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Dec. 10, 2020, 1:30 p.m.
LINK: www.journalism.org  ➚   |   Posted by: Sarah Scire   |   December 10, 2020

If you’ve seen surveys about news consumption and thought they sounded pretty bleak, I have some bad news.

A new, yearlong analysis from the Pew Research Center indicates there is “strong evidence” self-reported numbers — low as they may seem — may be inflated.

This is apparently especially true for Americans. The authors — Michael Barthel, Amy Mitchell, Dorene Asare-Marfo, Courtney Kennedy, and Kirsten Worden — explain:

Many Americans say that following the news is “very important” to being a good citizen, and those who say this are more likely than others to overestimate their news consumption when their survey responses are compared with passive data tracked on their devices. This suggests that following the news is seen as a “socially desirable” behavior by many people, which may lead them to think aspirationally about their news consumption – i.e., how often they ideally intend to consume the news rather than how often they actually do – when answering survey questions about it.

Passive data collection about digital news consumption can address this tendency to overestimate, but having participants agree to researchers tracking their online activity comes with its own challenges. Often, this type of collection misses in-app news consumption (when someone reads a news story they’ve found on Twitter or another social media app) and news consumption that happens on alternate devices (like a personal tablet or work laptop) not included in the study.

The report also found that there was confusion over which organizations generate news and original reporting in the first place.

Nearly a quarter of Americans (23 percent) could not correctly identify whether any of the six sources — ABC News, Wall Street Journal, HuffPost, Google News, Apple News, and Facebook — do original reporting. An additional 30 percent only answered one or two questions correctly.

The bright side (I guess?) is that Americans seem to know what they don’t know; only 9 percent said they feel “very confident” they can identify organizations that do original reporting.

Ultimately, the authors are interested in one big question: Moving forward, how can we improve our ability to accurately measure news consumption?

The report found that asking general questions — “In the past year, have you paid for news?” — won’t cut it. To that query, 83 percent of Americans answered no. But when asked more specific questions, 19 percent of that group said they’d purchased a “subscription to a newspaper, magazine, or news website” in the past year and 6 percent said they’d donated to a public broadcaster or other news organization.

The study also found that adding a specific reference period — choosing “in the past week” rather than “in a typical week” — resulted in a more accurate measurements. Similarly, asking “how many days a week?” yielded better results than asking respondents to choose from “often, sometimes, rarely, or never.”

Some distinctions were lost on participants and adding examples of news sources helped … but only in some cases.

One example? Participants don’t always know the difference between national network TV and cable TV news stations so including “Cable TV news, such as CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC” yielded more accurate results than merely leaving the choice as “Cable TV.” By contrast, adding examples to “daily newspapers, such as The New York Times” didn’t produce a significant improvement; people seem to be able to come up with their own examples just fine.

You can read the full report here.

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