People trust themselves more than they trust the news. They shouldn’t




If you’re reading this, you’re probably a news and politics junkie. Someone who reads multiple news sites a day, follows several news organizations on social media, and receives a few email newsletters.

Most people aren’t like this. A 2020 study found that news represents just 14 percent of Americans’ media consumption. Attention does pick up, however, during an election year. While roughly one-third of Americans closely follow the news in non-election years, 39 to 43 percent do so when there’s a presidential election, according to Gallup.

However, new research—and recent reporting about how artificial intelligence is changing the online information environment—suggests that even as people start tuning into the election, they could end up more misinformed, not less.

The reason: People have greater faith in their own abilities to “fact-check” the news than they have in the news itself. In the past year, we have published two academic studies that suggest this faith is misplaced, and that it actually leaves people more likely to believe misinformation.

People view journalism skeptically

There is a growing disconnect between how journalists see themselves and how people see journalists. Instead of perceiving journalists as watchdogs acting in the public’s best interest, people increasingly see journalists as elites who are acting in their own interests. Indeed, there’s been an explosion of research focused on news distrust over the past decade, and the consistent findings are that people increasingly feel compelled to discount the journalism they encounter because they believe it to be politically biasedeconomically compromised, or simply produced by out-of-touch elites. People believe journalists knowingly attempt to sensationalize the news to make more money or misrepresent the news to suit either a liberal or conservative perspective. To be sure, this research is hardly consistent–trust in news is higher in some countries than in others, for example, and some scholars have even questioned the legitimacy of a so-called “trust crisis” in journalism altogether. Yet even as scholars and journalism stakeholders debate the scale of the problem, many have devoted a great deal of resources to understanding its origins and implications, as well as finding solutions

Last year, two of us (Nelson and Lewis) published a peer-reviewed study in New Media & Society drawing on interviews with a diverse sample of U.S. adults to understand the reasons behind people’s distrust of news and the ways in which that distrust impacts their interactions with news. Our subjects were indeed extremely cynical when it came to the news they consumed. As one interviewee said: “It’s all slanted.” Another similarly explained that, when it comes to journalism, “I’m always skeptical.”

Yet, this skepticism did not appear to lead our respondents to avoid the news. Instead of decreasing people’s time spent with news, this distrust simply increased their sense that consuming the news was just a first step in determining what was actually going on in the world around them. People described the importance of “doing their own research” to corroborate what they came across in the news they consumed so that they wouldn’t be deceived by journalists who either unintentionally or deliberately aspired to deceive them.

How did this fact-checking unfold? In the absence of faith in journalists to report the news honestly and accurately, our interviewees turned to digital platforms to help them in their own attempts at improvised fact-checking. One, for example, described turning to Google to “fact-check” the news he was watching on television in real time. “You shouldn’t take the article as gospel,” another said. “You should still do some research and determine if what they’re saying is correct.”

Unfortunately, not everyone has the skills to engage in this sort of informal fact-checking in a way that will actually lead them closer to the truth, rather than further from it. People’s own limitations are further compounded by the shortcomings of the platforms themselves. There is growing evidence that Google, for example, has become “rife with fraudulent search results” and has been “taken over by low-quality SEO spam.” The rise of generative artificial intelligence seems to be making the problem even worse

The pitfalls of “doing your own research”

In light of these circumstances, we should not be surprised by the recent research, published in a peer-reviewed study earlier this year in Nature, revealing that people’s attempts to “fact-check” the news actually leaves them more likely to believe misinformation, rather than less. 

Seguir leyendo: Columbia Journalism Review

Imagen de Gordon Johnson en Pixabay