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Gallup Podcast
Is Consumer 'Trust' the Right Metric for Media?
Gallup Podcast

Is Consumer 'Trust' the Right Metric for Media?

Have the news media's shortcomings cost them the public's confidence? Is there a healthy level of distrust in media that provides for greater accountability? And are Americans more likely to detect misinformation in the media than they are given credit for? Sarah Fioroni, a research consultant at Gallup, joins the podcast to discuss.

Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.

Mohamed Younis 00:07

I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. This week, we challenge some of our preconceived notions on exactly how our relationship of citizens and consumers with media has changed over time. Is it true that news media has lost its credibility with the American public because of the industry shortcomings, or is there more to it than just that? Dr. Sarah Fioroni is a research consultant at Gallup and a new voice joining us on the podcast for the first time. Sarah, welcome, my friend.

Sarah Fioroni 00:35
Thanks Mohamed. Happy to be here.

Mohamed Younis 00:37
I wanted to speak with you, Sarah, on this topic because you've dedicated a lot of time to studying just how psychological attachments to groups literally impact how we interpret information. But more broadly, I found that you take a really insightful look at the way we think about the past and the premises we make about media consumption. So I'm really excited that you're here. And let me just start by asking, in your opinion, in what ways have you found the current narrative on failing trust in media to be sort of misguided or misdirected? Give me like your top three.

Sarah Fioroni 01:11
Yeah, this is something that I've thought a lot about throughout my research as, in grad school and also with some of the work we do at Gallup. The first thing that comes to mind, which is something I think has been a shift in the conversation recently, is this assumption that the American public isn't aware of what's happening in the media environment. I think in the past, research has maybe fallen short in their assumptions in how much Americans actually know that their information is biased, and that there are pitfalls and risks with the internet and social media when it comes to information. Ben Smith actually put out a really good article in The New York Times this week about that, when it comes to misinformation, and how not only do people have awareness of misinformation, but sometimes, you know, we see that there's some data showing people will pursue that content despite the fact that they know it's misleading.

Sarah Fioroni 02:10
We know that people who have really high distrust in news tend to be the ones that seek out biased content and know that that content is biased, right? We have this deep awareness that there's lots of choices for us out there and, and people seem to be OK with the fact that, that some of the information they see is aligned with their beliefs and that that's a conscious choice that they make. So this idea that that we need to pull the blindfold off the American public; that we don't know what's going on and that there's sort of this part of the electorate that needs to be saved from a harmful information environment I think is really short-sighted. But I think that conversation is already starting to shift. What I think is maybe more interesting, in terms of this question is we've assigned a normative judgment about trust in media -- that high trust is good, and low trust is bad and concerning. And I don't, I don't think that that's necessarily a bad thing, but I think that misses sort of the complicated layers of people's relationship to their information environment.

Mohamed Younis 03:17
That's fascinating.

Sarah Fioroni 03:18
I mean, it's, we had actually an article come out in partnership with the Knight Foundation about the differences between younger and older generations and how they perceive media. And on the concept of trust, we found not only that younger and older generations determine their trust of information using different metrics. But I think the bigger question here is if, on the one hand, we have sort of this alarmist conversation about misinformation and, and content that's deceiving. And then on the other hand, we have this alarmist conversation about how people aren't trusting media, my question back is, wouldn't we want maybe a healthy amount of distrust? Don't we want a little bit of skepticism in this new sort of crazy technology-focused information environment that we have?

Sarah Fioroni 04:11
So this idea that, that high trust in media is sort of a standard that we attain to, I think that that makes sense in the abstract, right? When we think about democracy and, and how important being an informed citizen is. But in practice and in our information environment today, I don't know, I don't know if that's practical, right?

Mohamed Younis 04:30
It's maybe just a little too dichotomous for what is now a really complex and complicated space, which is media. And of course, we're talking about media in general but, you know, one of the other things that's really fascinating -- and I don't want to veer you off, you only gave me two; I want your third preconceived -- but one of the things that has fascinated me and you've educated me on is the, the difference between our relationship and expectations of traditional media versus newer forms of media. One of the really cool projects we've done at Gallup recently with UNICEF across 21 countries globally has found that young people will rely on social media more to get information, but they actually trust it less than anyone else. And it gets exactly to this point that you're making.

Sarah Fioroni 05:22
I think what you've brought up is also really important, which is now that we have so many different places to get information, what are people using those things for, and what kinds of information are they hoping to get on those platforms? We see some evidence, for example, that people are turning to social media because they want information about friends and family or what's happening in their community. And then when we ask them to evaluate their trust, they might be thinking of that sort of in a traditional form -- whether or not the information about news or current events is something they trust.

Sarah Fioroni 05:56
It's such a complicated space where we get so many different kinds of information coming at us and different uses for the technology, that this sort of one universal measurement -- to put on my researcher hat -- of do you trust or not trust, I think it just limits the conversation and, and, and is not really in connection with how complicated the environment is. I mean you're, we're talking to the editor-in-chief of Gallup News, you know, from a, from a producer standpoint, do you feel like trust is the right metric?

Mohamed Younis 06:34
I think you bring up a lot of really, really important things for us to consider in the way we're growing, frankly, as researchers and analyzing how people are experiencing information. I really come to this, Sarah, too with an interesting angle because I'm really focused on geopolitical developments across the world and how information really has become a weapon by state actors, you know, pseudo state actors. So it's, there are just so many angles to this conversation, but certainly the trust in media piece, you know, it's, it's always fascinated me, how much our -- we convince ourselves that we have a very diverse narrative in our information space here in the U.S., especially when it comes around like policy and politics.

Mohamed Younis 07:18
But, you know, my experience as a young person just watching the buildup to the Iraq War in 2003, it was really a great example of a moment where a whole narrative takes over. And it's, a lot of it is really not accurate and could have been -- was being challenged by people who really knew something about the situation. But it's amazing how many people completely signed up to that thought, and in our data, we see, over time in that war, how Americans really turned on the reasons for the war, the efficacy of the war itself. So trust in media has always been something that fascinates me. But you're throwing things back on me; I'm throwing them back on you. So the two things you mentioned are, you know, we're not as stupid as we assume, as consumers really. And the other one is, we think too simply about trust. What's another kind of preconceived notion you feel like you've hit?

Sarah Fioroni 08:13
Something that I probably think is the most critical shortfall of the conversation around media today is I find that it's often one-sided and it's targeted at the media producers themselves. What should news be doing? What should news not be doing? What should news journalists say or not say? Should there be regulations, should there be reform around the media companies, the media platforms? And what's really fascinating is it puts the media as -- it positions it as sort of this external entity that, that sort of lives on its own and, and affects us in one direction. But in reality, the news and the corporations and the people that produce news, I mean, it's all human beings; it's all, it's us.

Sarah Fioroni 09:06
And so while the news shapes society, of course, we shape the news. The news is also -- our information environments are also a reflection of where we are in terms of a society and culture -- what we value; what kinds of information that we assign. You know, when we click or read, we're assigning value to certain types of information over others. So just focusing on what the media should or shouldn't be doing, I think, misses the other half of this conversation, which is, what about the way human beings process information is at play here? What about our own agency, in terms of the signals that we make in a capitalist society about what is a value, right, in our choices in what we consume? I just think that that, that is, that sort of internal reflection -- that taking on that responsibility as the consumers is just as important as whether or not something needs to be done, you know, on the production side.

Mohamed Younis 10:15
Such a good point. You know, another preconceived notion that you've really opened my eyes to, Sarah, in the work we've done together is this notion of going back to the golden era of good journalism. Walter Cronkite was obviously a huge leader in his field and, and really did wonderful, wonderful work, as so many other journalists have and are today. But this notion that things were all great and we need to go back to something is something that really fascinates me. Let me just ask you, is that a fair standard to compare with, when we think about access to unbiased, objective, you know, sound reporting of current events?

Sarah Fioroni 10:55
It's a great question. Humans have an enormous capacity for nostalgia, right? We, we can just look back on all kinds of experiences and pick out the things about it that, you know, through rosy colored glasses seem ideal to us or something that we miss. And, in terms of pushing back on that notion, I think where we fall short is having this sort of unbiased, objective, almost sterile view of the news, I do think is actually a misrepresentation of information throughout human history. Because it's not just about how news is delivered. It's also about what voices are being told or having a platform; what stories are being told; what experiences are being shared. And in, in critical media research, we can point to all kinds of evidence of, during that particular era, when Walter Cronkite was sort of at his heyday, of how many things were being left out of the national conversation, particularly around people of color in America, women's issues, immigration.
Sarah Fioroni 12:11
I mean, the list goes on and on -- and your example as well about what happened post-9/11. You know, every time we, we sort of look back, there's, on the one hand, what is actually being said and how it's being presented, but then there's also what isn't being said and what isn't being presented and the limitations of that. And I think to not have such a negative spin on it, to be a little bit more positive, I mean throughout history, Americans are storytellers. And this idea that we can have this very, very unbiased sort of pure perspective on information I think is just not very human, right? Humans are telling this information to each other, and we're not unbiased beings. And so yeah, I think, I think that era has just as much to be critical of as, as where we are today. There are some things that were an advantage back then, and there are some things that are much better now than back then, particularly if you're a person whose experiences were being left behind.

Mohamed Younis 13:20
Yeah, and it's, it's just amazing, not only -- particularly, you know, in, in some parts of the world, an increased awareness of stories that are not being shared and told, but also technology and its ability now to really give that platform to almost everybody across the globe. It's amazing. I, one of my favorite things to follow on social media is this fisherman who fishes on the Nile in Egypt. I've never met this guy. And every day he just has the video on him on the water and catching fish and then cooking fish later. And I just think, like, that guy had no way of really sharing his experience with the world. It's not news. It's not Democrats and Republicans. But that technology piece, as much as it is complicated, as much as it has its drawbacks on mental health -- as we're learning, you know, slowly -- it's easy for us to underestimate just how much of an equalizer that really has become. Would you agree?

Sarah Fioroni 14:21
I think you're highlighting the great paradox of the media environment we're in today. And to use some of Gallup's vernacular on this, some of the greatest strengths lead to big blind spots. And I think right now, the conversation is mostly on the blind spots of media technology: how it's sharing misinformation; how it's deceiving people; how it's enabling propaganda; how it's spreading hate. But part of the reason we see those things out there is because of all of this democratization that it's brought about. People can access information cheaper, quicker, faster. People can share, almost without -- all you need is, is access to a computer, and you can share your story and your experience like this fisherman.

Sarah Fioroni 15:17
Even what we're on right now, podcasts, I mean, look at the world of podcasting and how many stories people have been able to tell just based on a laptop and a quiet room in their house. So we live in that paradox where there are so many wonderful benefits to the technology and the innovation in media. And of course, those same strengths have led to some really big challenges when it comes to harmful content online. Yeah, it's a, it's a, it's a tense place to kind of live in between, but such is the human experience, I think in all parts of life, right?

Mohamed Younis 15:59
Absolutely. And especially the digital space. One thing I'd love to pick your brain about is regulation of social media. I know we've asked this question, like, does there need to be more government action to regulate that space? Share with us what you've learned and your thoughts.

Sarah Fioroni 16:17
I think this gets back to my. my third sort of pushback on the conversation, which is that regulation only looks at this from one side. And that's not to say that it doesn't have a place or have value. But in some ways, I think it might be putting a Band-Aid on a big hole, rather than trying to solve the problem from within. And what's, what's really telling of that is that we find in our research that the American public is extremely conflicted about regulation, because we live in a society that really values free expression, and not everyone has had access to that free expression throughout time. And some of these technologies are giving us more access and more freedom to see that come to fruition.

Sarah Fioroni 17:07
And the idea of sort of shutting it down and regulating it to certain degree is, is scary for a lot of people, right? Particularly the story that America tells about how critical freedom of press and freedom of expression is to democracy, when we compare ourselves to other kinds of political structures in the world. But, you know, I also think that, that regulation could be a lot more expansive than it is, in terms of what we talk about right now. So I think when most people hear the word "regulation," they think of, you know, like Facebook having some sort of regulation on what Facebook allows users to post or not. Or we think about having some sort of regulation where news organizations have to do special categorization of their information or do a warning label on their information. But there's so many more ways of looking at it.

Sarah Fioroni 18:02
One thing that always sticks out to me is the Telecommunications Act of 1996. I don't know that, that everyone really thinks about how much that legislation has impacted where we are today. And for listeners who aren't familiar with the legislation, it basically shifted, you know, there used to be a restriction on which, how many markets a company could have media in. So if you owned a television station in one market, you couldn't also have a newspaper in that market, for example. And when we rolled back those regulations, that sort of led the path to where we're at now with, with these big sort of monopolization of media ownership.

Sarah Fioroni 18:41
That's an interesting thing to think about. What's the corporate structure of the media? Have we made some decisions there that maybe we could get more creative in how to do that going forward? And the last thing, in terms of regulation, I want to bring up is, this actually came out of a focus group that Gallup was running with a client, where we asked people actually this question directly about regulation. And one thing that we found very interesting was some people highlighted the fact that it's the incessantness, the nonstop news cycle that makes them stressed, that gives them heartache, that makes it hard for them to feel like they can be truly an informed citizen. And a couple of people suggested putting a limit to how many hours of the day a news organization can publish or put out news content.

Sarah Fioroni 19:30
And we were, we were laughing, because it kind of reminds me of -- the sort of analogy I was using to describe this to my colleague was it's as if, you know, we drive around America and there's a million fast-food choices on the highway. And rather than us, you know, trying to make a conscious choice -- even though we know that these fast-food restaurants may have food that's unhealthy for us -- we want, we just want the government to take away half of them. Let's just eliminate fast-food restaurants so I'm a little bit less tempted. Let's just eliminate the number of hours we have the news running so that I'm less tempted to kind of get into that space. And so I don't know. I think there's a lot of different ways that could be, that we could expand the regulation conversation, but I do want to emphasize that that's really only part of it. I think we need to do an internal reflection as well, in terms of consumers and what, what we're signaling with our choices and, and what this, what this media environment says about us and what we value as a society. What's your perspective on it being on the produce, more of the production side of news? What are your thoughts on, on regulation?

Mohamed Younis 20:39
Well, I just try to learn as much as I can from you. One thing that I'm, because I'm certainly not in any way an expert in that space. But one thing that, point that you made that really struck the chord with me is the First Amendment. I mean, not only compared to other political systems; compared to other Western democracies, the approach to free speech in the United States is really unique. And we saw that, I mean, social media has also highlighted, just even to our allies in Western Europe, you know, the, the countries we think of as kind of politically and economically closest to the United States' current system, it's a really different ballgame, in terms of what people will say, what people are allowed to say, where they're allowed to say it, what symbols. You know, they're, I mean, we all know, like in Germany, there are things that are completely outlawed that in the U.S. are really seen as deplorable signs of hate. But there's very little support for outlawing something like that, because it's just a completely different paradigm and approach to freedom of expression and what that really means.

Mohamed Younis 21:45
So it's, it's fascinating to me to see, in the social media space, U.S. companies, really companies that were invented here, with this paradigm, being used across the globe where it's a really, really unique approach to freedom of speech -- even within you know, Western capital, capitalist democracies. But Sarah, thank you so much for being here. That's Sarah Fioroni of Gallup. Sarah, thanks for joining us.

Sarah Fioroni 22:12
Thank you for having me.

Mohamed Younis 22:14
That's our show. Thank you for tuning in. To subscribe and stay up to date with our latest conversations, just search for "The Gallup Podcast" wherever you podcast. And for more key findings from Gallup News, go to or follow us on Twitter @gallupnews. If you have suggestions for the show, email The Gallup Podcast is directed by Curtis Grubb and produced by Justin McCarthy. I'm Mohamed Younis, and this is Gallup: reporting on the will of the people since the 1930s.

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