones.

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What the Research Means
“Fake news is not a new thing,” says Roxanne Stone, editor in chief at Barna Group. “There have always been proliferated conspiracy theories, exaggerated statistics and reporting errors. However, there has never before been such easy access to, nor ease of distribution for, those stories. The democratization of media via the Internet—the ability for anyone to search for and find news from every news source, and the ability for anyone to create, post and/or share media with everyone—has allowed fake news to spread much faster and much farther than ever before. This democratization of the media landscape has also challenged notions of authority—of who is allowed to generate the news. The traditional gatekeepers—all of whom have their own biases and privileges are no longer the only purveyors of news. There is good here: stories from minorities and those long ignored by mainstream media are now gaining a platform. Yet there is also a negative side: with fewer gatekeepers, it’s become increasingly hard to discern what’s trustworthy. Which presents an increasing need for leaders—at church, in the media, in schools—who can help others make sense of the world in generous and discerning ways.

“Yet, while there is no doubt that fake news exists and that it’s a problem, it’s also a loosely defined term being broadly applied,” points out Stone. “Is fake news only made-up stories like ‘pizzagate’ or does it also include exaggerated stats and biased reporting? When Donald Trump calls a news outlet a purveyer of ‘fake news’ is he suggesting they tell false stories or that they infuse their reporting with a bias? Our research indicates that the American people are similarly unclear about what constitutes fake news. This has led to the accusation becoming, in many ways, a proxy battle in the war being waged by both sides of the political spectrum. And we can see that each side suspects and blames the other—especially among Conservatives.

“What is the take-away for Christians and spiritual leaders?” asks Stone. “A plurality of Americans believe the real problem with fake news is the choice for people to share it—and the tendency for them to misunderstand or exaggerate it on social media. This indicates there is a real personal responsibility in counteracting this problem. To be a good steward of our social media platforms includes a responsibility to do our research: to fact-check a story before sharing it, to double-check a news source to make sure it’s a credible one, to attempt to widen our circles and our reading outside our own echo chambers and biases.”

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Twitter: @davidkinnaman | @roxyleestone | @barnagroup
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About the Research
This research includes data conducted in four separate studies among a random sample of adults ages 18 and older in each of the 50 United States. Each of the studies included a minimum of 1,000 interviews and were conducted between November 2016 and February 2017. The maximum sample error associated with each study is plus or minus three percentage points, at the 95% confidence level.

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

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