Do You Trust What You’re Reading?

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Reading Time: 18 minutes

Fully one-third of news consumers admit to distrusting the sources from which they get their news. That’s according to a recent study by RAND Corporation, based on a survey of 2,543 Americans. What’s shifted in terms of consumer demand to create this situation?

In this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast we talk with Jennifer Kavanagh, senior political scientist and director of RAND’s Strategy, Doctrine, and Resources Program,about RAND’s ongoing project, Truth Decay.

In previous reports and podcasts, Kavanagh and her colleagues examined what has changed in the production of news in the digital age; in this latest report, they look at the consumption of the news product. 

Judging by the RAND study, Americans are very much aware that some of the news they rely on is untrustworthy — yet still, they choose to consume it.

Some of the reasons for this apparent disconnect are discussed in this week’s WhoWhatWhy podcast. They include: 

    • How news has become simply a form of entertainment.
    • How time has become the biggest single factor in news consumption.
    • Why consumers think that reliable news takes too long to consume.
    • How some people get all their news only in 280-character bites.
    • How political news is consumed vs. every other kind of news.
    • How today’s news outlets exploit emotion to generate consumer demand — and profits.

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m your host, Jeff Schechtman.

Just how reliable is your favorite news source? Amidst the cacophony of 24/7 news and information that pours in at us every day and in the context of the demand to be better informed, while at the same time having less and less time to consume all that information. We may have sacrificed reliability for speed. In so doing, we’ve lost sight of what constitutes truth, facts, and actual information. The signal to noise ratio has shifted overwhelmingly towards noise. So much so that a full one-third of Americans use news sources that they themselves consider unreliable.

Jeff Schechtman: Understanding this is part of an ongoing project by the RAND Corporation, and an initiative entitled Truth Decay, the phenomenon defined as diminishing reliance on facts, data and analysis in American public life. The third Truth Decay report has just been issued, and it is my pleasure to be joined once again by one of its authors, Jennifer Kavanagh. Jennifer Kavanaghis a political scientist at the RAND Corporation and associate director of the Strategy, Doctrine and Resource Program. She’s also a professor at the Pardee RAND Graduate School, and it is my pleasure to welcome Jennifer Kavanaghback to the WhoWhatWhy Podcast to talk about the latest report on Truth Decay. Jennifer, thanks so much for joining us.
Jennifer

Kavanagh:

Thank you so much for having me. I’m glad to be back.
Jeff Schechtman: How does this third report differ from and extend upon some of the things that the previous reports have talked about?
Jennifer Kavanagh: Well, our first report defined a framework for what we thought Truth Decay was, and a big piece of that was understanding changes in the media landscape. That includes everything from the rise of social media, the internet, to increasing diversity and number of sources that are available, the democratized access to both getting information but also being a source. All of these are part of this change in immediate landscape which we consider to be a driver of Truth Decay. And this report digs into the consumption aspect of that.
Jennifer Kavanagh: Our first report considered the production angle. How has news presentation changed? How has the way news is reported? How does that differ across platforms as well as over time and this report thinks about it from the consumer’s perspective. What sources do people use, how do they use them, how do they rate the reliability of those sources? And thinking about the intersection between consumption, reliability and demographic characteristics, things like age and gender and how those things differ across different groups.
Jeff Schechtman: What have you seen going back to this nexus between the first report and this whole focus on the consumer in this report, to what extent has the way news is presented, the way it’s put out there shifted to deal with the changing consumer demands for news today?
Jennifer Kavanagh: Well, I think there’s a perception that when news… The news that people want is edgy, is provocative, is opinionated, it’s partisan and it’s unclear. There’s not a lot of evidence whether that’s actually what people want or whether that is what they will choose if it’s available to them. People when asked what news sources they trust or what they look for in a trusted news source, and this comes from data that the Knight Foundation has collected, that Gallup has collected, that Pew Research Center has collected, suggests that they think about things like accuracy and balance and objectivity.
Jennifer Kavanagh: So those are very different than what we typically think of when we think of what drives demand or what drives profits. So I think the distinction between what people trust and what people will consume if it’s available to them in a way that drives profits, those are two different things. And so thinking about those two angles. We may like and get pleasure and entertainment out of the more edgy, the more provocative, the things that inspire outrage or anger or emotion. But when we think about what do we trust, what do we consider to be authoritative information? We’re often thinking about and looking for very different characteristics.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that you talk about in this report that enters into the equation is this whole idea of the way people consume in smaller, sort of quickly digestible chunks. Talk about that.
Jennifer Kavanagh: Well, we looked at the types of media sources that people use and one thing that we found is that there are a large number of people who use social media of at least one source of news information and they are also the people who as you mentioned at the start, are the people who use this source even though they know that there are more reliable sources out there, so they’re essentially choosing a source that’s less reliable than the information they could get elsewhere. That suggests that they’re using that information or they’re making their consumption decisions on very different characteristics than accuracy or reliability. Instead, they’re choosing it for some other purpose and there’s two possible explanations for that.
Jennifer Kavanagh: One is that it’s about time. They simply don’t have time to seek out the more reliable information. It takes too long to locate and read a full newspaper article and instead, they choose to read it in small 280 character bites, maybe clicking and reading on parts of different articles as they scroll through their feed.
Jennifer Kavanagh: A second explanation is that they’re using that information for entertainment and if it’s for entertainment purposes, then small little bites may be what they’re looking for, just a quick hit, a quick edgy take, or a quick something that they think is funny or that pokes fun at and someone that they don’t like, a rival or an adversary. So those are the two different ways that people may be using information in contrast to seeking out the most accurate, the most reliable information, which is what we would hope for, what we would hope people would do if they’re seeking to become informed consumers and informed voters in the end.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about the entertainment aspect and people looking at news as a form of entertainment. What does your research show you about that?
Jennifer Kavanagh: We haven’t looked specifically at the entertainment angle, but I do think that some of the work that we did in our first report after, not the first report, but the first substantive report that we published with data where we compared how, say cable news compares to broadcast journalism or how online journalism compares to print. And there we see a real shift from something in print and broadcast journalism that’s much more fact-based, based on contacts and events. The who, what, where, when and why that we think of, when we think of reporting, to something that is much more opinion-based, emotion-based, personal experience, anecdotes, advocacy, argumentation. That is what characterizes cable news and then online journalism to different extents. And so I think that when you see the shift, the shift from these more traditional forms of news to what’s considered new media, you do see a shift towards emphasizing the entertainment value of information.
Jennifer Kavanagh: Cable news is essentially entertainment in order to attract your attention, they want to be provocative, they want to keep the eyeballs on the screen so that they can increase their viewership and then get more ad revenue, that’s the fundamental model. So we’ve shifted from a model of journalism which was largely focused on providing and informing people, to one where that’s still a purpose of some outlets, but then there’s another set of outlets, another set of platforms which are much more focused on the entertainment angle pulling you in, because that’s their profit model. That is how they make money.
Jeff Schechtman: What are you seeing in terms of the time shifting of information? People that are getting information either from podcasts, or YouTube, or things that they can really adjust to their timeframe.
Jennifer Kavanagh: I do think that time and time availability is a big factor and how people make news consumption decisions. They mentioned previously, that’s one of the explanations for why people might use sources that are less reliable or that they consider less reliable, is because they simply don’t have the time to find other sources and so they consume the news sources that fit into their lifestyle and we can in that sense think of news consumption as a habit, as a lifestyle factor, as something just like you would choose what type of exercise to do or what other types of entertainment to do that or how to spend your leisure time.
Jennifer Kavanagh: News is just another piece of that and then when we think of how news as a consumption habit, as a lifestyle factor, then when we want to think about how do we encourage people to be more informed and to use sources that are more reliable and that are more fact-based and oriented towards informing and not entertainment, it becomes actually a harder challenge because we’re not just asking someone to consume a different information source, but actually to incorporate a new habit into their lifestyle or to change an old habit and that we all know from trying to break habits is very difficult.
Jeff Schechtman: And what do you… One of the things you talk about is demographics and what that shows and particularly with respect to education.
Jennifer Kavanagh: That’s right. When we look at education, we find that people who have more than a college degree are much more likely to be using print and broadcast journalism sources then people with less education, with people with only a high school degree or only a part of college. Those latter two groups are much more likely to fall into one of the other categories including the group that relies primarily on social media and their peer network for news information.
Jeff Schechtman: What about people that are getting information from across different sources, that their primary source may be less reliable but sometimes they take the time to go deeper? What do we see there?
Jennifer Kavanagh: Most people use many different news sources and I think that’s really important to understand. We often see statistics about how many people are using social media to get their news, but most people who are using social media are also using other sources as well.  Understanding the source mix using social media in of itself is not a problem if you’re supplementing it with other types of sources.
Jennifer Kavanagh: I think it also matters how you’re using social media. Are you using social media only reading the headlines and reading your friend’s posts and takes on the news? Or, are you using social media, Facebook, Twitter as a platform to find articles? Who are you following? What types of things are you looking at? And then if you see an interesting article, do you go find the article and read the whole thing? Does it provide you new topics to go research further? There’s many different ways to use any type of news platform. So there isn’t a blanket, this news source is good and this news source is bad. It’s thinking more about the mix and the balance and how do you use them together.
Jeff Schechtman: And to what extent are you finding that consumers are doing that? Are using multiple sources and what is the importance and really the shift as a result of social media and even more than that, peer influence?
Jennifer Kavanagh: I do think most people use more than one source. I think that is… There’s an extensive research literature on whether when new platforms become available, those things crowd out old sources or are added in. And I think most research suggests, though there is some disagreement, but most research suggests that yes, people have a finite amount of time to spend reading news. So they can’t just constantly add news sources, but that people do consume across a variety of different platforms. So I think that is important to understand. Now that’s not true of everyone. Some people may rely only on one platform or only on two platforms and they may not spend the same amount of time digging in, in depth and trying to understand the news. We didn’t really get into that in this survey, although I think it’s important. An important follow-on question to ask people, not just what you are using, but how do you use it to understand a little bit more about the user experience.
Jennifer Kavanagh: I do think the extent to which social media has become the way that things are marketed, the way… And such a big part of the media landscape. It does push us towards an environment where both consumers are susceptible to what we call at RAND, Truth Decay, but also where the media is pushed towards a place where it’s often intentionally or unintentionally exacerbating those trends. You can’t boil a detailed investigative journalism piece down to 280 characters without losing a lot of the really important detail.
Jennifer Kavanagh: And oftentimes, I’m sure we’ve all had experiences where you see a headline and then you read the article and the article really doesn’t match the headline and the headline is put there to be sensational and to catch your attention to get you to read the article, but it doesn’t accurately reflect what’s actually in the article. So I think thinking about social media and the way it’s changed, the job that journalists have to do and the way they do that job is an important, supplementary question here that we don’t dig into in this report, but that’s certainly on our list of things to look at further as we move forward.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent are consumers who may know that the sources that they’re using or primary sources that they’re using are less than totally reliable? To what extent did they know that? Did they acknowledge that?
Jennifer Kavanagh: Well the statistic that you say is at the start of this discussion I think, provides a window into that. At least a third of people in our survey – and we had 2,500 people in the survey – it was a nationally represented survey as well. At least a third of those people admitted that the source they were using, they did not consider it to be as reliable as other sources that were available.
Jennifer Kavanagh: Now that is probably a low estimate because a third of people admitted it. But that may be something that not a lot of people want to admit. And we always know that there’s self-report bias. We may not be honest about our own news consumption habit. So that number is probably higher, people who are using sources, that if they were honest, they would consider unreliable. And then there’s however many people who are using sources that objectively have false information and may not be aware of it. And our survey doesn’t measure those people, but they’re certainly out there as well.
Jeff Schechtman: To what extent is partisanship playing a significant role and do people on the left see news differently than people on the right? That’s one of the things you look at in this report.
Jennifer Kavanagh: That’s right. Partisanship does not really play a role in consumption decisions. We don’t see major trends across part of partisan groups, across the aisle in terms of consumption patterns. And in fact partisanship is surprisingly less relevant to attitudes towards news, in our survey. Most research on this topic suggests that people who lean towards the left are more trusting, have higher perceptions of media reliability than people who lean towards the right. And in our survey we found that the real driver was a vote choice in 2016 and in this case we found that the people who are the most skeptical or who had the lowest perceptions of reliable of reliability were those voters who voted for someone other than Hillary Clinton. So that would include Trump voters as well as third party voters.
Jeff Schechtman: What are some of the things that you want to look for in future surveys? Some of the additional information you want to gather to add to these various layers that we’ve been talking about?
Jennifer Kavanagh: I think it’s important to understand… to think more deeply about what it is about media that people do and do not trust. To understand whether their perceptions of journalists, is it that they don’t trust journalists to do their job? Is it that they don’t like the output, they don’t trust the articles when they’re published? Is it that they only trust things that agree with them? I’ve had people tell me that, that they only trust articles that agree with them, which is obviously kind of a self-fulfilling prophecy. So kind of digging into that angle and trying to understand if we have to rebuild trust in journalism, what do people actually want to see changing? And there’s been some work on that. Pew, as I said, has done some work. The Knight Foundation has done some work on that, but I think that, that’s a really… An under explored question.
Jennifer Kavanagh: And then I think, thinking more carefully about how different types of news consumption, different consumption across different platforms, how that affects people’s vulnerability to false information as well as their understanding of news stories. Do people who read things just through social media, do they come away with a very different perception of it than people who read it in terms of print journalism and then what does that mean for the decisions they make in the end?
Jennifer Kavanagh: And I think that that last piece, understanding how news consumption affects decisions and behaviors and beliefs, is really the most important piece of this question. Because if in the end, we all come away and make the same decision regardless of what we read, we end up being as informed or we end up making the same decisions about our lives that we would’ve made otherwise. Then it’s hard to see… it would be hard to then judge and say, “Well, one source, this is bad. These changes are bad” or, “these changes hurt information consumers.”
Jennifer Kavanagh: But if we can say, “Well, when people only consume news from this source, they are unaware of things that  pose risk for their investments, their healthcare, things like that. Then we can say that these other types of sources, that there is a problem and then identifying that problem, we can propose policy solutions to fix it. So I think thinking about what the implications of these are for how people live their lives, how well informed they are and how they’re able to make decisions about their lives, I think that is an important additional piece here that gets kind of beyond the media landscape piece into some thought about cognitive bias and what the actual implications and importance of something like Truth Decay is, not just at the policy level but at the individual level.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there a difference in any of these things with respect to whether or not people are consuming local, or national, or international news?
Jennifer Kavanagh: That’s a good question. We didn’t ask specifically about the outlet or the level of news, whether its national news, international, local news. We have done some research on other projects thinking about trust in different types of news and they are consistent with other work we’ve found, that trusted local news tends to be a little bit higher than trusted national news. That’s partly because we tend to trust things that are immediate to us, that we can see and verify, that maybe in the local paper, my friend’s brother writes for that paper, right? So I have a personal connection that increases my trust there and as we move further away, that aspect dissipates.
Jennifer Kavanagh: But another important thing to note is the extent to which local papers are really disappearing. The local papers that continue to exist, a lot of them are syndicated, so it’s just reprints of articles that are printed elsewhere, but the kind of really basic local journalism that we used to have 20, 30, 40 years ago, that is becoming kind of an unsustainable economic model. In fact, there have been some articles and some research showing the ways in which college newspapers in places like UNC or University of Michigan, are filling in for local papers and doing some of the local reporting that used to happen. So when we talk about people’s attitudes towards local news, it’s important to recognize that a lot of people don’t have a real experience with local news and that actually, research suggests, is detrimental to people’s ability to get information, to feel connected to their community, so that trend is worrisome.
Jeff Schechtman: The other side of that too is whether there’s a difference with respect to the kind of news. I mean, and how people judge political news versus other kinds of news that might be less partisan in its very nature, whether it’s crime stories or whatever else it might be.
Jennifer Kavanagh: I agree with you. I think that when people consume local news, it’s a very different kind of information and again, it’s information they can often verify or information that feels very immediate to them and that is more trustworthy and that may build their trust and that trust may spill over into their reading of national news as well. Whereas, when we’re talking about political news or things that seem very far away or things that seem very partisan, those things may be more distant, they’re harder to trust. So I think attitudes towards news, there may be… The loss of local journalism may not only affect people’s attitudes or experiences with local journalism, but also their ability to trust and their relationship with journalism more generally.
Jeff Schechtman: Is there a sense that there is any kind of linkage, any kind of nexus between trust and lack of trust today in public institutions and trust and lack of trust in journalism?
Jennifer Kavanagh: Well, I think, trust is… Individuals vary in their propensity to trust. So if I’m trustworthy of one institution, if I trust that institution, there is the higher probability that I also trust other institutions. Whereas somebody who is less trustworthy, who has a more skeptical worldview, may be less likely to trust across all of the different institutions. So certainly for some people who are just less trusting, there is that definite correlation between trust in journalism and trust in other institutions. But I think to say that large, that they’re connected, there’s probably a little bit of a connection there. But I also think that we see differences in terms of trends in trust that would suggest that they are independent. For example, trust in the military has been very high and very stable for a couple of decades now. Trust in government has declined very sharply, much more sharply than the decline that we’ve seen in trust in the media.
Jennifer Kavanagh: Trust in the media has declined somewhat, but really what’s changed in terms of trust in the media has been at the demographic group level. So trust for some groups hasn’t changed much. Whereas trust for other groups have changed a lot. When we think about trust in something like Congress or in government generally, the decline there has been sharper and has been more universal across demographic groups. And so those differences and trends for different institutions suggest that even if they are correlated in some way, each has independent aspects that drive the independent trends.
Jeff Schechtman: There’s an interesting irony in that, in that people seek out journalism that they agree with. They seek out sources that they agree with and that support whatever their bias may be and yet there’s still distrust in the very institution they’re getting the information from.
Jennifer Kavanagh: Well, I think it’s important to make the distinction that when people say report their trust in media, they may not be thinking about the outlet they use. They may be thinking of, “Well, I don’t trust media generally. I don’t trust “The Media,” “But I do trust my… this specific outlet,” which is different. And so thinking about the distinction between the outlet that’s in my head and the media generally, is important and we’ve thought about that in some work when we say, “Do you trust cable television?” Or, “Do you think cable television is reliable?” Well, when that person is thinking about cable television, are they thinking about the outlet or outlets that are on their side of the political spectrum or are they thinking about the outlets on the other side, because their answer might differ depending on which outlet they’re thinking of.
Jeff Schechtman: And finally, how dynamic is this situation? What are you finding in terms of these attitudes shifting and changing all the time? Are they pretty fixed right now do you think?
Jennifer Kavanagh: People’s attitudes in general change pretty slowly. I think that the trend, at least in trust in media has been pretty stable and changing slightly. I don’t think it’s changing wildly in either direction. When you ask… We asked people if they thought that media had been increasing in reliability, decreasing in reliability or staying the same over time, and we found that about a little bit less than half thought that it had just basically stayed the same, which would suggest that people kind of see things in kind of a status quo mode.
Jennifer Kavanagh: They may not be happy with it, but their attitudes aren’t shifting radically. The people who are unhappy with it remain unhappy with it. The people who are generally happy with it or who think that it is improving, they remain satisfied. And then there’s a whole bunch of people in the middle who may be kind of disaffected in a way, kind of just checked out. The media space is confusing. It is constantly changing. Technology is constantly changing and people don’t really know what to make of it. So if anything’s changing quickly, I would say, it’s less attitudes and more technology and the diffusion of technology to an increasing number of groups age-wise, education-wise, and expansion across the citizenry.
Jeff Schechtman: Jennifer Kavanagh with the latest report on Truth Decay from the RAND corporation. Jennifer, I thank you so much for spending time with us at WhoWhatWhy.
Jennifer Kavanagh: Thank you again for having me.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you. And thank you for listening and for joining us here on radio WhoWhatWhy. I hope you join us next week for another radio WhoWhatWhy Podcast. I’m Jeff Schechtman.

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