How Americans Navigate the Modern Information Environment

In this digital era when Americans have easy access to vast amounts of information from widely varying sources, we know little about how people actually use these sources or how they react to the steady streams of information they confront daily. A new study from NORC at the University of Chicago finds that while the vast majority of Americans believe it is easier to find useful information today than it was five years ago, 78 percent report the sheer quantity of information can sometimes be overwhelming.

To commemorate NORC’s 75th Anniversary as an independent research institution, NORC conducted a study that provides a detailed understanding of Americans’ perspectives on an information environment where most have instant access to virtually unlimited amounts of information via the internet.

​The nationally representative survey, funded by NORC, was conducted from January 14 through January 31, 2016. Data were collected using the AmeriSpeak Panel®, which is NORC’s probability-based panel designed to be representative of the U.S. household population. Panel
members were randomly drawn from the AmeriSpeak Panel, and 1,007 completed the survey. Respondents without internet access and those who prefer to complete surveys by phone were interviewed by trained NORC interviewers.
The overall margin of sampling error is +/- 3.7 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level, including the design effect. The margin of sampling error is higher for subgroups.

Key findings from the study include:

  • Eighty-one percent of Americans believe it is easier to find useful information today than it was five years ago. At the same time, 16 percent report they are often overwhelmed by how much information comes to them, and another 62 percent say the amount of information they get can sometimes be too much.
  • Americans who use at least one digital source of information in their daily lives (search engines, social media, or blogs) are more likely to say it is easier to find useful information today than it was five years ago.
  • Thinking about how the internet connects them to information, many Americans report being better informed than they were five years ago. More than 6 in 10 report being better informed about lifestyle topics such as hobbies, health, or pop culture, and similar proportions say the same about international and national news.
  • The public uses a mix of newer digital sources and more traditional media sources to obtain information for their daily lives. Digital sources are popular, with two-thirds of Americans saying they often use search engines and nearly half using social media.
  • Legacy media outlets remain frequent sources of information for many people. Six in 10 often use television stations’ broadcasts, websites, or apps to find information they use in their daily lives. Likewise, 4 in 10 often listen to radio stations or go to their websites or apps, and a similar proportion read newspapers in print or online to find information they use in their daily lives.
  • And, legacy media enjoy higher levels of trust. At least 8 in 10 Americans who use newspapers, radio, search engines, television, and magazines to get information to use in their daily lives say they can mostly or completely trust the information they get from each of these sources.
  • Americans are more reluctant to trust information from blogs and social media. Fifty-five percent say they can mostly or completely trust information from blogs, and 53 percent say the same for social media. That trust gap is similar for all age groups.
  • Information habits and attitudes do vary based on a person’s age and education, but there are relatively few differences by race, ethnicity, or gender. And when it comes to party identification, partisans differ more from independents than they do from each other.
  • People’s information habits differ by decision domain in some respects, but in others they are quite similar. For example, when it comes to information sources, legacy media such as TV and newspapers are more often used when people are deciding where they stand on policy issues compared to product purchase decisions. However, word of mouth plays a large role in people’s information seeking for both types of decisions.
  • Americans are more likely to gather new information for purchasing decisions than for deciding where they stand on national issues (85 percent do so often or sometimes for products compared to 72 percent for national issues), but in both domains Americans rely on their instincts to help navigate the information environment. Americans are most likely to seek out new information when they have a gut feeling to be skeptical. Furthermore, when they encounter conflicting information about products or policies, they tend to seek additional information and rely on their instincts to determine which information to trust.

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