June 11, 2018

The latest large-scale survey of public attitudes toward journalism and journalists' view of the public shows diverging perceptions of what is good practice and what readers and viewers actually get.

The biggest gaps, though, are not what you might think. Both consumers and news producers rate accuracy and clarity about the sources of information highly, according to a survey of more than 2,000 members of the public and 1,000 journalists by the American Press Institute and the AP-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

Some big differences emerged when the public was asked about their familiarity with an assortment of key journalistic terms. Predictably there was a range with nearly nine of out 10 knowing what breaking news means but 57 percent unsure what native advertising is and 50 percent what an op-ed is.

But for each of the nine terms tested, journalists thought confusion among the public was worse than reported by those surveyed. The journalists way overestimated confusion on four concepts:

  • The difference between an analyst and a commentator.
  • The difference between a reporter and a columnist.
  • The difference between an editorial and a news story.
  • The difference between a news story and a press release.

Fewer than a third of the public reported unfamiliarity with any of those distinctions. Journalists estimated that it would be 60 percent or more for each.

"Even though the public doesn't fully grasp many concepts of journalism, they are deeper and more active consumers than journalists think," Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, commented in a release of the results. 

Journalists can earn more trust, Rosenstiel said, "through initiatives to increase transparency, eliminate jargon and let the public participate in news."

Those surveyed wanted their news with some background and analysis (63 percent). Instead, many thought they often got commentary and opinion, which they find far less useful (42 percent). As a consequence, many avoid reading or listening to the more opinionated content they encounter.

To me this reinforces the finding of Pew Research State of the News Media reports and other studies: despite back and forth on the merits of conservative Fox versus liberal MSNBC and CNN programming, any of the three evening news broadcasts outdraws the audience of the three cable outlets combined.

Also while The New York Times and The Washington Post have been adding hundreds of thousands of digital subscribers with very aggressive and critical coverage of the Trump administration, down-the-middle reporting remains highly valued by a large slice of the public.

Fake news was not the main focus of the report, but journalists may be taken aback by the implication of what was found. The public has come to ascribe multiple meanings to the term.  The largest number, 71 percent, selected "made-up stories from news outlets that don't exist" as a form of fake news. But substantial numbers also thought that "Journalists from real news organizations making things up" (62 percent) and "stories that are unfair or sloppy" (43 percent) should be included.

That suggests that President Trump and his supporters have had considerable success expropriating the term from its original meaning. (And the differences among Trump supporters and opponents in interpreting what fake news is were not huge).

Two other findings of note:

  • More than half of those surveyed indicated that they knew what anonymous sourcing involved. But only 35 percent said that even their favorite outlets do a good job explaining the use of these sources.
  • Also while many think that journalism overall is on the wrong track, 32 percent said that they trust their favorite news organization more than they did a year ago.

The report is the latest from the two research organizations in a series on news audiences.  Another study a year ago found that differences in how Democrats and Republican consume news were relatively minor.

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Rick Edmonds is media business analyst for the Poynter Institute where he has done research and writing for the last fifteen years. His commentary on…
Rick Edmonds

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