It’s No Secret: News in America is in Trouble

I’ve Got a Secret was an American TV panel game show that ran from the early ‘50‘s to the later 60’s. On the show, the panel tried to guess the secret of a contestant by asking a series of questions.

More than one-half a century later, we do not have to ask investigative journalist Amanda Ripley any questions to guess her secret. In the opening of her widely circulated Washington Post column, she tells us:

“I have a secret. I kept it hidden for longer than I care to admit. It felt unprofessional, vaguely shameful. It wasn’t who I wanted to be.

But here it is: I’ve been actively avoiding the news for years.”

Ripley confessed “half a dozen years ago…The news started to get under my skin.”

Early on in her piece, Ripley notes that she is not the only one avoiding the news these days, citing a new report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism (Reuters Institute or The Institute ), which found “about 4 out of 10 Americans sometimes or often avoid the news — a higher rate than at least 30 other countries.” She goes on to explain that according to the survey, people avoid the news because “it’s repetitive and dispiriting, often of dubious credibility, and it leaves people feeling powerless.”

Ms. Ripley’s personal story, focus on America, listing of some of the reasons for avoiding the news, in conjunction with our own involvement in supporting the news media, caused us to take a deeper dive into the research and findings of the Reuters Institute.

Here’s what we found in the Executive Summary and Key Findings Section of the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2022:

The survey research disclosed that “While the majority of people across countries remain engaged and use the news regularly, we find that many also increasingly choose to ration or limit their exposure to it — or at least certain types of news. The Institute defined this behavior as selective news avoidance.

The USA ranks higher in terms of selective news avoidance at 42% vs the all-country average of 38%. But, other countries such as Brazil (56%), U.K (46%), and Australia (41%) rank higher as well.

Interestingly, the U.S.A. avoidance in 2017, the first year of the Reuters Institute survey, was 38% versus an all country average of 29%. A quick review of the available data suggests that the U.S.A. went up much less proportionally in terms of avoidance than most other countries surveyed in the time period from 2017- 2022.

The most common reasons for selective news avoidance across all “markets” were

  • 43% (There is too much politics or COVID-19)
  • 36% (News has a negative effect on mood)
  • 29% (Worn out by the amount of news)
  • 29% (The news is untrustworthy or biased)
  • 17% (It leads to arguments I’d rather avoid)
  • 16% (There is nothing I can do with the information)

“Concerns about the news having a negative effect on their mood are higher amongst avoiders in the United Kingdom (55%) and United States (49%) than they are elsewhere.”

The Executive Summary hones in on the reasons for news avoidance by “political leaning” in the USA, using responses from 327 left-leaning and 336 right-leaning individuals. As shown in the table below, with the exception of “brings down my mood,” there are dramatic differences by the direction in which one leans.

The Executive Summary highlights that “after President Donald Trump’s talk about a liberal mainstream media peddling ‘fake news’ “the difference between trust in the news by political leaning went from a difference of 10 points in 2015 (Left = 35%. Right = 25%) to a difference of 25 points in 2022 (Left = 39%. Right = 14%).

An examination of the two-page country analysis and data for the USA in The Institute Report prepared by Joy Jenkins, University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Lucas Graves, University of Wisconsin-Madison, provides the following insights:

“The share of Americans who trust news generally fell 3 pp, to 26%, while only 41% now say they trust the news they themselves use.”

“Local television news remains well trusted, but most other brands have a polarized reputation, especially cable news channels such as Fox News and CNN.”

In addition to local TV news, TV news in general is fairly well trusted as is the Wall Street Journal. The bifurcated nature of trust for other selected news brands are demonstrated in the table which follows.

In summary, the Reuters Institute Report paints a picture of a divided America in which the news is in trouble. This troubled condition is also reflected in surveys by the Gallup organization and Pew Research.

In June of this year, Gallup measured confidence in 16 major U.S. institutions. The high score for U.S. adults who expressed “a great deal” or “quite of lot” of confidence in these institutions was 68% for small business and the low score was 7% for Congress. The average confidence level across all institutions was 27%, which was three points below the prior low of 2014.

The score for newspapers in the Gallup poll was 21%. Similar to the Reuters research, the split in confidence by party was substantial, with only 5% of Republicans having confidence in newspapers, compared to 35% of Democrats.

The findings of the Pew Research Center on trust in the media, or lack thereof, mirror and reinforce the Reuters Institute and Gallup findings. Pew’s last national survey on trust in the media, conducted in June 2021, disclosed that “In just five years, the percentage of Republicans with at least some trust in national news organizations has been cut in half, dropping from 70% in 2016 to 35% this year”(2021). During those same five years, Democrat trust remained relatively stable, “ranging somewhere between 78% and 86%.”

Pew found that there was a partisan divide on local news as well, “though to a lesser extent. 84% of Democrats had at least some trust in the information from local news compared to 66% of Republicans.

The evidence abounds. It’s no secret that American news is in a troubled state.

Is this troubled state all the fault of the news media? Absolutely not. Does it have some problems? Definitely.

Amanda Ripley provides her constructive perspective on the nature of those problems in her article and presents recommendations to address them. Thankfully, she did not keep her thoughts a secret.

We will not keep our thoughts on this complex issue a secret either. In our next blog, to be posted on August 11, we will examine the current status and conditions of the news industry. And, in the third and final blog in this series to be posted August 18, we will provide our improvement suggestions.

Log back in on those dates for the “breaking news.”

Originally published by the Frank Islam Institute for 21st Century Citizenship. For more information on what 21st century citizenship entails, and to see exemplars from around the world, please visit our website.

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