Q&A: Knight Foundation's Sam Gill Talks Trust in Media

Jan 24, 2018

Article ImageThe Gallup-Knight Foundation surveyed 19,196 Americans aged 18 and older, about their media habits and belief. The research, compiled in “American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy,” revealed that most Americans believe it is now harder to be well informed and to determine which news is accurate. EContent had the chance to ask Sam Gill, Knight Foundation VP for Communities and Impact, a few questions about the report’s findings, what they say about us, and what the media can do to build trust among audiences.

Q: Your survey found that over 80% of U.S. adults believe the news media are “critical” or “very important” to our democracy, but 44% say they can identify a news source that they believe reports the news "objectively." Do you have any insight into how these two things, which are seemingly at odds, can be true at the same time? 

A: We don’t think they are at odds. The findings, in fact, help to show that Americans continue to recognize the importance of the media to our democracy, but they do not believe it’s doing that job well. Part of what Americans perceive is a media that is inaccurate or biased, and therefore not living up to its role. As such, the report opens an invitation to examine the current state of American media.

Q: Did respondents indicate news outlets they thought were particularly problematic?

A: We did not probe this by outlet. What you’ll see is that while social media continues to play a larger role in how people get news, it receives the lowest marks for perceived accuracy, while legacy sources of news (print and TV) tend to be looked at as more trustworthy.

Q: Additionally, 73% saw "misinformation on the internet as a major problem with news coverage today, more than any other potential type of news bias." To me, this would suggest that people are simply having trouble identifying legitimate news sources. Did your findings speak to that phenomenon at all?

A: Certainly – respondents made clear in many different ways that, despite having more access to information than ever before, it actually seems more difficult to truly feel informed. When asked, 58% of Americans said the increased number of news sources makes it harder to be informed.  

Q: Your survey found respondents' political party affiliation was a significant predictor of how a person felt about the media. To me, that suggests people simply tend to believe that news that doesn't confirm their bias is inaccurate or biased. What does your research tell us about this?

A: We read the findings as suggesting that media, too, has become embroiled in larger trends toward polarization that we have seen on issues such as climate change, labor unions, and the death penalty. The media, and the way it covers news, has become an issue itself, and people now take sides on it, which was not the case before.  So, rather than confirmation bias alone, there may also be the feeling that the media just isn’t giving “their side” a fair shake. This should be worrying in light of the finding you cite above—if the media is going to fulfill its democratic role, it needs to be perceived as outside of the partisan fray.

Q: The divide along political lines also suggests to me that there may be nothing the media can do to change people's minds about their bias. Is there anything media outlets can do to help build trust among the skeptics?

A: Much of Knight Foundation’s grantmaking is focused on this key question, and there’s a lot to be done—from how news is presented, to how people can better navigate sources, and how journalists can better understand and engage with their audiences etc. What this research shows as well, however, is that everyone – media companies, tech companies, the public, opinion leaders – has some responsibility for ensuring our democracy is built on an informed citizenry.

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