About nine in 10 Americans turn to individuals with public platforms for information and place a great deal of trust in these individuals. Whom are they turning to and why and how are they following them? Dr. Sarah Fioroni, a senior consultant at Gallup, joins the podcast to discuss the latest findings from Gallup and Knight Foundation.
Below is a full transcript of the conversation, including time stamps. Full audio is posted above.
Mohamed Younis 00:11
For Gallup, I’m Mohamed Younis, and this is The Gallup Podcast. In this episode, we explore how Americans are turning away from established news organizations and more towards public figures to get their news and information on what they care about. Dr. Sarah Fioroni is a senior consultant at Gallup and leads much of our work on U.S. news habits and consumption. Sarah, welcome to the podcast!
Sarah Fioroni 00:34
Thanks for having me.
Mohamed Younis 00:35
You just had some fascinating research released recently on how more of us are turning to public individuals or public figures for our news and information on the issues that matter most to us vis-à-vis or in comparison to traditional news sources. Take us through what you learned.
Sarah Fioroni 00:52
This has really been the culmination of five years of research with Gallup and the Knight Foundation, where we've been tracking this really steady decline in trust. And this question keeps coming back into our face, which is, if you don't trust the mainstream news, where are you turning to to get information? And we've gotten some data in our qualitative work. And I think a lot of people anecdotally, this would resonate with them. We're hearing that people are mentioning individual people's names, right. You know, I might not trust the news, but I watch so-and-so every night or I listen to so-and-so's podcast every day that I, you know, I drive into work. And so in this study, we really tried to lean into that and better measure the extent to which people are following these individuals to get the information in the news that they need.
Sarah Fioroni 01:47
And so, in summary, we found that 89% of Americans follow at least one public individual or figure to get information from. That's pretty huge. If you think about the scale, that's almost nine in 10 people are engaging in this kind of information-seeking behavior. And when we asked Americans just broadly, who are these people that you're following? There was a wide variety and diversity, but some of the names that, or types of individuals that came to the top were scientists; people mentioned individual journalists, politicians, hosts of TV shows. We also had a pretty big group of people -- about, you know, 30% say that they follow comedians to get news and information. And so that's all to say that outside of just straight journalists, although we see a lot of people following individual journalists, Americans are, are getting really important information from all kinds of different people who have or haven't necessarily been trained in delivering hard news. So the, the summary here is that it's a, it's a widespread phenomenon. And we found that, that there's quite a diversity in who people are looking to, to get that information.
Mohamed Younis 02:55
What amazes me about these findings is also the why behind why people go to these sources. So you dug into that. Can you take us through some of the reasons that were mentioned as to why people choose to follow individuals instead of news organizations?
Sarah Fioroni 03:10
Yeah, when we looked at overall trust, something really interesting came through, which is that, if you just isolate news and current events, there’s still quite a bit more trust of traditional news brands than public individuals. But once you get into that gray area of commentary on political and social issues or commentary on the news itself, we found that there was about an even split in Americans saying they trust public individuals more than news or news more than these individuals. So there’s something happening there in Americans seeing these people as a trusted source to kind of make sense of what’s happening in the news and make sense of what they’re seeing sort of on traditional outlets. And then furthermore, when we asked Americans who their favorite person was that they followed, and why they followed that No. 1 favorite person, the top reasons people listed were because they like their personality; they trust them; and they offer perspective outside of traditional news outlets.
Sarah Fioroni 04:16
And so there’s also something there that’s extra that they’re getting from these individuals that’s trustworthy, that is enjoyable, but that also might not maybe fit what they’re seeing on traditional news channels.
Mohamed Younis 04:29
I thought that was just one of the most interesting findings was that people actually are seeking these individuals because they think they're gonna get a perspective that they don't get on traditional sources. And that really struck me, because it speaks to so much of the platforms themselves, not just the content of the news. Like, why do people go to social media? Why do people follow, you know, Twitter or Instagram account X? A lot of times it really is we're seeking that unique perspective that you can't just get, you know, if you turn on the TV or turn on the radio. What were your reflections on that finding when you, when you saw that in the data?
Sarah Fioroni 05:03
We were surprised that it was No. 3. I mean, it ranked really high: 74% of Americans said that they were turning to this favorite individual because it was a perspective outside of news. But then the more you think about it, the more that it, it makes sense. I mean, there's this interesting tension between this old way of thinking of journalism being objective and not taking a side, but that's sort of against human nature, right? There's all kinds of research about our biases and how we seek out, you know, attitude-confirming information. And we just like hearing people talk about things that resonate with us, that align with our own beliefs and perspectives. And so if you think about it that way, it makes a lot of sense to me that you would want to look for individual people that you connect with at that personal level -- I like their personality -- but also kind of brings in your own sense of values and belief system that you wouldn't see on, you know, traditional news outlets, nor are you really supposed to.
Sarah Fioroni 06:00
So, it made a lot of sense, the, the longer that we, we thought about it. And I think it, it actually has really helped quantify what I think a lot of people in this industry have been talking about anecdotally, which is that there's something going on with, with people who have a Twitter handle or a podcast, you know, talking about some of the big issues that we see in the news.
Mohamed Younis 06:21
And there’s also something going on with how much the conversation on traditional broadcast platforms has come to now incorporate those individuals. So when you think about, like, who are the most frequent guests on issue-based news reporting shows, a lot of them are people that have a gazillion followers on Twitter or Instagram. They’re usually not a very obscure but very deep expert on an issue; they’re usually people that the networks have kind of identified have people’s ear. And it’s fascinating, because so many people would gravitate towards news, 24-hour news cycle for exposure. And it’s almost like the platforms are now using the individuals for exposure to their audience as individuals.
Sarah Fioroni 07:05
I have a great example of this in sports. I don't know if any of our listeners are hockey fans, but I was, you know, watching hockey with my family the other day. And usually the hockey news desk is very traditional -- former players, you know, people who are formally trained in sports journalism. And in the playoff hockey season that's happening in 2023 right now, there's this really famous podcaster that has been added to the desk, and he's never been on TV before. He's had no formal journalism training. But he's got this huge podcast following. It's like the most-followed hockey podcast in all of America. And he's sitting at that desk now with some, you know, Hall of Fame-winning hockey legends, and it's, it's really leaning into that appeal. I think the news networks and sports networks and other topics, you know, they know that there's this base of interest. And people like that they're taking takes that might be, you know, outside of our traditional expectations from a formal, you know, news-desk-deliverer journalist. And so it's just been really interesting; we're just seeing this play out in all kinds of areas of news.
Mohamed Younis 08:14
It is absolutely fascinating to watch the change. Speaking of change, recently, there have been really big names in news, in broadcast news that departed their platforms, their shows, their channels. Tucker and Rachael and I know others that are very closely followed are a topic of the, of the research. Tell us about these sort of ultrafamous news reporters/analysts and where they rank on our respondents’ assessment.
Sarah Fioroni 08:41
Yes. So we asked Americans, as I mentioned, to write in the name of the person they follow most -- that one favorite followed person. And two really interesting things came out of it. First of all, out of close to 4,000 respondents, we had 900 unique names written in. So there's a huge variety of names that people are saying, This is my go-to person for news and information. Now that said, there were some names that did kind of rise to the top in terms of being mentioned most, and Tucker Carlson is one of them; Rachael Maddow was the other. They were the top two by far. But then we also had a lot of names that ended up, you know, being mentioned most often that people would really, I think recognize and expect, like Hannity, Trevor Noah, Shapiro, Colbert, Lester Holt. We have some politicians on there, right? Some of the presidents made our top 20 list of names written in.
Sarah Fioroni 09:39
And so, all in all, the people who were most written in only accounted for about 25% of all the names written in, but they follow the patterns exactly like you'd expect. Like the big, the big desk journalists, the big talking heads, the most popular followed on cable news channels, the really big host-comedian combo. These were, these were definitely the names that were written in most often.
Mohamed Younis 10:06
I cannot get over the fact that, of those top 20 most commonly mentioned names, there were only two female voices on that list -- which, when I went up and down the list, it was just, could not believe it. So we are still, even though we have a diversity of voices and we have this, you know, over 900 names mentioned, the folks getting the most attention are still not as diverse as probably the rest of that list, that 900 names list represents.
Sarah Fioroni 10:34
Yeah. And I think that that's a, kind of still a reflection of where the news and news-adjacent, especially on television industry, is. I mean, if you look at who are all the main, most popular late-night show hosts, right? Predominantly men. Who are the comedians that are getting the biggest kind of shows around news commentary? Still predominantly men. You know, we, we still haven't had a woman rise to, you know, the highest office of the presidency, right. So, following presidents and politicians, predominantly men. So I, I do think that it is still sort of a reflection of who has the voice in America right now, who's in the position of power to be followed. But that said, I mean, there were lots of women's names written in the full 900. There just were few that really came, you know, into that sort of group of, of commonality. So, yeah, it was, it was a really interesting finding.
Mohamed Younis 11:29
It was also fascinating to me because we're living at a time, actually, at least in terms of English-language digital news media, where women are dominating. I mean, we've seen extremely successful reporters who happen to be women take the helm of some of the world's largest digital news organizations and sources. So TV seems to be a little bit behind, or at least the, the celebrity aspect of public-figure followership seems to be behind. It was interesting to me too, Sarah, that you noted in the, in the study that when we tested the term public figure, it didn't work that well, because people tended to think of a government official versus public individual. Tell us a little bit about that nuance and, and why it mattered.
Sarah Fioroni 12:10
Yeah. So when we kicked the study off, one of the hardest things was figuring out what do we call this? I think a lot of people have called it, like, the Joe Rogan effect, but that’s not going to work for, you know, a Gallup study. So we were trying to figure out what was the right phrase, and we wanted to make sure that we distinguished this phenomenon of following someone who has a public persona, a public presence, a public platform. We didn’t want to ask people, you know, Are you following your Aunt Susan for news? Right? We wanted to distinguish that. So we came in there thinking, oh, public figure would be a great term to use. It’s easy; people will recognize it. And when we tested it out and asked Americans, you know, what their response was to seeing that, that phrase, we found that it really prebiased them towards thinking about politicians. So they were thinking of presidents; they were thinking of elected leaders.
Sarah Fioroni 13:06
And what we wanted to be sure we, we measured in this study was all of these other figures that are pretty influential -- like comedians, business leaders, right; like the Elon Musk following, you know, across all kinds of social media platforms; artists and actors who have taken, you know, a much bigger stance publicly on political issues and, honestly, have gotten very involved in voting and, and kind of directing public opinion, in terms of those issues that come on the ballot. And so we took that and kind of created our own new phrase called public individual. And we defined it. And we found that when we used a more generic public individual and kind of walked people through what we meant and give them some examples, then we were able to better measure the full extent of, of who these people are and what industry they come from.
Mohamed Younis 14:00
So, so then you were able to capture the spectrum of Tucker Carlson and Rachael Maddow to people like Cardi B or other artists and celebrities that have been extremely outspoken on social and political issues and have certainly caught, you know, the following and the focus of many of their fans in coming to that person, not just for art but also for a perspective. One of the things we found in other research, Sarah, that you helped lead is understanding how young people are consuming news differently. In general, we know that, thanks to your work, that younger people are more likely to get their news from social media, for example, than their elders. In this study, were there any unique kind of aspects to the behavior or perspectives of young people compared to others?
Sarah Fioroni 14:47
Oh, it, it mapped on exactly to some of our previous work. So younger Americans -- and when I say younger Americans, looking mostly at Gen Z and millennial generations of Americans -- they were much less likely to say that their top followed individual was a journalist. Whereas Americans over the age of 50 were really naming a lot of kind of mainstream journalists as their top individual that they follow. They were much more likely to list social media influencers as their No. 1 person to follow than older Americans. And they were more, much more likely to say that whoever the individual was that they follow most that they followed that person on social media -- that was higher for younger Americans than it was for older Americans.
Sarah Fioroni 15:31
There was also some interesting peeks, you know, like younger Americans were following more comedians, which I think is kind of an interesting thing and sort of the evolution of sort of side news culture and this blend of news and comedy that we have today. And in terms of why young people follow these individuals, we saw some interesting differences there too. Gen Z in particular want to be entertained. They were the highest group that said, “I follow this person because they entertain me,” which is important, right? And I think that's something that, that maybe a traditional thought around journalism is that that's somehow a separate thing, right? There's entertainment and then there's news. But in terms of the huge following that people have today when they blend those things together, like John Oliver, Colbert, you know, everyone, it makes sense, right? You want to be able to be engaged in the material while you're learning it. So that stood out. And then, younger Americans were also more likely actually to say that this one individual they followed offered them a perspective outside of news, and that that person had beliefs that were different than their own, which is kind of unique. Older Americans were much less likely to say that they followed that individual because they offered a different perspective. So there's something interesting going on there about, you know, being entertained, kind of getting a different take and actually getting a straight-up different opinion through some of these social media influencers that young people follow.
Mohamed Younis 16:59
I just, I think that's so fascinating because one of the, one of my favorite conversations we've had, Sarah, in the past about this is we talk about the good old days of Edward R. Murrow and how objective it was. But from another perspective, you know, that wasn't very objective; that was a very specific professional as, you know, from here to, to next week. But it was a very specific White Anglo-Saxon Protestant perspective on America and the world and what was happening. And when you think about the behavior of young people and the, now the role of comedy, really in satire that it's playing in people holding, you know, power to account, trying to hold really influential people in government more accountable, but going to comedians and artists, not necessarily to somebody that's, you know, studied how to be a journalist at the finest institutions the world has to offer.
Mohamed Younis 17:49
We also see a moment right now around us where we have so many new news startup organizations, companies that are starting up news ventures that are solely really aimed at addressing this trust and news problem, right, presenting themselves as more objective, as more global. One of the things, though, they're also presenting themselves as more human. So they're giving their actual journalists more of a platform, more of a face to the coverage. I wanted to just ask you in general, Sarah, do you think we're kind of in a turning point where those kinds of ventures are gonna bring back trusted news or has kind of the cat been let out of the bag, and we're just gonna continue to see more of these persona, personality-based news consumption habits?
Sarah Fioroni 18:34
Oh, that's an interesting question. Wish that I had a crystal ball on that one and that I could affirm that everything's gonna be OK. What I would say in response to that are two things. First, I do think that news startups and some of the adapted content to new platforms -- like email focus, the Smart Brevity®, things like that -- I think the, the novelty of them and the fact that they're starting with their consumers with a clean slate is a huge opportunity because, you know, Gallup and others have been tracking Americans’ attitudes towards traditional news for a long time. And even though we see this, this decline, and it's been getting steeper, it has been happening for a long time. So Americans’ unhappiness with the direction of news and their lack of trust in it -- just like lack of trust in institutions -- I mean, this isn't something that just suddenly came on the horizon; it's been slowly climbing. And so I think the novelty of some of the new options out there, just that, you know, itself helps kind of potentially build a new bridge for news consumers, especially younger news consumers that are looking for something different than maybe where their parents get their news or how they remember growing up getting the news.
Sarah Fioroni 19:51
But in terms of the Individualization of news, I think that, again, even though this is kind of the first big public study where we've really tried to measure it at a full scale, it also isn't a new phenomenon. Humans are social beings, right? We like turning to each other. We like getting opinions from each other. We like weighing in and, and kind of talking through, you know, how we make sense of the world. And so I think what's been happening is movement leaders, thought leaders, religious leaders, everybody now just has a huger platform that's cheaper and easier to access. And so I think turning to an individual that you trust to get commentary on what's happening in the world is a common theme that's now just amplified because we have all of this access and ability to do so.
Sarah Fioroni 20:37
But what I would say is my most hopeful take is that I actually think traditional news brands could leverage this and look at ways to lean into the individuals that work at their organizations that have built an independent brand or potentially partner with those who are outside of the journalism industry who have a good brand, just like I talked about with hockey. That's a great way I think to try to start bridging those faces that you trust and you recognize and that you want to see in the context of these really important institutions that put a lot of rigor and time in making sure that they're delivering us well-resourced information about what's happening. So I think there could be a really nice marriage of the two, you know, sort of the traditional and, and the new.
Mohamed Younis 21:26
That’s such a great way to wrap up this conversation. You mentioned that this is, challenge with trust in news has really been long building. Just for reference points for our listeners, during Nixon’s presidency, trust in the honesty of news in the United States was at seven in 10 -- seven in 10 Americans said they had trust in the honesty of news being presented to them. That seven in 10 has now -- gradually and slowly, but consistently -- dropped to three in 10. So it really has been long-building. And you’re right, it does come at a time when confidence in institutions across the board in the U.S. are in decline. And it’s hard to imagine, Sarah, how confidence in those institutions can be rebuilt without confidence in the free press coming back, because, as it is the tool of really holding those organizations and institutions to account and really shedding light on what they’re doing. Sarah, I couldn’t thank you enough for this work. Dr. Sarah Fioroni is Gallup senior consultant and leader of the latest work on news habits here in the United States, in partnership with Knight Foundation. Sarah, thanks for coming back on the podcast.
Sarah Fioroni 22:28
Thanks for having me.
Mohamed Younis 22:33
That’s our show. Thanks for tuning in. For more from Gallup, go to news.gallup.com and sign up for our newsletter, Front Page, where we break down all that Gallup is learning across the globe in one weekly 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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