Despite partisan differences, Americans’ attitudes about journalism are more complicated than a simple Democrat versus Republican divide. To better understand how values relate to views of the news media, this study used a “k-means cluster analysis,” a statistical technique that groups people together based on their answers—in this case, their moral values and views toward the journalism values. If you start with people’s moral principles and their reaction to core journalistic values—rather than their politics—you find different dividing lines about how Americans think about the media than you would if you use the traditional way researchers look at trust by party identification and ideological leaning.
The k-means cluster analysis groups people by comparing their average scores to the five moral foundation values and the five journalism values. People with similar scores across the 10 values are grouped together, and the clusters are identified independently from people’s political views or demographic characteristics. These four clusters capture a more nuanced perspective of values than the traditional left-right continuum by picking up how Americans emphasize different moral values and how that interacts with their views of journalism principles.
With this clustering approach, people divide into four distinct groups described for the purposes of this report as: 1) Upholders, 2) Moralists, 3) Journalism Supporters, and 4) the Indifferent. Here is a thumbnail sketch of each group.
Clusters are based on respondents’ average moral and journalism values scores.
The four clusters of Americans based on their attitudes toward moral and journalism values
The Upholders (35% of Americans)
Strong emphasis on moral values of authority and loyalty.
Less support for journalism values, yet follow the news frequently.
More conservatives than other clusters.
The Moralists (23% of Americans)
Strong support for both moral and journalism values.
Most actively seek out news and have positive views toward the media.
Older than other clusters.
Journalism Supporters (20% of Americans)
High importance on moral values of care and fairness.
Strongest support for the five journalism values among the clusters.
The only cluster made up primarily of one political party.
The Indifferent (21% of Americans)
More skeptical about moral and journalism values.
Few trust the media or believe it is accurate.
Mixed partisanship, including the highest percentage of moderates.
The first group, Upholders, cares strongly about many moral values, but especially loyalty, authority, and purity, or in other words, the values that most speak to respect for leaders, groups, and tradition. They do not place much importance on the core values of journalism, which taken together with their moral values may be read as skepticism about journalism’s goals. Even so, they don’t avoid news. They often follow the news frequently, even actively seeking it out—and many find the news they get accurate. Yet they tend to distrust the media in general, in line with their unenthusiastic attitudes toward journalism’s values.
The second group, Moralists, registers highly on all five moral foundation values. Yet unlike the Upholders, Moralists also view journalism values positively. Their strong emphasis on moral and journalism values alike distinguishes them from the other groups we identified. The majority of moralists also tend to believe the news media are trustworthy and accurate, but their support for journalism is by no means unqualified. Only 2 in 10 believe the press cares about people like them or is moral.
The third group, Journalism Supporters, most strongly believes in the journalistic values we tested and has the most positive views of the news media in general. They also tend to place less emphasis than the other groups on three of the five moral foundational values—authority, loyalty, and purity. What distinguishes this group, indeed, is the high importance they put on two other of the five moral foundational values. They place the highest value on caring for others and the idea that society should be fair to everyone. Interestingly, these two moral values strongly correlate to the five journalism values and suggest that the five journalism values have an inherent closeness to these two moral values in particular. This is both illuminating and perhaps also limiting, and helps unlock one of the problems journalists face. It is interesting to note that the Journalism Supporters group is also the smallest of the four clusters. Only about one in five people fit here.
The fourth group, Indifferent, is comprised of people who are more lukewarm in their embrace of any values we tested. Like Upholders, the Indifferent are skeptical about the journalism values we probed. But unlike Upholders, the Indifferent tend to be ambivalent about the five foundational moral values as well, or evince less support for any of them. They may be skeptical in general. Few in this group trust the media or believe it is accurate, adding to the challenge journalists will have in reaching them.
What is interesting is that these groups do not break strictly along partisan or demographic lines. For instance, Moralists, who tend to have some but not unqualified trust in the media, include a large number of people who identify as politically conservative as well as many Democrats and people of color. Meanwhile, Upholders include a mix of political moderates and conservatives as well as people with varying levels of education. And Journalism Supporters, the group most trusting of the press, make up the most educated and youngest of the groups. While many are Democrats, a large proportion—roughly a third—describe themselves as politically moderate. The Indifferent are very politically diverse with a mix of Democrats, Republicans, and independents.
The Upholders include many people who put a high value on loyalty and authority. At the same time, they also tend to place less importance than most other people on the five key journalism values. Yet these Upholders are also highly engaged news consumers. They tend to follow a good deal of news, to actively seek it out, and even to consider the news they get accurate. But they do not have much confidence in the news media to tell them the truth or to protect democracy. And despite the perception that distrust of the news is a partisan divide, only about half of Upholders identify as Republicans, and nearly half describe themselves as political moderates.
Demographically, the group is made up mostly of Americans age 30 or older (86%) and a strong majority (70%) are white. Many attend religious services more often than others. Educationally, they are evenly split; about a third of the group has a high school diploma or less, a third some college, and the remaining have a college degree.
Of the five moral foundational values, Upholders place the most value on loyalty with 30% in the highest quartile, followed by authority (19%) and purity (19%). But they put relatively lower importance on two other moral values, care and fairness (9% and 12%). Upholders are unlikely to be among those who most strongly endorse journalism values. Only 9% are in the top quartile on oversight, 5% on social criticism, and 3% on giving a voice to the less powerful.
Upholders are evenly split ideologically between those who identify as moderate (43%) or conservative (43%). Thirteen percent describe themselves as liberal. But even the Upholders do not line up in a strictly partisan way. While about half are Republicans, Democrats still comprise 28% of the group. Independents make up 20%.
These results suggest that the conclusion of traditional trust data—that the news media has a Republican problem—is too simplistic. Looking at trust through the lens of moral and journalistic values, this group of highly engaged but skeptical news consumers place less emphasis on some of the values journalists elevate as important and include political independents and Democrats who are wary of the news media as well.
A relatively high percentage of Upholders are frequent church goers; 23% attend religious services once a week or more. A majority of Upholders are white (70%), but 1 in 10 are African American (10%); more than that (15%) are Hispanic. Upholders also skew older than most other clusters. A third (32%) are 60 years old and older.
Along with the lack of emphasis Upholders place on some core journalism values, they also tend to have negative views of the media. Only one in three (33%) say the news is even somewhat trustworthy. They also don’t think that journalists admit their mistakes; more than two-thirds of Upholders (69%) think journalists try to cover up their mistakes. And only 20% say journalists protect democracy, versus 41% who think journalists hurt democracy.
But these are people who are interested in news. And while they are distrustful of the news media, they navigate through their distrust. Fully 60% of this group says the media is at least somewhat accurate; 61% say they actively seek out news. Eighty-six percent say they follow news at least daily. In other words, this is a group of people who are highly skeptical of the news media but they rely on news. The size of this group (the largest of the four clusters), their inclination to follow the news in spite of being skeptical of it, and the findings in the previous experiment section makes them an attractive group for the media to reach.
The Moralists group is comprised of those who tend to strongly emphasize all five moral foundation values. This group also holds journalism values in fairly high regard, particularly factualism and transparency, but their support is not unqualified. They are a mix of partisans and moderates, and are the most racially diverse. In all, 65% are white. Many Moralists are older adults (about half are 60 or older); they have fewer college graduates than other groups (26%). Most Moralists actively seek out news and many tend to believe the news media is trustworthy, accurate, and protects democracy.
Moralists tend to register high on most of the moral values, more so than Upholders. More than half of Moralists are among the top 25% who place the most importance on four different moral values—care (53%), fairness (55%), loyalty (53%), and purity (63%). The only one missing here is authority.
Differing from Upholders, they also place weight on journalism values. But they gravitate more strongly toward some more than others. They connect most strongly to factualism and transparency (33% most emphasize and 32% most emphasize, respectively). They score lowest on social criticism and giving voice to the less powerful (24% and 29% most emphasize each value).
Moralists are a political mix. About half identify as political moderates, about 3 in 10 (34%) as conservatives, and just under 2 in 10 (17%) as liberals. By party identification, there is a similar mix: 49% are Democrats, 35% Republicans, and 16% independents.
The Moralists group is older than other clusters. Nearly half are age 60 and older. The group also has a higher percentage of Black Americans (16%) than other clusters. The Moralists consist of more women (58%) than men (42%). This group has the least amount of college graduates compared to the other groups.
If journalists were looking for a way to broaden the appeal across party and ideology, this group would be an important place to start. Indeed, looking at these data together, Moralists share many strong moral tendencies and come from a wide variety of backgrounds—politically, racially, ethnically, and educationally. Importantly, they register some support for journalism values, more than Upholders, but it is not enthusiastic support.
Nonetheless, most Moralists seek out news and have a relatively positive view of the news they follow. About three-quarters say they actively seek out news, which is more than any other cluster. Half say that the news is trustworthy and 74% perceive the news as accurate. In addition, 42% say it is enjoyable to follow news, while fewer say the media is moral (22%), protects democracy (35%), and admits its mistakes (28%). While Moralists are not as positive about news as the Journalism Supporters, they are significantly more likely to view the media as accurate (74%) and trustworthy (51%) than either Upholders or The Indifferent. Thus, Moralists engage with news quite a bit and even have a positive attitude about a lot of it, yet it is also not without critique.
Cluster 3: The Journalism Supporters (20% of the population)
Journalism Supporters, as their name suggests, tend to strongly believe in the five journalistic values of oversight, factualism, transparency, social criticism, and giving voice to the less powerful. They differ from other clusters in the moral values they’re drawn to: Americans in this group are much more likely to strongly value care and fairness than they do authority, loyalty, and purity. Notably, more than three-quarters of the Journalism Supporters are Democrats, and many in this group are younger and have college degrees. And this group has more positive views of the media than the other three groups. Most of them believe the media is accurate. Of the many different uses for news, this group believes it is most important to be informed and understand the facts. They are less likely than the Moralists to say the main reason they use news is because it’s enjoyable or shares their view.
Of all clusters, this group most strongly supports the journalism values we tested. A majority of them are in the highest quartile believing that the press should be a watchdog over those in power (51%), that more facts are usually better (55%), that society should be as transparent as possible (54%), and that the best way to solve problems is to put a spotlight on them (55%). And 62% of these people rank in the top category for supporting the idea that the press should give a voice to those who are less powerful.
The problem for the press is that this group is relatively small. Only 20% of those surveyed fall into the category of Journalism Supporters. And no other cluster comes close to echoing such strong support for what journalists might imagine are fundamental principles that everyone would agree on. The next closest group in registering support for these journalistic notions is Moralists, though they only register close to half the same level of support.
Journalism Supporters also differ by their most common moral values and the strength of their prominence. The values of care and fairness are of significant importance to Journalism Supporters, while other moral values are far weaker than Upholders’ or Moralists’ believe. While around a quarter of Journalism Supporters are among those who most value care or fairness, less than 5% are among those who most emphasize loyalty, authority, or purity.
The Journalism Supporters make up the only cluster consisting primarily of one political party: it is 78% Democrats and only 7% Republicans. Sixty-two percent are also self-described liberals. The political and ideological make-up of Journalism Supporters is consistent with both the moral foundation literature finding that Democrats place more importance on care and fairness and media studies showing Democrats have more trust in news.
Journalism Supporters also tend to be more educated and younger than other groups. This is the most educated cluster. A majority hold a college degree. Journalism Supporters are also the youngest cluster. Fully a quarter (24%) are under age 30. This group is also the least religious. Forty-eight percent of Journalism Supporters say they never attend religious services compared with 23% of both Upholders and Moralists.
Put another way, this group shares many qualities that partisan critics might use to describe or stereotype journalists. It is mostly liberal, mostly white, and with educational experiences that differ from many Americans.
But as the clusters show, there are Democrats and liberals across all four groups with varied demographics by race and ethnicity. The same is true of education.
As one might expect, Journalism Supporters tend to follow a lot of news (79% follow news more than daily), and they tend to have a relatively positive view of the news. Eighty-three percent of this group perceive the news as accurate and 58% trust the news. Moreover, many feel the media is driven by good impulses. Those in this group are much more likely than those in other groups to say the media is moral (26%).
Although the group seeks out a lot of news, it isn’t important to them that they enjoy following it. Journalism Supporters report quality coverage (72%) and informative news (78%) being the main reason they seek out news coverage. Only 23% say that finding the news enjoyable is an important reason why they follow it. In addition, just 14% say that news sharing their views is an important reason they follow news despite many believing the news is accurate. Yet again, they are the strongest supporters of core journalism values that drive most journalism.
Cluster 4: The Indifferent (21% of the population)
The Indifferent tend to not place a lot of importance on any of the moral foundations. Nor do they resonate strongly with the core journalism values. People in this group tend to follow news less than most. They also are less likely to pay for news than those in other clusters. Few in this group trust the media or believe it is accurate.
Yet, it would be a mistake to view this group in purely political terms. The Indifferent is a mix of Republicans, Democrats, and independents, and the majority describe themselves as political moderates. The group is racially and educationally diverse. It is also relatively younger than other groups.
Among the Indifferent, few people strongly endorse any of the moral foundation values. In trying to understand this, it may be easier to register how many fall into the lowest group or quartile in support of certain ideas, rather than identifying what they do feel strongly about. As an example, fully 8 in 10 of the Indifferent (82%) fall into the lowest category when it comes to valuing the idea that society should be fair; Nearly 8 in 10 (79%) fall into the lowest category when it comes to thinking that it is important to care for the less fortunate.
The same low resonance is found in their attitudes toward what journalists feel their mission is. Six in 10 of the indifferent (60%) fall in the lowest rank of those who consider it important to give a voice to the less powerful. And more than 5 in 10 fall in the lowest rank of those who believe that more facts are always better to get closer to the truth about something (52%).
The Indifferent are demographically and politically diverse. Indeed, the group is similar to the overall makeup of Americans when it comes to factors such as age, religious attendance, and education. For example, the group features a mix of education levels, with 34% holding a college degree or more, 36% with some college, and 30% with only a high school education or less. This group features a mix of Republicans (39%), Democrats (34%), and independents (27%), and it has the highest percent of those who identify as political moderates (52%).
The Indifferent tend to follow news less frequently than other groups. About 1 in 5 follow the news less than once a day, and 43% bump into the news instead of actively seeking it out. They are also the least likely of the clusters to pay for news (79%). The Indifferent are also the least likely to report that staying informed and being a better citizen is an important reason to follow news.
The Indifferent are also highly skeptical about the media, with just 24% saying the media is trustworthy, 56% reporting the media is accurate, and 21% believing that the media protects democracy.
This group will also likely be the hardest for journalists to reach. The Indifferent tend to have negative views about the media. But unlike Upholders or Moralists, it is unlikely that framing stories to appeal to a broader range of moral values would improve their trust in news.