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Americans Struggle to Navigate the Modern Media Landscape

Americans Struggle to Navigate the Modern Media Landscape
by Jeffrey M. Jones and Zacc Ritter

Story Highlights

  • 58% say the increase in sources makes it harder to be well-informed
  • 47% say news media bias makes sorting out facts hard, up from 34% in 1984
  • 27% are very confident in their own ability to sort out the facts

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- As the information available to news consumers has expanded greatly in recent decades, Americans believe the media landscape is becoming harder to navigate. They say the increase in the information available today makes it harder (58%), rather than easier (38%), to be well-informed because people have to sort through lots of information to determine what is true or important.

Americans Say Increase in Information Makes It Harder to Be Informed

This finding comes from a new Gallup/Knight Foundation survey on trust, media and democracy. The large-scale mail survey of more than 19,000 U.S. adults was conducted Aug. 4-Oct. 2, 2017.

Americans' sense of information overload varies by partisanship. Less than half of Democrats (47%) say the increase in available information makes staying well-informed harder, whereas clear majorities of Republicans (69%) and independents (61%) believe it does.

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Perceived Bias Blurs Pursuit of Objective Facts

Americans are also more likely to say it is hard to sort out the facts in news reporting than they were in the past. Fifty percent of U.S. adults believe that, despite some media bias, enough news sources exist to allow people to sort out the facts, whereas 47% say there is so much bias it is often difficult to determine what is true. Americans' confidence that people can discern the truth is down from 66% in a 1984 mail survey conducted by MORI Research for the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

Americans Increasingly Say Sorting Out Fact From Bias Is Difficult

The trend toward Americans' saying it is harder to sort out the facts is consistent with their increased perceptions of news media bias.

Seventy-two percent of Democrats, compared with 46% of independents and 31% of Republicans, are confident that enough sources exist for people to discern the facts. Education also makes a difference in perceived ability to navigate political bias in the media. Those with a postgraduate education are most likely to say enough sources exist to allow people to sort out the facts (61%), followed by college graduates (52%) and those with less than a college degree (47%).

Democrats, Postgraduates More Likely to Think It Is Possible to Sort Out Facts From Bias in News Reporting
Please indicate which of these statements comes closer to how you personally feel: although there is some bias in the news media, there are enough sources of news to be able to sort out the facts or there is so much bias in the news media that it's often difficult to sort out the facts?
Enough sources to sort out facts So much bias, difficult to sort out facts
% %
Party identification
Democrats 72 26
Independents 46 51
Republicans 31 67
Education
Postgraduate 61 38
College degree only 52 46
Some college 47 50
High school or less 48 49
Gallup/Knight Foundation Survey, Aug. 4-Oct. 2, 2017

Notably, these educational differences are apparent among Democrats and independents but not Republicans. Democrats and independents with college degrees are roughly 10 percentage points more likely than Democrats and independents without college degrees to believe there are enough news sources available for people to sort out the facts.

Republican Perceptions of Whether It Is Possible to Sort Out Facts From Bias in News Reporting Do Not Vary by Educational Attainment
Please indicate which of these statements comes closer to how you personally feel: although there is some bias in the news media, there are enough sources of news to be able to sort out the facts or there is so much bias in the news media that it's often difficult to sort out the facts?
Enough sources to sort out facts So much bias, difficult to sort out facts
% %
Democrats
College graduate 78 20
College nongraduate 68 29
Independents
College graduate 54 44
College nongraduate 42 55
Republicans
College graduate 30 68
College nongraduate 31 67
Gallup/Knight Foundation Survey, Aug. 4-Oct. 2, 2017

Roughly One in Four Americans Are Very Confident News Media Navigators

When asked about their own ability to distinguish fact from opinion in news reporting, most Americans are confident but not overly so. Roughly one-quarter of adults, 27%, describe themselves as "very confident" and another 49% say they are "somewhat confident."

Democrats and postgraduates are most likely to say they are very confident in their ability to distinguish fact from opinion. Four in 10 Democrats with a college degree are very confident. Again, education does not influence Republicans' level of confidence, which overall is slightly lower than Democrats' confidence.

About One in Four Americans Very Confident They Can Distinguish Fact From Opinion in News Reporting
How confident are you that you can tell when a news source is reporting factual news and when it is providing opinion or commentary on the news?
Very confident Somewhat confident Not too confident Not confident at all
% % % %
U.S. adults 27 49 17 3
Party identification
Democrats 31 50 13 2
Independent 25 50 18 4
Republican 24 48 21 5
Education
Postgraduate 35 49 12 2
College graduate only 30 50 15 3
Some college 26 50 17 4
High school or less 23 49 20 4
Party by education
Democratic college gradudate 41 48 9 1
Democratic college nongraduate 26 52 15 2
Independent college graduate 30 50 15 3
Independent college nongraduate 23 50 19 5
Republican college graduate 24 51 19 4
Republican college nongraduate 23 46 22 5
Gallup/Knight Foundation Survey, Aug. 4-Oct. 2, 2017

Those with stronger ideological views -- who describe themselves as "very liberal" (45%) or "very conservative" (41%) -- are much more likely than other ideological groups to be very confident in their ability to separate fact from opinion. By comparison, 33% of those who describe their views as "liberal," 23% of those who are "conservative" and 23% of "moderates" are very confident.

Implications

Americans are less confident now than they were three decades ago that people can sort out the facts in news stories, perhaps because of their increased perceptions of bias in news reporting. And rather than helping citizens by making more sources available to them, Americans see the increase in available information making matters worse, presumably because there is more news, much of it biased, to sort through.

Both of these findings -- Americans' skepticism that more information is better and their expanded perceptions of bias -- are significant in that they can contribute to an erosion of media trust. Nevertheless, Americans continue to believe the media can serve as a vital democratic institution that informs citizens and can help them participate fully and effectively in the democratic process.

Read the full Gallup/Knight Foundation report "Americans' Views: Trust, Media and Democracy."

Survey Methods

Results are based on mail interviews conducted Aug. 4-Oct. 2, 2017, with a random sample of 19,196 adults, aged 18 and older, living in all 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia. Gallup used a randomly selected Addressed-Based Sampling (ABS) design. The study included oversamples of households known to contain members of hard-to-reach subgroups, including blacks, Hispanics and young adults. The sample was weighted to correct for unequal probability of selection and non-response, to match the national demographics on gender, age, race, Hispanic ethnicity, education, region and population density.

For results based on the total sample of national adults, the margin of sampling error is ±1 percentage point at the 95% confidence level. All reported margins of sampling error include computed design effects for weighting.

Gallup


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