(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 the Pew Research Center study.

Stephanie Edgerly, director of research and associate professor at Northwestern University’s 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 maybe 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.

Journalism and misinformation

“There’s been an increase in discourse about media criticism,” Edgerly said, which might contribute to people’s decreasing trust in mainstream media.  

“That’s not necessarily a bad thing. We want people to call out when the media does something wrong,” Edgerly said, “but if you just look at the number of stories that have been published in legacy media that talk about media bias, that is a narrative that we’re primed to be thinking about a little bit more.”  

News media has changed as journalists reflect and media platforms evolve, Edgerly said. She said that several decades ago, you could watch the evening news, and each TV station would be airing essentially the same content. 

“That’s the Walter Cronkite era of ‘And that’s the way it is.’ You didn’t see a different variation of ‘the way it is’ and have to be questioning which version is correct,” described Edgerly. 

Today there is a plethora of news media outlets and social media users offering various perspectives. As the media landscape changes, journalists have reflected on how best to provide coverage of meaningful issues while avoiding propagating harmful misinformation.  

Sundar said this is a complex challenge because “if you rebroadcast what the politician said, and if it’s false – even in a corrective (fact-checking) way – you are running the risk of potentially spreading that message even further.” 

Edgerly said journalists should think carefully before choosing to reiterate misinformation, especially if it hasn’t reached widespread discourse. “What becomes really dangerous with misinformation and disinformation on social media is when it transcends beyond fringe, alternative accounts to mainstream media accounts because that has a much wider audience,” she said.  

Sometimes misinformation isn’t lingering in the depths of social media, though. Edgerly explained that journalists have recently been grappling with how to handle unfounded claims coming from politicians, who in the past would have always been main sources for news coverage. 

“It used to be that anything a president said was newsworthy because it has implications for economics, markets, for political policy, for interactions with other countries, and I think President Trump really made news organizations think about what is newsworthy,” Edgerly said. 

In March of 2020, for example, several TV news stations cut away from a Trump press briefing on COVID-19 after facing criticism for the amount of time they showed the former president answering live questions during other events. Some networks cited concerns about Trump spreading misleading information as reasons for the decision. 

Journalism schools traditionally taught that every story should include every perspective, Edgerly explained. If one person said one thing in a story about which there are multiple different perspectives, then the story should include another person saying the opposite. 

“That worked for the particular moment or era of journalism that we were in, but that’s not the era that we’re in now,” Edgerly said, because that system means that “a very minority opinion gets equal coverage,” even if the opinion of the vocal minority is not backed up by verified research or by experts. 

While some people assert that journalists should present all perspectives and let consumers decide what to believe, others such as Edgerly and Kreiss say that news media has the power to amplify false, unverified, or misleading perspectives and, possibly, a responsibility to prevent that kind of misinformation from spreading by refraining from publishing it in the first place.  

When it comes to the events leading up to the Jan. 6 election, Kreiss says news media outlets were right to cover politicians’ concerns over whether the election was “free and fair” and the results were accurate in the weeks shortly after the election.  

“It’s their (politicians) right to raise questions…to bring legal challenges when it’s warranted, etc. All of that is entirely legitimate. You’re allowed to question an election after it happens, and journalists I think were right in those initial weeks to say, ‘Look, the Republican party is contesting these results of the election, it’s going to go through a formal legal process,’” Kreiss said.  

But, Kreiss said, after legal processes were completed and the results of the election were reaffirmed, media outlets should have considered no longer airing or publishing unsubstantiated claims coming from a vocal minority of Americans. 

Sundar noted that in a media environment where news outlets are competing for views and fighting for clicks on social media, audiences do hold sway over outlets’ coverage.  

“People in the first place are more polarized, and then the media are also very polarized in the current environment,” Sundar said. “In part that polarization is fueled by media themselves being polarized. And the reason why media are polarized is in some way reflected in the highly polarized clientele that they have.” 

A right-leaning or left-leaning outlet that started sharing more middle-of-the-road content, for example, would lose some of its viewers, Sundar said, as people like to consume media that reaffirm their views.  

In a time crowded with information, consuming media thoughtfully can help audiences sort through facts and falsehoods.

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.

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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