75 Years and Counting: How Digital and Legacy Media Rely on Each Other

In 1941, no one knew what 2016 would look like.

Posted 12.21.2016 by Eman Hassaballa Aly

In 1941, no one knew what 2016 would look like. But everything and nothing has changed—as demonstrated in the photos below.
 (photo credits: Pixabay.com, Flickr)
The specific technology is different, but the desire for information about the world around us is still significant. Information is much more accessible now, but for the most part, people still reach out to the same sources of information that they did 75 years ago. What has changed is how people access and interpret that information. NORC recently published a study that discusses this concept, and the study highlights a few issues that we at the Health Media Collaboratory (HMCollab) at NORC also think about in the context of our research.
One of the key findings of the NORC study is that Americans who use digital sources of information in their day-to-day lives “find it easier to navigate today’s information environment” than those who do not. But at the same time, Americans also express a decent amount of skepticism about the “trustworthiness” of the information online, particularly when the information is discovered on social media. This may seem paradoxical, but there is a piece of the puzzle missing here. This blog post is meant to put that missing piece in its proper place.
Most Americans are on some form of social media: 65 percent of all adults and 76 percent of adults online, including more than a third of adults over the age of 65. But legacy media still garners higher levels of trust from the majority of Americans who say they “mostly” or “completely” trust the information they get from that source. Where does social media play into that?
This might sound obvious, but social media is made up of people. While some may consider social media as separate from the physical world, social media actually record, reflect, and often amplify what happens in real life. A key difference between social and legacy media is that the traditional “agenda setters” are no longer the exclusive gatekeepers of information. The individual can both create and curate content, and does so with every click of the mouse. Every post, like, share, and comment generates a digital footprint, which amounts to the rawest form of public opinion. The challenges lie in measuring this mass of unstructured information and evaluating the credibility of both the content and sources. HMCollab has spent the last five years or so developing a rigorous approach to social media data collection and analysis in order to better understand the evolving relationships between traditional and new media, how individuals interact with various media sources, and how these interactions both shape and reflect individual attitudes and behavior.
Why is that important?
As NORC’s report reflects, people trust legacy media more than they trust blogs and social media. Where does that “trust gap” come from? For one, anyone can publish anything online, but usually the cream rises to the top.
The NORC study found that peoples’ habits tend to “differ by decision domain.” People tend to use legacy media when they are looking for information around policy issues; whereas when it comes to product purchasing decisions, people search digital sources to inform their choices. But word of mouth still plays a large role among information seekers making both types of decisions.
At HMCollab, we’re trying to figure out if social media have become a digital form of word of mouth, expanding our access to opinions beyond trusted friends and family members. Instead of picking up the phone and calling that one tech friend everyone asks which smartphone to buy, now people can post on Facebook to their 500+ friends or look on a technology forum where thousands of people have weighed in. There are spaces on the internet dedicated to the most specialized niche topics, like how to mix paint colors and how to glaze cakes. And there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of videos with millions and millions of views.
With so much information at their fingertips, people are understandably somewhat reluctant to believe what they read or see on the internet. When asked, more than 80 percent of people said they mostly trust what they see on legacy media, like television and radio. But when it comes to social media and blogs, people expressed far less trust.
So when people want to verify what they read online, they turn to the digital equivalent of word of mouth, which is social media. The danger, though, is that these networks, especially the social networks, become echo chambers. And the system is structured in such a way to show people what they’re more likely to see and agree with. It isn’t always a bad thing, but when misinformation bounces against the walls of an echo chamber, it can lead to bigger issues. The ability for research to cut across the silos and echo chambers that naturally occur on social media is one of HMCollab’s main goals, and we’re doing it through rigorous and innovative measures. It’s important to be able to curate all the right information in order to be able to tell the most accurate story.

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About The Author

Eman Hassaballa Aly
Health Communications Manager and Research Scientist
(312) 357-7002

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