Americans see a variety of factors as important when it comes to deciding whether a news story is trustworthy or not, but their attitudes vary by party affiliation, demographic characteristics and news consumption habits, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.
Overall, broad majorities of U.S. adults say it is at least somewhat important to consider each of five surveyed factors when determining whether a news story is trustworthy or not: the news organization that publishes it (88%); the sources cited in it (86%); their gut instinct about it (77%); the person, if any, who shared it with them (68%); and the specific journalist who reported it (66%). Just 24% of adults say it’s at least somewhat important to consider a sixth factor included in the survey: whether the story has a lot of shares, comments or likes on social media.
But notably fewer Americans see each of these factors as very important. Half of U.S. adults point to the news organization that publishes a story as a very important factor when determining its trustworthiness, while a similar share (47%) point to the sources that are cited in it. Fewer cite their gut instinct about the story (30%), the specific journalist who reported it (24%), the person who shared it with them (23%) or the engagement it has received on social media (6%), according to the March 8-14 survey of 12,045 adults. The survey was part of a broader study of media coverage of President Joe Biden’s first 60 days in office.
This analysis examines the factors that Americans see as important when deciding whether a news story is trustworthy or not. It is based on a Pew Research Center survey conducted from March 8-14, 2021, among 12,045 U.S. adults. Everyone who took the survey is a member of the Center’s American Trends Panel (ATP), an online survey panel that is recruited through national, random sampling of residential addresses. This way nearly all U.S. adults have a chance of selection. The survey is weighted to be representative of the U.S. adult population by gender, race, ethnicity, partisan affiliation, education and other categories. Read more about the ATP’s methodology.
This is the latest report in Pew Research Center’s ongoing investigation of the state of news, information and journalism in the digital age, a research program funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, with generous support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are slightly more likely than Republicans and GOP leaners to say it’s very important to consider the news organization that publishes a story (55% vs. 47%) and the sources that are cited in it (51% vs. 44%). Republicans, in turn, are more likely than Democrats to see their own gut instinct as very important (35% vs. 26%), though this is a minority view in both parties.
Older Americans are generally more likely than younger Americans to point to the news organization that publishes a story and the sources that are cited in it as critical factors when determining its trustworthiness. For example, among those 65 and older, 57% say the news organization is a very important factor and 54% say the same about the sources cited. Smaller proportions of adults under 30 see these as very important factors (42% and 41%, respectively). These findings are consistent with previous Pew Research Center studies, which found that younger Americans tend to feel less connected to their sources of news and are less likely to remember the sources of online news links they clicked on.
When it comes to education, 59% of adults with a college degree say it’s very important to consider the news organization that publishes a story, and 54% say the same of the sources that are cited in it. That compares with around four-in-ten of those with a high school diploma or less education (43% and 40%, respectively). Conversely, those with a high school diploma or less are more likely than those with a college degree to see the other factors asked about as very important when determining a news story’s trustworthiness.
Black Americans are more likely than those in other racial and ethnic groups to see some factors as very important when determining the trustworthiness of a news story. For example, around four-in-ten Black adults (38%) point to their own gut instinct as a very important factor, compared with three-in-ten or fewer White (30%), Hispanic (26%) and Asian American adults (22%). Black adults are also more likely than other Americans to point to the specific journalist who reported the story and the person who shared it with them; about a third of Black adults say these are very important factors to consider.
Avid news followers are more likely to see all of the factors asked about in the survey as critical when deciding on a news story’s trustworthiness. For instance, Americans who are very closely following news about the Biden administration are especially likely to say it’s very important to consider the news organization that publishes a story (69%) and the sources that are cited in it (65%). Among those who are following Biden administration news less closely, fewer see these factors as very important.
Most Americans pay attention to the sources cited in news stories
In addition to asking about the factors that the public considers when deciding whether a news story is trustworthy, the survey asked Americans how closely they pay attention to the sources they see in the news. Overall, 22% of U.S. adults say they pay very close attention to the sources that are cited in news stories, while another 45% say they pay somewhat close attention.
Democrats are slightly more likely than Republicans to say they pay very close attention to the sources cited in news stories (25% vs. 19%) – a finding that aligns with the fact that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to see sourcing as very important to a story’s trustworthiness. Americans ages 65 and older (27%), those with a college degree (27%) and Black adults (28%) are also especially likely to say they pay very close attention to the sources that are mentioned in news stories.
Americans who have been following news about the Biden administration very closely are again the most likely to say they pay very close attention to the sources cited in news stories. Nearly half of these Americans (47%) say this, compared with smaller shares of those who follow news about the Biden administration fairly closely (20%) or not too or not at all closely (8%).