Not Necessarily the News: Our American Preference for the News Today

Frank Islam & Ed Crego
12 min readJun 15, 2023
Image Credits: Tom de Boor, Adobe, New York Times, Washington Post, et al

Not Necessarily the News was a satirical HBO comedy series that ran from 1983 to 1990. A small segment of Americans turned to the show back then to see the news spoofed in skits and altered actual news coverage as entertainment.

Fast forward four decades to 2023, and what a large segment of the American public is turning to today as their source for the news is Not Necessarily the News. This was revealed in a national survey conducted by the Gallup and Knight Foundation in October 2022.

Gallup and Knight Foundation News and Information Findings

The Knight Foundation summarized the findings from that survey in in a three-part series of articles published in late April. The first is titled, “From Institutions to Individuals: How Americans are Now Looking to Public Figures for News and Information.”

Sarah Fioroni opens that article by writing,

The American public’s trust in institutions continues to erode — particularly confidence in organizations that provide news and information. Yet, a new study from Gallup and Knight Foundation finds that many Americans turn to individuals with public platforms for information and place a great deal of trust in these individuals.

The survey for the study defined public individuals as “people who have public influence, for example a celebrity, journalist, academic expert, show host, online influencer, or business leader.”

Fioroni points out that

  • An overwhelming majority of U.S. adults (89%) report following a public individual for news or other information.
  • 68% of the public says they trust news organizations or outlets more than public individuals, but more than three in ten American say they trust public individuals more.
  • There is almost an equal split on who is trusted for commentary and analysis on the news or political and social issues: 52% of the public say news organizations. 47% say public individuals.

The second article in the Knight Foundation series written by Justin McCarthy names names.

The survey respondents were asked to think about and write in the name of the one public individual they follow most. The 89% who follow a public individual wrote in more than 900 unique individual names.

The top 20 names for those individuals cited most frequently are listed below, along with the number of mentions for each.

According to McCarthy, Carlson and Maddow got “about 3% each” of the total mentions from respondents. Hannity, Noah, Shapiro, Colbert, Holt, Oliver, and Muir got “roughly 1% each.”

McCarthy doesn’t break it out this way, but in our opinion, the only individuals in the top 20 who would be considered traditional television news journalists would be Lester Holt of NBC News and David Muir of ABC News. There are no newspaper journalists among the top 20.

That tells a story which McCarthy does highlight: 49% of Americans get information from their most followed public individual via cable or streaming television. 41% via social media. Only 20% via newspapers or magazines.

McCarthy tells another important story regarding the nature and future of the news in his concluding comments, where he writes:

While many turn to them for the news itself, Americans are more likely to seek commentary analysis about the news from their top public individual. However, public individuals appear to be serving a need not met by traditional news sources. Three in four Americans report they follow their top public individual because that person provides a perspective not found in traditional news outlets.

The third and final article of the Knight Foundation series, written by Telli Davoodi, makes it clear that the reasons we Americans turn to the public individuals we do as sources of news and information is because of who they are and who we are as consumers of news and information.

Davoodi opens her piece explaining that Americans turn to the public individuals they do because they “like their personality” (80%) and “trust them” (79%). Or, as noted above, for a perspective they “can’t find in traditional news outlets.”

Davoodi emphasizes, “However, there are important differences in why certain Americans turn to these individuals depending on age and political party identity.” Here are some of the differences she highlights:

  • Gen Z (ages 18- 26) are much more likely to be driven to follow public individuals for entertainment value (over 20% points higher) than Baby Boomers (ages 58–76) and members of the Silent Generation (age 77 or older). And, they also are more likely than older generations to follow an individual with similar or differing views than their own.
  • Adults 58 and older are “least likely to follow an individual to get exposure to beliefs and opinions different than their own.” In contrast, they report they are much more likely to follow the top public individual they do because the individual works for a trusted company or organization. 57% of Baby Boomer and 63% of the Silent Generation are motivated by trust for the organization their public individual works for, compared to 38% of Gen Z.
  • Just as there is an age divide. There is a political divide. 79 percent of all Republicans report following their top public individual because they represent “people like me,” compared to 63% of Democrats and 57% of Independents. Similarly, Republicans say their top public individual represents a perspective they can’t find in the traditional news media, compared to 74% of Independents and 67% of Democrats.

The Troubled State of the News Industry

The Gallup and Knight Foundation study indicates that the news industry is in a troubled state. We published a three-part series of blogs on that troubled state in August of 2022.

Key findings from research on the status of the industry presented in those blogs includes the following;

  • About 4 in 10 Americans engage in “selective news avoidance.” They ration or limit their exposure to news — or at least certain types of news. Both “left leaning’ and “right leaning” Americans avoid the news. But with the exception of avoiding the news because it “brings down my mood,’ the reasons for that avoidance vary substantially by the direction in which one leans. For example, only 20% of left leaners avoid the news because it “is untrustworthy or biased” compared to 65% of right leaners. (Source: Reuters Institute Digital Media Report. 2022).
  • Local TV news remains well-trusted and TV news in general is fairly well trusted. But the trust in cable news channels such as Fox News and CNN and news brands such as The New York Times and the Washington Post is bifurcated. (Source: Reuters Institute Digital Media Report, 2022).
  • In this third decade of the 21st century, there has been a continuing decline of confidence and trust in newspapers and news organizations. (Sources: Gallup Poll and Pew Research Center).
  • Journalists themselves say that the news industry is “struggling” and in “chaos.” (Source: Pew Research Center survey of journalists in the first quarter of 2022).
  • There is a significant difference between how well journalists and the public think their industry does in performing its core functions. For example, 65% of journalists say that the industry does a “very/somewhat good” job of “reporting the news accurately” compared to 35% of U.S. adults. (Source: Pew Research Center survey of journalists in the first quarter of 2022).

The Gallup and Knight Foundation study adds new dimensions and insights on the troubled state of the news industry. Americans are not only engaging in selective news avoidance, they are also replacing news sources with sources from outside of the news industry.

The third article in the three-part Gallup and Knight Foundation series concludes as follows:

Tracking which public individuals Americans turn to most often and why provides researchers and practitioners insight into the diverse ways the public gets information today. How might legacy news brands capitalize on the popularity of their most followed journalists or hosts? How might partnerships between news organizations and public influencers draw in new audiences. These are important considerations for the future of the news industry.

Those are important considerations to build market or audience share to contribute to building the future of the news industry. Of greater importance, however, is taking actions to ensure that the news industry continues to fulfill its fundamental mission in our democratic society.

We identify three broad courses of action to accomplish this in the third and final blog of our series on the news. They are:

  • Rebuild Trust in the News Media
  • Declare War on Disinformation and Social Media Abuse
  • Cultivate the News Consumer

Even though there is bad news about the troubled state of the news industry in general, the good news is that there are numerous initiatives underway and recommendations proposed that can be drawn upon in order to implement each of those courses of action successfully.

We cite some of the more salient resources for accomplishing this in our earlier blog. In this blog, because of the disturbing findings from the Gallup and Knight Foundation study, we turn our attention from ensuring the future of the news industry to ensuring the future of our American democracy.

Ensuring the Future of Our American Democracy

The Gallup and Knight Foundation findings showing Americans turning away from the news to public individuals as their preferred source of information are disturbing because they represent a significant threat to the future of our American democracy. Why do we say and believe this?

It is because American democracy does not exist because of the news media, but it could not exist without it. In the mid-1700’s, newspapers played a pivotal role in providing information in the run-up to the Revolutionary War.

The importance of this role is enshrined in the first Amendment to the Constitution which states, “Congress shall make no law abridging freedom of speech or the press.” In 1787, Thomas Jefferson wrote, “The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should say I would not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

In 2023, if the proponents of fake news and conspiracy theories had it their way, Thomas Jefferson would not be able to exercise a preference between the government and newspapers. They would eliminate both.

They would elevate their free speech and their personal freedoms above all else and subjugate any who disagreed with them. They would storm the U.S. Capitol, proclaiming that this blatant act of domestic terrorism was an attempt to salvage the American democracy. They would be devoted followers of some public individuals who advocate reverse engineering to take the America back to simpler, whiter, and less equal times.

These are dangerous times for democracy. Disinformation disseminators and social media abusers are putting democracy’s future at risk. They and their messages must not be ignored.

They must be confronted and contested. Doing this should be a shared responsibility, with roles to be played by many, including the news industry, government, educators, the business and nonprofit sectors, and concerned citizens.

The news industry must continue to be the purveyor of truthful news to stand as a strong and stark counterpoint to fake news. Journalists must also call out the purveyors of fake news, whether they be a former president, political provocateurs, divisive social media outlets, or podcast miscreants.

The other partners in this war against those who would destroy democracy can stand and deliver by collaborating to implement the recommendations put forward in documents such as the Knight Commission’s Informing Communities: Sustaining Democracy in the Digital Age report and the Aspen Institute Commission on Information Disorder Final Report.

These actions are essential to block the forward progress of those who would elevate and advance autocratic ideas and practices. They will be insufficient, though, to address the more insidious across-the-board decline in positive civic learning and engagement in this 21st century.

The Gallup and Knight Foundation’s findings show that many Americans would rather listen to and learn from right and left-wing commentators, entertaining talk show hosts, and others, such as political leaders, than to do the necessary work to be what we refer to as a 21st century citizen. The 21st century citizen is: Interested, Issue-Oriented, Informed, Independent and Involved.

The 21st century citizen is a good citizen who understands that citizenship is not a partisan or abstract concept. Unfortunately, in the U.S today we are failing to develop the knowledge, skills, and dispositions necessary for good citizenship

Richard Haass, President of the nonpartisan Council on Foreign Relations, makes this point in his new book, The Bill of Obligations: The Ten Habits of Good Citizens. In his chapter on teaching civics, he stresses the need to do a much better job in civic education, stating, “What worries me and what in no small part gave rise to this book is that we are failing to fulfill the obligation to pass down the essentials of what it means to be an American and a citizen of the United States.”

Danielle Allen, professor of political philosophy, ethics and public policy at the Harvard Graduate school of Education, shares Hass’ and our perspective. In her recent March 23 op-ed column for the Washington Post she writes,

For the past three decades, NAEP (National Association of Education Progress) results have shown a need to turn things around for civic education. The results come out, and cries go up for more investment in civic learning. But nothing has changed. And now the slope of learning is going down.

But our problem isn’t just underinvestment. It’s that for three decades adults have been fighting bitterly about what to teach by way of civic education, and the result is that kids don’t get taught much at all.

It’s time to say we’ve hit bottom and we’re going to turn things around. Can we do that?

Professor Allen believes it can be and so do we. Her answer is the Educating for American Democracy Roadmap, which provides “a consensus statement with national support about what should be in civic education — and how we should teach.”

Allen was the principal investigator and author of the Roadmap, which was published in 2021. The Roadmap is inquiry-based and constructed around seven themes. It identifies actions and resources for each theme.

We are familiar with the Roadmap, and without question it is a critical and emerging tool in the civic education arsenal for grades K-12. There are other civic education resources in that arsenal available and accessible free to teachers and students as well. Two that we are familiar with, because of Ed Crego’s involvement with them, are the Citizen U ® TPS Civics Resource Center and the Our American Voice ® Middle School Civics Curriculum.

The Civics Resource Center is operated by the Barat Education Foundation through a grant from the Library of Congress Teaching with Primary Sources (TPS) Program. The Center features a Lesson Library containing more than 200 inquiry-based lessons developed by TPS consortium partners and teachers from across the country. All of the lessons meet rigorous inclusion criteria and correlate with national standards.

The OAV Civics Curriculum is a comprehensive and integrated inquiry-based program in which middle students learn four core principles of democracy. It addresses 10 topics and has a basic, intermediate, and advanced lesson for each topic. One of the lessons, for example, covers News, Perspective, and Bias.

OAV students and all of the students who benefit from a quality civic learning experience understand the role that objective and accurate news and information plays in enabling and empowering them to exercise their rights and responsibilities as good citizens in our American democracy. Sadly, as Richard Haass and Danielle Allen highlight, far too few young people and adults have had a quality civic learning experience.

Truth be told, the U.S. suffers from a huge civic learning and engagement deficit. In states across this country, politicians have passed legislation and parents, in parallel, have taken actions that include banning books, homogenizing curriculum, limiting what teachers are allowed to say in the classroom, and more, all of which will significantly increase the size of that deficit. These are ominous signs of a democracy in decline.

That decline can begin to be reversed though the passage of the Civics Secures Democracy Act, which would provide a $1 billion investment to expand civic education across K-12 and higher education. If the Act is not passed, democracy will continue to decline, and along with it the news industry.

The Gallup and Knight Foundation study indicates that we are approaching a precipice. If we choose to ignore that fact and go over the cliff at some point in the future, there will be no journalists left to tell that story.

Democracy will not die in darkness. It will die in giant shadows cast by public individuals and in the minds of those who confuse those shadows as the truth or accept them as an adequate substitute for the 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.

--

--

Frank Islam & Ed Crego

Frank Islam is an entrepreneur, investor and philanthropist. Ed Crego is a management consultant. Both are leaders of the 21st century citizenship movement.