Journalism experts reflect on misinformation, mistrust, and the Jan. 6 insurrection

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FILE – People listen as President Donald Trump speaks during a rally Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)

(WHTM) — On Jan. 6, 2021, rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol. This year on the anniversary of that event, the nation is reflecting on the insurrection and the events that led up to it, including the spread of unsubstantiated claims of election fraud. abc27 spoke with journalism experts from several U.S. universities about how this spread of misinformation relates to increasing mistrust of news media.

Mistrust of news media is a growing issue, multiple journalism experts agree. A Pew Research Center survey published in August of 2021 found that just 58% of U.S. adults have “at least some” trust in information coming from national news organizations, down from 65% in 2019.

The trend holds for local media, too; 75% of Americans said they had “at least some” trust in information from local news outlets in 2021, down from 82% in 2016 and 79% in 2019, according to Pew Research Center study.

Stephanie Edgerly, director of research and associate professor at the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications, says this mistrust allows other, potentially less accurate sources of information to step in.

“It’s the relationship between distrust of mainstream media and who you give your trust to,” Edgerly said. In a time when people are flooded with information from almost infinite sources on a daily basis, personal biases may influence the information people choose to consume.

FILE – Rioters break television equipment outside the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana, File)

The Pew Research Center survey mentioned above found that while trust in national and local media declined overall, significantly fewer Republican and Republican-leaning independents (35% in 2021) have at least some trust in national media organizations than Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents (78% in 2021).

Daniel Kreiss, principal researcher at the Center for Information, Technology, and Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, says media consumers today are likely to turn to sources that support their pre-existing beliefs, and those sources may be less accurate than other reputable news media outlets.

“There’s also the phenomenon of filter bubble,” said S. Shyam Sundar, a professor, and co-director of the Media Effects Research Laboratory in the Donald P. Bellisario College of Communications at The Pennsylvania State University.

“We always get everything filtered to us in ways that are specific to our interests, so we personalize our media, and one of the big causes of us filtering is because we live in such an information-rich environment,” Sundar said.

Sundar, Kreiss, and Edgerly noted that social media creates a unique terrain for information — and misinformation — to spread. It’s a platform where fact and fiction can easily intermingle.

Last year, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen alleged that the platform emphasizes divisive content and enables the spread of misinformation. While officials had previously worried about misinformation potentially influencing elections, Edgerly says the Capitol riot on Jan. 6, 2021, demonstrated another impact of misinformation.

“Leading up to the election, we were very concerned about misinformation affecting how people are going to vote, or misinformation may be affecting people’s behavior in whether they will vote or not vote…and now we get another example — a very extreme example — of a group of people that can be compelled into an extreme form of action really mobilized by false information and also group mentality,” Edgerly said.

So where do people looking for information give their trust if not to mainstream national or local news media? Edgerly says politicians, press secretaries, and commentators are starting to take over the role that newspapers or major TV stations used to fill.

Kreiss says that those politicians can be major sources of misinformation, and Sundar points out that people are more likely to believe them if they confirm their own biases. So when those people shared false information about the 2020 election results, they had an audience ready to believe them.

“You get sources that people did trust, a narrative that people are sort of inclined to believe, and then you throw in some sort of action, whether it was explicitly directed or people on the ground, hanging out, social mentality sort of decides, ‘Let’s do something about this.’ And that’s where you get that really dangerous interaction of forces and what helps explain what happened Jan. 6,” Edgerly said.

Being a conscientious media consumer

Edgerly, Kreiss, and Sundar say that while journalists are not perfect all the time, reporters working for reputable news organizations do generally put more time and effort into selecting knowledgeable sources and confirming details than someone posting their opinion on social media might.

Results of a Pew Research Center survey published in June 2021 found that half of American adults say the news organization that publishes a story is a very important factor in determining whether a news story is trustworthy (47% Republican, 55% Democrat). Respondents said the next most important factor is the sources cited in the story (44% Republican, 51% Democrat).

The third most important factor, the Pew Research Center study found, was consumers’ gut instinct about the story (35% Republican, 26% Democrat).

Edgerly, Kreiss, and Sundar offered some tips for being a conscientious media consumer to avoid falling for or propagating misinformation. They encourage people to have a healthy dose of skepticism, especially for information shared by non-expert sources on social media.

As much as bias can play a role in the stories audiences consume and share, media bias can also influence the stories that are published. Kreiss says that media bias charts and fact-checking sites can be helpful tools when evaluating different news media sources.

Edgerly says media bias charts can be a helpful reference for organizing a crowded media space, although they should not be the only resource people consider when evaluating media.

Edgerly, Kreiss, and Sundar say other factors to consider when evaluating media could include:

  • The reliability and expertise of individuals or organizations cited in stories
  • Red flags like far-right or far-left bias of media outlets or sources
  • Longevity of the media outlet publishing the story
  • Inflammatory headlines
  • Any recent controveries surrounding the media outlet
  • Any monetary contributions, for example to political campaigns, by the media outlet

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