The debate over the impeachment inquiry has renewed concerns over fact and fiction. While lawmakers in the House are trying to keep the focus on whether President Trump committed a high crime by enlisting a foreign power to interfere in a U.S. election, the facts keep changing with the president’s narrative.
When the president and members of his team simply call facts “fake news” or lies by the media, confusion ensues, sides polarize further, and the smoke distracts from the fire.
Claims such as this are just one more erosion of a threadbare “news” audience. A report titled “The News We Believe,” which was researched and written by Mandy Jenkins for projectdisconnect.org, examines the factors more closely.
“Over the course of the last 25 years, the American media has been losing its audience.
“Newspaper circulation dropped from more than 62 million in 1990 to less than half that in 2017. In this same time period, the internet has become available in more than 75% of American homes, opening the floodgates for the creation and consumption of countless new sources of information,” Jenkins wrote in the report, which was released last month.
“Some of these, such as ProPublica, The Huffington Post and Slate have become leading news providers, winning top journalism prizes for their work. Others have become the drivers of false and misleading stories that have spread across online communities and social networks, changing the minds of everyday Americans on everything from climate change to vaccinations and the sovereignty of the U.S. government, and upending Americans’ trust in the media along the way.”
So Jenkins posits: How did the mainstream American media lose its grip on its audience?
Her research points to four conclusions:
— The primary problem facing the news industry as it pertains to the issue of disinformation is its deteriorating relationship with its audience. If the audience doesn’t trust the media’s motives or processes, it follows that it also wouldn’t have faith in such important journalistic practices as fact-checking.
— Though it is easy to assume that those who believe disinformation are unintelligent, incurious or uncaring about the false news they help amplify.
— The importance of context as it pertains to news and history cannot be overstated in understanding disinformation. People consume information through their own individual lenses, so one person’s news is another’s “fake news” — seen this way, all sides can believe they are right, and the opposing side wrong.
— Everyone has their own filters, via conscious choice or applied unwittingly through technology, that dictate what information they will see and what they will believe.
Jenkins is clear: It all comes down to trust. And it ain’t there on the large-scale. (At the local level, things are a bit better, she notes.)
She found that most Americans whose attitudes have changed when it comes to the media’s role have reasons that can be boiled down to a handful of trends: Trust (or lack thereof) in the motives and power of mainstream media; a feeling that the media doesn’t care about its communities and lives; an inability to discern facts and opinions; information overload due to a plethora of choices, aided by aggregators and social media feeds; the creation of “filter bubbles” to isolate them from opposing beliefs, among other factors.
Audience trust in the mainstream news media has driven a great deal of research in recent years, especially as it pertains to disinformation. Media trust was at an all-time low in the U.S. in 2016, when Gallup found that 32% of Americans trusted the media. This was a far cry from the poll’s highest year in 1976, when 72% of Americans said they trusted the media a “great deal” or “fair amount,” Jenkins wrote.
Now the perception is that “media is interested only in telling stories in ways that attract the most attention and not the most resolution.”
Fortunately, for newspapers like ours, several studies have determined that local news reporting is the most trusted of all U.S. media types. Local reporters live in the community, and their coverage reflects this. Yet local news has been the hardest hit in the collapse of media around the United States, so it would stand to reason that there would be an overall loss in trust if it were to disappear.
In fact, a Pew Research Center survey found that news consumers valued a local connection. More than 80% of the respondents indicated it was at least somewhat important to them that a journalist be personally involved in the community.
“What I hope the journalism and information sectors can gather from this work is a better understanding of the motivations, challenges and concerns of people who are acting in good faith to inform themselves in an ever-changing world. Too often, these sorts of news consumers are viewed as caricatures or stereotypes of disinformation targets, but in reality, they are just people who are doing their best to navigate this changing ecosystem, often with limited tools and knowledge of how to do so,” Jenkins noted.