Half of the current decline in trust occurred before the widespread adoption of the public internet and so much news coverage moved online and or to social media. It took place roughly between 1980 and 2000. That timing correlated to the advent of cable and the deregulation of electronic media, which ended rules like the Fairness Doctrine and the Equal Time Rule and made one-sided or more partisan electronic media like Rush Limbaugh or programming on Fox News or MSNBC free of any legal challenge.
During this pre-internet era, between 1972 and 2000, trust in media as measured by Gallup fell 17 percentage points, from 68% of Americans to 51%.
A second wave of decline in trust occurred between 2000 and 2020, when those with confidence in the media fell 11 percentage points, from 51% to 40%. That decline during the last two decades has been driven by a significant drop in confidence among Republicans. Trust in the media among Democrats has risen from 53% to 73% in the last 20 years. During that same period, trust among Republicans has fallen from 47% to 10%.[ref The Gallup poll shows a decrease in trust and confidence in the news media.]
Yet journalists are often frustrated by these patterns. Particularly those in traditional or mainstream newsrooms do not see themselves as partisan and ascribe passionately to values of fairness and independence.
To try to make sense of this paradox, the Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, decided to take a new approach to understanding media trust.
Social psychology has probed five ‘moral foundations’ that people hold in varying degrees (top row). Our research explored how those values intersect with core journalism values that traditionally drive the profession (bottom row).
We were struck by a body of work called Moral Foundations Theory, developed by psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues. Haidt’s work identified an initial five foundational moral instincts that over the last several years he and other researchers have probed many times.
In Haidt’s work, people are asked a series of questions about which moral values are important to them. Those values are often set up as a continuum, for instance, authority versus subversion.
Haidt and his colleagues theorize that these moral foundations are cross-cultural and stem from evolutionary behaviors that allowed humans to live in groups. He explains that the foundations are universal but different groups and cultures rely more or less on each of them.
Haidt’s approach asks people a series of questions so researchers can place them on a continuum for five moral values (sometimes there is a sixth, liberty).
The five basic moral values are:
Care versus harm: Tests how important it is to be kind and protect others, especially the less fortunate, and keep them from harm.
Fairness versus cheating: Tests how important it is to think about justice, equality, and reciprocal altruism and how much people should be punished for dishonesty and fraud.
Loyalty versus betrayal: Tests people’s feelings about a group they are part of and self-sacrifice for group gain. It measures how much someone feels tied to a group or idea and rewards self-sacrifice and conformity.
Authority versus subversion: Tests people’s attitudes toward social hierarchy and respect for leadership, tradition, and authority.
Purity versus degradation: Tests how people feel about virtues such as sanctity and touches on disgust for things that are unnatural.
At the same time, we at the Media Insight Project know that journalists are driven by some foundational values as well. Some of us who work in the project have devoted our careers to refining and articulating these values in other work and books. We also gathered input from a small, diverse group of journalists currently in or helping news organizations.
The research team identified five basic core journalism values to test. We wanted to see how people responded to these core journalism values—how universally shared these journalism values were with the public—and if they were at all correlated with Haidt’s moral values.
In other words, we set out to determine whether what people think was important morally impacted their views of journalism and what journalists are trying to do.
It seemed, hypothetically, that what people considered to be important morally might influence what they thought was important journalistically.
The five core journalism values we identified were:
Oversight: This value measures how strongly a person feels the need to monitor powerful people and know what public officials are doing. The flip side would be that people need to trust leaders to do their jobs, and that people in positions of authority need the privacy to do some things behind closed doors to fulfill their duties.
Transparency: This is the idea that society works better when information is out in the open and the public knows what is happening. The other side of this value emphasizes how sometimes all of the information cannot be released specially without the right context. Too much information can hinder progress and leave room for gross misinterpretation.
Factualism: This is the idea that the more facts people have, the closer they will get to the truth. The inverse is that for a lot of things that matter, more facts will only get you so far in understanding any situation.
Giving voice to the less powerful: This measures whether people want to amplify the voices of people who aren’t ordinarily heard, or think that is overdone and favoring the least fortunate doesn’t help them.
Social criticism: This value measures how people feel about the importance of casting a spotlight on a community’s problems to solve them versus celebrating what is right and working well to reinforce the good things.
We did find a strong relationship between people’s moral values and their views toward core journalism principles.
At the risk of oversimplifying, those who most valued care or fairness tended to embrace journalism principles more strongly. Those who put more value on loyalty and authority, by contrast, tended to be more skeptical of journalism values such as giving voice to the less powerful. This connection between people’s moral values and views of journalism principles exists regardless of people’s age, race/ethnicity, education, gender, or political affiliation or ideology. These people did not completely reject journalistic values; they are also not absolutists. For example, they saw some value in spotlighting problems but also supported the idea of celebrating what’s right.
We also found that reactions to journalism values did not break down along purely political lines. As we will detail later, Democrats or liberals who put a high value on loyalty or authority tended to have mixed reactions about some core journalism values.
While journalists may consider the five journalism values we identified as universal, non-journalists do not. Only 11% of the public supports all five of the core journalism values unreservedly.
Overall, the principle that is most popular is factualism (67%), followed by giving a voice to the less powerful (50%). Fewer endorse the values of oversight, transparency, and social criticism.[ref Those who, on average, at least slightly agree with the two affirmative statements and slightly disagree with the two contradictory ones for each principle can be considered as embracing it.]
We then conducted an experiment. We gave people some very short samples of stories to read—just the headline and opening paragraph of a possible news story. Some of these, which were drawn from real news articles, tended to reinforce some moral values. They also tended to reflect certain journalism values. Other stories tended to reinforce or touch themes found in other moral values. Each of the stories in one way or another demonstrated a journalism value.
We wanted to test whether what we saw in the first part of the survey—the correlation between moral values and attitudes toward journalism values—would play out when people encountered actual news, or at least the beginning of a news story. We found that they did. People who resonated toward certain moral values in the survey also resonated toward stories that touched on or demonstrated those values in the news. The first part of the study was now complete. We had established a new way of looking at trust in the media. The problem wasn’t strictly a matter of liberal versus conservative or Democrat versus Republican. It may be that some of what journalists value actually only resonates as important to a small percentage of Americans in an unreserved way.
Then we wanted to go further. If journalists wrote the same stories but thought more broadly about their audiences, broadened the frame of the way stories were written, and broadened what they considered news, was there any sign that this might broaden the appeal, and therefore impact, of their work?
The follow-up study: The same story two ways
We then took a third step designed to build further on the question of whether journalists could broaden the appeal of their work by making some fairly simple changes to it. Building on the robust literature around media framing effects, we designed an experiment to manipulate the values framing a particular story.[ref Thomas J. Leeper and Rune Slothuus, “How the News Media Persuades: Framing Effects and Beyond,” in The Oxford Handbook of Electoral Persuasion, ed. Elizabeth Suhay, Bernard Grofman, and Alexander H. Trechsel (Oxford University Press, 2020).] We gave people who participated in the first survey a second survey with three new news stories to read, which were based on real stories from The Associated Press. For each story people might see one of two versions. The first version was written as a relatively standard news story with a tendency to emphasize care and fairness values. The revised version featured additional values frames by altering some elements (a different headline, modified first sentence, and added paragraph). These revisions highlighted aspects of the story related to a different moral theme or angle, in particular touching on themes of loyalty and authority. This was done because Americans who most value loyalty and authority tend to be most skeptical of the media.
For example, a story on water pollution was revised to include a headline and lead emphasizing the role of authority figures involved and the impact on local neighbors. Further, the revised version had an additional paragraph that highlights how it was the military authority’s guidance that was not followed. All other facts, including those that discuss care and fairness frames, were included in both stories. In all, we tested three stories this way.
The goal was to see if emphasizing these values could lead to broader appeal of those news stories. Might people trust these stories more, attend to them more closely, see them as accurate, and so on? And if those additions did broaden their appeal to audiences, we also wanted to see if those changes might alienate people who do not place as much importance on loyalty and authority and who already trust the news more.
The standard version highlights the story themes related to care (e.g., health risks) and fairness (e.g., low-income communities being harmed). The revised version maintains these elements of the story, but also emphasizes angles related to authority (e.g., parks boss deceiving the mayor) and loyalty (e.g., going against the will of the local community).
New recreation center for low-income neighborhood a casualty of parks scandal
A project aimed at helping the city’s most marginalized, low-income neighborhood has been abandoned in the wake of a misuse of city funds by the Parks Director, according to documents obtained by a local media investigation.
The Mayor had designated the money for a recreation center in the city’s poorest district, but the director funneled the money to a series of unauthorized projects.
The documents show the director misled city officials about how the funds were being spent, and the city no longer has the money to build the recreation center to help both low-income seniors and at-risk youth.
Parks boss deceived Mayor, misused taxpayer money
The city’s Parks Director intentionally defied the orders of the Mayor and diverted city money from a key recreation project to businesses owned by his friends and family, according to documents obtained by a local media investigation.
The Mayor had designated the money for a recreation center in the city’s poorest district, but the director funneled the money to a series of unauthorized projects.
The Parks Director bypassed protocols in order to send money to businesses with close connections to his family and friends, the investigation finds. Emails from the Parks Director reveal that he repeatedly disregarded instructions from the Mayor’s office about the funds and the project that residents voted to fund.
The documents show the director misled residents and other top city officials about how the funds were being spent, and the city no longer has the money to build the recreation center to help both low-income seniors and at-risk youth.
Other standard versus revised story text can be found in Appendix III.
Did the revised versions of the stories broaden their appeal? And if so, did they in turn alter the appeal to the audiences who already liked the original stories?
The answers were encouraging. The revised versions of the stories did broaden their appeal to more skeptical audiences.
In some cases revising the story made it more likely for people to report paying closer attention to it or interest in reading other stories from the same news source. Across the three stories—one about pollution, another about local corruption, and one about election law—there are no instances in which the version revised to emphasize the values of authority and loyalty alienated those who do not consider those moral values as most important and who are also more trusting of the news and media.
Encouragingly, far from alienating other audiences, those revisions also made stories even more appealing to audiences who already agreed with core journalism values. For example, with the pollution story, those who most emphasize fairness are more likely to pay attention to other stories from the same source after reading the revised version compared to those who read the standard version (59% versus 34%). Likewise, those who most emphasize authority, loyalty, and care also significantly prefer the revised version of the pollution story compared to the standard.
In other words, the experiments we did suggested that even small changes to the headline, first sentence, and added paragraph on the revised version were able to broaden the appeal of the story, attract those who tend to be less attracted and trustworthy of the media, and still maintain the traditional audiences that are more likely to consume this type of stories.
An especially interesting group, whom we call Moralists, were the largest cluster with 23% of Americans belonging to it. They included people who tended to resonate with the largest number of moral instincts. They were also diverse. One-third were people of color and two-thirds were white. Half (49%) were Democrat, a third (35%) Republican, and nearly 2 in 10 (16%) independent. The largest share of this group (49%) called themselves moderate, 17% liberal, and 34% conservative. This was also the oldest group. Half of them were over 60. They also were relatively religious. And while they responded strongly to all of the moral values, they also had a fair amount of faith in the five journalism values. But their reaction to journalism values was not absolute.
Only one group seemed fairly absolute in their support of journalism values: the Journalism Supporters, who represent 20% of American adults. This group tended to be liberal (62%) and highly educated, and put a high value on the two most liberal moral foundational instincts, care for others and fairness in the system. Fully 78% of them are Democrats. One reassuring thing for journalists: this group was relatively evenly distributed across age groups and had more young adults than other groups. But one interesting finding is that this group only comprised about 20% of Americans. This was a dramatic way of illustrating that what journalists consider universal principles—and may assume the public does too—is not universal. Journalists are a different breed.
The other two groups were also interesting. One group we called the Upholders tended put a high value on loyalty and authority and be well informed. They consumed a lot of news, but at the same time they were fairly suspicious of the news media. Interestingly, only half of these people were Republicans. Half considered themselves moderates. This is a group that the news media is reaching but to a large degree failing to earn their trust. This is particularly intriguing since this is the largest of the four clusters with 35% of the population, and as we detail later in the report, the media could potentially reach this group by making minor changes to the way they write or edit stories.
The fourth cluster, named the Indifferent, is probably the toughest group to reach. They don’t consume much news. They also don’t score particularly high on any of the moral values or any of the journalism values. The group features a mix of education levels as well as a blend of Republicans (39%), Democrats (34%), and independents (27%). This group is made up of 21% of adults.