This study employs a new approach for understanding trust. Rather than asking people about what makes news trustworthy in the abstract, we ground respondents by asking them 1) to focus on a topic they follow regularly, and, 2) to think about their favorite specific source for news on that topic.[ref Eighty‑nine percent of respondents identified two topics they followed and their favorite source for each topic, 8 percent identified one topic and their favorite source, and 3 percent did not identify a topic or source.]
The findings reveal that when trust is taken out of the abstract, there is a lot of nuance in how people assess sources. What makes something trustworthy and valuable differs depending on the topic and source.
There is one general exception to this: On every topic and regardless of the source, getting the facts right is critical.
How people rank specific trust factors varies by topic
Americans follow a wide range of news and information topics. When asked to select the two topics they follow most closely, the most popular choices are domestic issues[ref Domestic issues news includes the following topics: healthcare and medical information, science and technology, schools and education, the environment and natural disasters, business and the economy, and social issues like abortion, race, and gay rights.] (25 percent), national politics or government (22 percent), local news (13 percent), and traffic and weather (12 percent). Named by 10 percent or less are lifestyle topics[ref Lifestyle news includes the following topics: entertainment and celebrities, art and culture, hobbies, and lifestyle topics such as food, beauty, exercise, or parenting.] (10 percent), crime and public safety (8 percent), sports (7 percent), and foreign or international news (4 percent).
There are significant differences in the reasons people rely on different sources, depending on the topic.[ref A complete set of tables showing the importance of each factor by topic is included in Appendix A.]
The differences are particularly striking between political coverage and lifestyle news.
People are significantly more likely to cite the presence of expert sources and data (79 percent vs. 48 percent) and in‑depth reporting (77 percent versus 49 percent) as important reasons why they rely on a source for national politics than they are to say that about lifestyle news. Interestingly, they are also more likely to say it was very important that a news organization be concise and clear in its reporting for political news than for lifestyle coverage (80 percent vs. 55 percent).
They say they care more that lifestyle news, by contrast, is entertaining (53 percent) than they do about national politics (30 percent).
In focus groups, we even heard that accuracy mattered less when it came to lifestyle. “If it’s entertainment news, I won’t necessarily expect it to be factual but I’ll follow it if it’s entertaining and relevant,” said Kimberly, a lifestyle news consumer.
There are also significant differences between why people rely on a source for sports compared to lifestyle topics.
Expert sources rank higher for sports news (66 percent), for instance, than lifestyle (48 percent). So do in‑depth reporting (64 percent vs. 49 percent). People are also more likely to cite a key component of completeness — that it’s important that a news organization covers all the day’s events — when talking about sports than lifestyle news (61 percent vs. 40 percent).
There is one specific factor, however, where sports looks a good deal like lifestyle news — people rank that the news be entertaining about equally important for sports and lifestyle news when they choose their favorite sources.
With news about crime and public safety, people are far more likely to value coverage that contains their community and people like them than they are for coverage of any other topic. This may be partly explained by our earlier Personal News Cycle research, which found that African American and Hispanic adults are somewhat more likely than white adults to follow news about crime and public safety, and large majorities of people in those minority groups believe their communities are not accurately portrayed in the media.
And there are some specific factors related to trust — such as getting the facts right, having the latest news, and ease in finding content — that are very important to majorities of Americans regardless of the topic. For every topic people say they follow closely, at least 65 percent of people believe it is important the facts are right, and majorities, across all topics, report having the latest news and being concise are important.
The specific trust factors for radio, print and online are similar, but TV is different
Americans rely on many different types of media for news about the topics they follow most closely. No one medium dominates.
This finding reinforces what the Media Insight Project learned in 2014 through the Personal News Cycle research, which found that topic rather than age or other demographics often dictates where people go for news; and that the notion of having a primary news source for all topics, if it ever held true, is now obsolete.
When asked in this study to name the source they rely on most for the news topics they follow most closely, about a third (31 percent) cite a national TV station/program. About a quarter (24 percent) say a local TV station/program (24 percent). About 1 in 10 name a radio program/station (10 percent); a niche or specialty publication (9 percent); a local, national or international newspaper (7 percent); or an online only news source or blog (7 percent).
Whatever media they choose, people’s reasons for relying on their main source are relatively consistent.[ref A complete set of tables showing the importance of each factor by type of source is included in Appendix A.] Significant majorities, regardless of the platform or media, say it is very important to them that the news organization they name get the facts right, always have the latest news, and make it easy to find the information they are looking for.
However, there are a few differences between why Americans might rely on television news compared with other types of media. For example, 7 in 10 people who rely on either national or local television news say it is very important that the source covers all the day’s events. That compares to about 5 in 10 people relying on a newspaper, online site, or specialized niche publication.
Americans who rely on local or national television news are also more likely to place a greater importance on in‑depth reporting (72 percent) than those who rely on online‑only sources (57 percent) or specialized niche publications (62 percent).
There are also some differences between television and newspapers, in particular. For example, 37 percent of Americans report it is very important that local television shares their views, compared with 23 percent of people who say the same about newspapers.
People who rely on local television are the most likely to say it is very important that they see people in their community and people like them in the reporting.
The focus group discussions provided additional context for why certain components of a source are more important.
With TV and radio, in particular, the face or voice of the journalist is an important part of why people rely on it.
One focus group participant, for instance, said she felt a strong loyalty to NBC’s Tamron Hall and watches her on cable news because of the trust she places in her. “We have a relationship,” said Sonya, an older, hard news consumer. “I go to her on a daily basis.”