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Investigating the Connection between Media and Perception


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NORC tackles complex societal problems that require robust solutions. When we look at the same issue from the perspectives of multiple stakeholders, we get a deeper understanding that leads to more effective strategies.

Jennifer Benz, Principal Research Scientist
Public Affairs & Media Research

Issues surrounding racial, religious, gender, and class identity have posed challenges throughout U.S. history. Those issues have become increasingly contentious as the country’s demographics have changed. Yet according to a 2019 survey conducted by NORC and the Sesame Workshop, producer of the beloved Sesame Street TV show, the majority of parents don’t talk to their children about their social identities.

This lack of dialogue has an adverse impact on children, because building a positive sense of identity at a young age is crucial to healthy development, understanding others, and eventual life outcomes.

The parents who do talk to their kids tend to be Black, Asian, or Hispanic. Negative incidents—not a positive focus on social identity—usually prompt these conversations. Parents who are most likely to talk to children about their social identities are, on average, more likely to report that their child heard a negative comment about such identities.

The study, part of Sesame Workshop’s 50th anniversary celebration, comprised twin surveys of both parents and pre-kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers. Educators cited social class as the biggest factor in student outcomes. However, they are often uncomfortable with classroom discussions that focus on economic inequality.

Taken with the parent survey, teachers’ responses give a more comprehensive view of gaps in the development of children’s self-identities than just one survey alone. This helps Sesame Workshop design programs that encourage both groups to discuss differences in race and other social factors and to nurture children’s confidence.

We also relied on twin surveys to study the decline of Americans’ trust of news media, polling both the general public and journalists to identify the disconnect and common ground in how they relate to each other. Conducted in 2019 by The Media Insight Project, an ongoing collaboration between the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, the surveys point to a failure in communication between consumers and producers of news: the American public doesn’t fully understand how journalists work, and journalism doesn’t make itself understandable to much of the public.

The surveys show that the public and journalists want the same thing from the media—verified facts presented within some context of background and analysis.

On the other hand, the surveys reveal that many Americans think that news media consist mostly of opinion and commentary. Some people are also confused by basic news concepts, such as the meaning of the terms “op-ed” and “attribution,” and the difference between an “editorial” and a “news story.”

At the same time, journalists overestimate the public’s misunderstanding of news, their low opinion of journalists, and the passivity of their news consumption.

The good news is that both journalists and the public want more transparency, and that people are more invested, active consumers than journalists think. A relationship based on understanding and trust is the key to more open communication.