Gallup and the Knight Foundation Team Up to Understand What Makes News Trustworthy

Article ImageThere is no denying that public trust in the media is failing in the U.S. With allegations about fake news and a 24/7 news cycle that results in lots of opinion and relatively little fact, trust is waning. A study by the Knight Foundation, in partnership with Gallup, shows that while the American people believe the role of the media is fundamental to democracy, they do not see any media fulfilling that role satisfactorily. The study is part of a series undertaken by the Knight Foundation’s Trust, Media and Democracy initiative; it’s the largest on the topic, with more than 19,000 adults in the U.S participating in research conducted throughout early 2018.

“We basically probed at a high level, perspectives of trust in media, accuracy, bias, objectivity, who people trust or don’t and why,” says David Askenazi, director of learning and impact at the Knight Foundation. “With technology making it easier for Americans to connect with each other and find information, it has also posed challenges with misinformation being equally readily available.”

“Some of the misinformation has to do with the way we read news now, reading in aggregation and often not reading an article completely. There’s also a lot of bad journalism in programming, in terms of clickbait and overreporting of trivia,” says Steve Smith, contributor with Media Industry Network and MediaPost. “Media is in the same boat as a lot of other institutions—they are all in flux. People are unsure about the authority media have, and our faith in these institutions has been shaken.”


Factors That Impact Trustworthiness

Many people get their daily news via social media networks, online news outlets, or digital versions of print publications. But to what extent or why they trust this news content is unknown. To dig deeper, the Knight Foundation and Gallup built an online news-aggregating experimental platform allowing users to rate the trustworthiness of an article—via a five-point scale, ranging from low to high (1–5)—using the categories Economy, Politics, and Science.

Elements provided to users were the content of the news article, the name of the sources and/or an associated image for the article. The platform included articles from media outlets, which were pre-identified, from across the political spectrum (from left-leaning to far right): Media Matters, Vox, The New York Times, The Associated Press, Fox News, Breitbart News Network, and 100PercentFedUp. The findings from the research provided insight on how political affiliations and other personal preferences influenced the way people perceived the news they consumed. More than 3,000 participants contributed to this study.

One of the key highlights of the study is the overall decline in the trustworthiness of a news article when the source of the news is revealed, suggesting that attribution “reminds users of personal preferences and biases toward particular sources,” according to the study. This is an interesting observation for news aggregators, which feature news stories compiled from a variety of sources. The report suggests these kinds of sites may want to give users the power to decide whether they want the source of their news revealed or not. However, whether an image associated with the article was provided or not did not have any impact on the perceived trustworthiness of the written content shown to users.

Additionally, Knight and Gallup found that political affiliation matters. Democrats showed a reduced level of trustworthiness when rating Fox News (-1.16 points) and Breitbart News Network (-1.48 points) articles when the source was shown. The devaluation in trustworthiness Republicans exhibited when rating The New York Times (-0.7 points) and The Associated Press (-0.44 points) articles wasn’t as striking.

“There’s nothing about this data that surprises me; it is not going to surprise the media companies or the advertisers,” says Smith. “Media are a long way from re-evaluating in any fundamental means what their role is and chasing their audience as opposed to what they feel their responsibility as institutions are. And advertisers already have decided where their ads will and won’t run and what kind of content they are willing to be part of with these sites and pages.”


Name Recognition Still Matters

“The decline in trust for all organizations is true to a certain extent, but what we noticed was with less mainstream names, if people weren’t familiar with the name of a news source, that also contributed to lower levels of trust,” explains Askenazi.

“The brand recognition is a good thing for news media because we’ve seen brands diluted by the aggregation effect and by the social feed,” shares Smith. “The fact that people recognize and value brands one way or another, either for affirming their views or because they are trustworthy, benefits the media ecology.”

The overall larger study resulted in a series of reports, with the first two—“Americans’ Views of Misinformation in the News and How to Counteract It and Perceived Accuracy” and “Bias in the News Media”—looking at how people viewed the misinformation and biases seen in news stories. Another report, “Assessing the Effect of News Source Ratings on News Content,” explored the effectiveness of a rating system of news sources by identifying them as reliable or unreliable on the basis of their work, funding, and several other related factors.

“People Like You: How Personal and Community Ratings Influence Trust in Media” looked at how trust in media is affected by metrics and algorithms that target news articles at users based on a specific story’s popularity with the public or a certain group or their past online viewing habits. Three more reports are forthcoming, addressing regulation and the role that social media and other major entertainment companies play as curators of news.

“The hope of putting the report out there is that it becomes clear to not only the general population and policymakers that political polarization plays a role but also for the outlets themselves,” says Askenazi. “We do think it important to call out the fact that political polarization and views affect how people feel about the trust that they put into these sources. We believe that trust in the media is essential for a well-functioning democracy. The information from these news sources is critical to inform and engage communities and to our ability to communicate with each other and share that information to engage in that democratic process.”

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