More than 80 percent of Americans believe the news media has an important role to play in U.S. democracy, but fewer than half (44 percent) say they can identify a news source that reports the news objectively, a report from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and Gallup finds.
Based on a survey of more than nineteen thousand Americans, the report, American Views: Trust, Media and Democracy (71 pages, PDF), found that 84 percent of respondents believed the news media play a "critical" (44 percent) or "very important" (40 percent) role in U.S. democracy. However, 43 percent of respondents — including 69 percent of Republicans, 47 percent of independents, and 17 percent of Democrats — said the news media are fulfilling that role "very poorly/poorly," while only 28 percent — including 50 percent of Democrats, 23 percent of independents, and 10 percent of Republicans — said the news media are performing "very well/well." Similarly, while 45 percent of respondents perceived "a great deal" of political bias in news coverage, up from 25 percent in 1989, Republicans (67 percent) were more likely to see bias than independents (46 percent) or Democrats (26 percent).
Funded by the Ford, Gates, Knight, and Open Society foundations, the survey also found that misinformation on the Internet (73 percent) was most widely seen as the major problem with news coverage today, followed by owners of news outlets attempting to influence the way news is reported (69 percent) and news organizations being too sensational in order to attract readers or viewers (66 percent). Only 32 percent of all respondents believed that most media outlets "are careful to separate fact from opinion" — down from 58 percent in 1984 — while just 27 percent of respondents said they felt "very confident" they could sort out facts from commentary or opinion. And while 56 percent of surveyed Americans saw fake news as "a very serious threat" to democracy, their definition of fake news varied, with 51 percent saying that accurate stories casting a politician or political group in a negative light was "sometimes 'fake news'."
The report also found that while a slight majority of respondents said modern news sources such as the Internet (57 percent), news aggregators (54 percent), and videos shot by ordinary people (58 percent) have had a positive effect on the news environment over the past decade, 54 percent said social media sites have had a negative effect. Similarly, while 57 percent of all respondents considered the algorithms news aggregators such as Google and Facebook use to select news stories for their users to be "a major problem" for democracy, they were divided over whether those platforms should be regulated (49 percent) or not (47 percent).
"While the media's role in our democracy is more important than ever, Americans' views on the media are increasingly conflicted and polarized in an era of information explosion, changing news habits, and new forms of technology-mediated conversation," said Sam Gill, vice president for communities and impact at the Knight Foundation. "Understanding these issues is essential to ensuring a strong democracy."
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