Alternate Facts, Alternate Realities

Alternate Facts, Alternate Realities

  • June 16, 2021

Gender, politics and U.S. readers’ views of risky news sites

New GDI research reveals that U.S. online readers’ perceptions of a news outlet’s disinformation risks are highly correlated with how they identify along political and gender lines.

GDI’s new report, based on a YouGov commissioned survey, draws its findings from more than 1,000 informed online readers’ perceptions of disinformation risks. The 63 sites included in the assessment include some of the most popular media sites in the United States. 

Overall, the findings for the U.S. media sample show that there is a statistically significant correlation between a respondent’s general positive (or negative) opinion of a news outlet and their perceptions of the site’s disinformation risks: the site’s overall accurate news coverage, use of clickbait, the labelling of news versus opinion stories, and the correction of errors when found.

The results clearly show how sites that are perceived positively (negatively) by respondents are seen as having lower (higher) disinformation risks. Whether you like or dislike a site colours your view about key issues related to disinformation risks.

What is most striking from this finding is how one’s political and gender self-identification affects which sites one sees as having low or high disinformation risks. This is particularly true for respondents’ perceptions of accurate — or inaccurate — news coverage.

For example, there was zero overlap among the top five news publishers which each political group perceived as having accurate news coverage. Similar differences among the findings were seen for the different news sites that men and women considered to be accurate sources (see Table 1).

While there have been past studies looking at the news sources used in the US based on one’s political identification, there has not been an in-depth look at how each group views the disinformation risks of the sites used by those across the aisle.

In fact, the findings show that for the full sample of respondents, left-leaning respondents consider the sites which right-leaning respondents view as accurate, as being among the most inaccurate for their news coverage (see figure 1 and Table 2).

While Fox News and Breibart were viewed by right-leaning respondents as accurate, these were the same sites that left-leaning respondents perceived as carrying some of the most inaccurate news (see Table 2). Fox News is where the gap was widest: 94 percent of left-leaning respondents assessed Fox News as inaccurate, as compared to only 5 percent of right-leaning respondents.

Similarly, right-leaning respondents considered completely different news sites as being inaccurate, which were also the ones viewed by left-leaning respondents as having accurate coverage. This included CNN (see Figure 2).

For male and female respondents, we see some of the same divergence among their responses for which sources are perceived as inaccurate, but also some convergence. This is the case regarding the top three sites that both men and women considered to have inaccurate news coverage: Breitbart, Fox News and InfoWars.

These parallel information ecosystems for which sites are risky or not can have huge impacts for how key public policies are viewed and discussed – and people’s trust in how the issue is being covered in the news. 

The GDI study looked deeper into this issue by asking respondents which sites do they turn to for trusted news on politics, health, and the environment (see Table 3). These topics are good proxies for understanding the information ecosystem that these readers use for trusted news on U.S. elections, climate change and COVID-19 coverage.

Notably, the sites that right-leaning respondents trust for news on these three topics are the same sites that left-leaning respondents perceive as having generally inaccurate news. A similar finding holds true for left-leaning respondents, where some of the sites that they trust are also among the sites that right-leaning respondents perceive as having inaccurate news coverage.

The overall research findings provide further evidence of the deep political divides within the U.S.’s news ecosystem and how these fissures can undermine trust in key government policy responses. In the first six months of this new administration, we have seen the reality of this divide through the media and public’s response to its COVID-19 relief package, state voting laws, and the administration’s climate change agenda. 

While a pluralistic media system is key to healthy democracy, it is critical to have a shared reality of the problems facing a country and view that media sites are adequately covering it. 

The GDI will continue to look at the US media landscape and its disinformation risks, both perceived and real.

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