July 11, 2017

My news, your news, their news… But whose news can we trust?


We’ve written a lot about fake news in the wake of Donald Trump’s ascent to the presidency. But guess what — we’ve got more! A couple of weeks ago, the Reuters Institute released their Digital News Report for 2017, and what they found will shock you. Then again, considering our entrenchment in an age of aggressively polarized politics, personalized Google searches (wanna turn that shit off?), and politically-tinted Facebook feeds, maybe it won’t shock you. Drumroll, please…

The news is this: the people of the United States, ladies and gentlemen, don’t trust news. More aptly, we don’t trust the news — and most folks who aren’t you don’t trust your news, for that matter.

In one study, residents of thirty-six different countries were asked to indicate their levels of agreement with two statements: “I think you can trust most news most of the time,” and “I think I can trust most of the news I consume most of the time.” Where only thirty-eight percent of US respondents agreed with the first statement, fifty-eight percent agreed with the second. Overall, the US came in towards the tail end of the survey’s credulity index, with countries like Hungary (31%), France (30%), and South Korea (23%) ranking lower in terms of trust in general media.

Researchers also found that US residents are deeply divided along party lines — more so than any other polled country “where the left-right distinction is meaningful” (i.e. European nations, Australia, and the US). “Polarization scores” were created for each of these countries and then compared. The US, unsurprisingly, had the highest score among the countries polled (5.93, beating the next contender, Italy, by almost two full points). Further analysis of polarization tendencies revealed things like audience maps for top online news brands in the US, the UK, the Netherlands, Norway, Italy, and Spain.

Other studies delved into topics like news avoidance (fifty-seven percent of US respondents said they avoid the news because it can negatively impact their moods — and can anyone blame ’em?), social media and incidental exposure (nineteen percent of respondents from all countries said they consider Facebook “a useful source of news”), and sharing news through social media (both comments and shares on US social media have gone up between 2015 and 2017).

Some of the results are kind of bleak, but they raise a lot of important questions for us as Americans and citizens of the world. How can we mitigate the divisiveness, how do we break out of this “petri dish [of] ideological fake news”? Should we hold news outlets accountable for maintaining objectivity in their stories, or should we dutifully police our own tendencies to seek out only perspectives with which we agree? Should we reevaluate the ways we use technology to provide and spread information? (Asking for a friend.)

In any case, here’s a silver lining: people might share news on social media more often when they know their friends share their views (32%), but that’s not much higher than the percentage who will share news when they know friends disagree (27%). That’s something, right?



Delia Davis is an intern at Melville House.