Journalism experts reflect on disinformation, mistrust and January 6 insurgency

(WHTM) – On January 6, 2021, rioters stormed the United States Capitol. This year, on the anniversary of that event, the nation reflects on the insurgency and the events that led to it, including the spread of unsubstantiated allegations of voter fraud. abc27 spoke to journalism experts at several US universities about the connection between this spread of disinformation and growing mistrust of the media.

Distrust of the media is a growing problem, according to several journalism experts. A Pew research center survey published in August 2021 found that only 58% of American adults have “at least some” confidence in information from national news agencies, up from 65% in 2019.

The trend is also valid for the local media; 75% of Americans noted they had “at least some” confidence in local media reports in 2021, up from 82% in 2016 and 79% in 2019, according to the Pew Research Center study.

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

“It’s the relationship between distrust of the mainstream media and who you trust,” Edgerly said. In an age when people are inundated with information from almost endless sources on a daily basis, personal biases can influence the information people choose to consume.

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

The Pew Research Center survey mentioned above revealed that while trust in national and local media has declined overall, far fewer independent Republicans and Republicans (35% in 2021) have at least some confidence in national media than Democrats and independent Democrats (78% in 2021).

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

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

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

Sundar, Kreiss and Edgerly noted that social media creates a unique ground for the dissemination of information – and disinformation -. It is a platform where fact and fiction can easily be intertwined.

Last year, Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen claimed the platform emphasizes content that divides and allows the spread of disinformation. While officials previously worried about disinformation that could influence the election, Edgerly says the Capitol Riot of January 6, 2021 demonstrated another impact of disinformation.

“Before the election, we were very concerned about misinformation affecting the way people vote, or misinformation can affect people’s behavior as to whether or not they will vote… and now we have another example – an example very extreme – of a group of people who can be pressured into some extreme form of action that is really mobilized by false information and also by a group mentality, ”Edgerly said.

So where do news seekers place their trust if not in the traditional national or local news media? Edgerly says politicians, press secretaries and commentators are starting to take on the roles that newspapers or the big TV channels once played.

Kreiss says these 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 these people shared false information about the 2020 election results, they had an audience ready to believe them.

“You get sources that people trust, a narrative that people are kind of inclined to believe, and then you initiate some sort of action, whether it’s explicitly led or people on the ground hang around, the mentality social sort of decides, “Let’s do something about this. “And that’s where you get this really dangerous interplay of forces and what helps explain what happened on January 6,” Edgerly said.

Be a conscientious media consumer

Edgerly, Kreiss and Sundar claim that while reporters are not always perfect, reporters working for reputable news organizations generally spend more time and effort selecting knowledgeable sources and confirming details than they would. someone who posts their opinion on social media.

Results of a Pew research center survey published in June 2021 found that half of American adults say the news agency that publishes an article is a very important factor in determining whether an article is trustworthy (47% Republican, 55% Democrat). Respondents said the second most important factor was the sources cited in the article (44% Republicans, 51% Democrats).

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

Edgerly, Kreiss, and Sundar offered some tips on being a conscientious media consumer to avoid falling into the trap or spreading 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 that audiences consume and share, so too can media bias influence the stories that are published. Kreiss says that media bias graphics and fact-checking sites can be useful tools when evaluating different news media sources.

Edgerly says media bias charts can be a useful reference for organizing crowded media space, although they shouldn’t be the only resource people consider when reviewing media.

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

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


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