One-Third of Americans Rely on News They Don’t Even Trust

Consumers know their sources aren't reliable, but they choose them anyway, a new study finds.

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Why you should care

Because the media industry's survival may depend on a better understanding of what makes its consumers tick.

Married people are less likely to seek opposing viewpoints than singles. Conservatives are more likely to use media outlets outside their political persuasion. Women, minorities and those without college degrees are optimistic, many saying the news is more reliable than it was in the past.

Those are just a few of the takeaways from a RAND Corporation report based on a national survey of 2,543 Americans examining the factors that play into choices people make about news they consume. But perhaps the most shocking finding was one that challenges conventional wisdom about why some people distrust the news.

One-third of Americans knowingly rely on news platforms they consider to be less than reliable.

That finding contradicts an assumption in many newsrooms that if only journalists could educate consumers better, readers would make more informed choices about the news sources they trust. The reality, judging by the RAND study, is that many Americans are very much aware that the news they rely on is untrustworthy — yet still they choose to consume it.

“A lack of time and competing demands may explain why a third of Americans turn to news sources they deem less reliable, which suggests improving the quality of news content or teaching people how to ‘better consume’ news isn’t enough to address Truth Decay,” said Jennifer Kavanagh, a senior political scientist and co-author of the report. “Media companies and other news providers may need to provide more easily accessible and digestible ways for individuals to consume high-quality investigative journalism.”

The study also found that 41 percent of Americans believe the news has become “less reliable,” which matches the growing antagonism toward journalists, from the Oval Office on down. “It’s sort of this glass half-full, half-empty thing,” says Michael Pollard, a RAND sociologist and the report’s lead author, noting that some 44 percent believed the news was “just as reliable” as in the past. “That, to me, seems like a significant amount of the population is losing faith.”

To be clear, it’s not all dour. One promising sign was that, of the 15 percent that said the news has actually improved, most came from traditionally underrepresented, minority communities. That’s a positive development, given the historical distrust between those groups and news-gathering operations.

Kelly McBride, senior vice president at the Poynter Institute, notes that people still show tremendous trust in their local news sources. When respondents are asked about “the media” in national surveys, like the RAND one, they conjure up images of “national political reporters” rather than their friendly neighborhood newshound. “They then say, ‘oh, well, of course, I don’t trust them,’” McBride says.

Pollard agrees that the next step is to dig deeper into specific outlets, which may mark the distinction McBride notes. It’s also worth noting that, for most of the people who said they used sources they knew were unreliable, their preferred medium was social media sites or friends.

If given the chance to follow up, the study authors would like to ask whether people did so out of mere convenience or out of a perception that news was relatively all the same regardless. They also hope to examine the more popular outlets and assess their subjectivity: how much opinion reporting do they do, how much is fact-based? “Can we look at the menu of outlets that people are actually consuming, and determine if it is all a similar bent, or if they diversify?” Pollard asks.

A deeper questioning of why consumers act the way they do could lead to some surprising results, McBride says. For instance, she notes that media outlets with a predominantly left-leaning audience may read these results and determine that their readers really aren’t all that interested in seeing opposing viewpoints.

While the idea of tailoring coverage to such whims may seem appalling to journalists raised with the belief that objectivity is of the utmost importance, McBride notes that “objectivity” also grew in response to market demand. “It was seen as good for readers at the time, and frankly, it was good for advertisers,” who wanted to be able to hawk their wares to Republicans and Democrats alike, she says.

While she’s not necessarily advocating that outlets swing politically for mass appeal, her larger point is that outlets often struggle to understand what their audience actually finds useful and meaningful. Studies like this are helping to fill in the gaps, but there is still a lot left to learn. And it’s a conversation worth having — after all, as mass layoffs and media consolidations continue, the very survival of the industry may rely on finding the right answers.

Correction: Michael Pollard’s name was initially misspelled in this article.

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