Previous conceptions of trust in media
Researchers have found trust in media declining for several years now, though they don’t all agree on when the trend started.
The Gallup research organization, which has been asking about media trust in general since 1972, found it hit a high-water mark in 1976, three years after the Watergate scandal. That year, 72 percent of Americans said they had “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of “trust in the mass media.” With the advent of cable news and the rise of talk radio in the 1980s, that number began to fall to the low and mid 50s by the 1990s, and remained there for roughly a decade. It has fallen slowly but fairly consistently since the early 2000s, dropping below 50 percent in 2007. In September 2016, it hit a new low of 32 percent; among Republicans, it was just 14 percent.
In the mid-1980s, when the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press was still the Times Mirror Center for the People and the Press, it began asking about media trust using several metrics.
Over the decades, its findings have been similar to Gallup’s. For instance, the percentage of Americans who think news organizations “deal fairly with all sides” when “dealing with political and social issues” dropped from 34 percent in 1988 to 19 percent in 2013. The percentage who think “news organizations get the facts straight” fell from 55 percent in 1985 to 26 percent in 2013. In February 2016, only 18 percent of Americans had “a lot of trust” in the information they got from national news organizations and 22 percent had “a lot” of trust in the information they got from local news groups.
But the news media have fragmented, evolved, and been disrupted over those years. News has been put in people’s pockets on their phones and has been atomized into a story at a time in social media rather than under the aegis of a news brand like it would be if received through a newspaper or television broadcast. And with those changes, news consumption appears by many measures to have grown.
‘The’ media in general vs. ‘my’ media
To dig deeper, the Media Insight Project adopted many of the traditional questions developed by Gallup and Pew but varied them in one important way — we asked one group about “the news media” in general while asking another group about “the news media you use most often.”
Overall, people consume a lot of news. Fully 79 percent of those surveyed say they get news at least once a day, and 58 percent say they get it several times a day.
Americans’ ideas of what the news media are looks similar to what they identify as the news media they use most often, though with some key differences. And notably, people mention a lot of different types of outlets when asked about the news media in general, suggesting that it is a catch-all category. People most often cite cable news (48 percent), broadcast TV (37 percent), local TV, radio, or newspapers (18 percent), and national newspapers (16 percent) when asked what they consider “the news media.” Cable news (41 percent), broadcast TV (28 percent), and local news (22 percent) were the most frequently cited when people were asked about the “news media you use most often,” with national newspapers trailing behind news sites or the internet generally (12 percent vs. 16 percent).
We see interesting changes among both Democrats and Republicans when we ask people what they consider to be the news media versus the media they use. For example, 47 percent of Democrats consider cable news “the news media,” but just 37 percent say the same when asked about the news media they use most often. But, about half of Republicans think of cable both as the media in general and the media they use often. On the other hand, 41 percent of Republicans consider broadcast TV the news media in general, while just 23 percent think of it when asked about news media they use often. And, while just 5 percent of Republicans consider news websites like Politico, Breitbart and other outlets on the internet “the news media,” 16 percent say those sources are the media they use most often. These examples show how each party can have a conception of “the news media” separate from the news media they use.
As a general indicator of trust, we adapted a question used by Pew:
“How much, if at all, do you trust the information you get?”
And we asked one group about the “the news media” and the other about “the news media you use most often.” This yielded some differences.
For instance, just 17 percent of Americans say that “thinking of the news media” generally, they have “a lot” of trust in the information they get. That number jumps to 24 percent when people are asked about the news media they use most often, a number similar to what Pew found a year earlier with local news.
But the differences in how people viewed the news media became more pronounced when we dug deeper into the other questions.
How accurate do people think the news media are? People are twice as inclined to say the media they use most often are “very accurate” than they are to say that about the media in general. More than a third of people consider the news media they use most often to be very accurate (34 percent) compared to fewer than 2 in 10 (17 percent) who say the same about the news media generally. And people are significantly less likely to say the media they use most are not too accurate or not accurate at all (10 percent vs. 17 percent for the news media generally).
People also are more likely to think the media they use most often deal fairly with all sides compared to the news media in general. Fully 48 percent of Americans feel that way about the media they use most often, while half say they tend to favor one side.
That even split is no vote of confidence for the media’s fairness, but it is a much better picture than people have of the media in general. When thinking about media generally, just 30 percent say the media deal fairly with all sides, while more than double that—69 percent—say the media generally tend to favor one side.
When asked how the media keep people informed about the most important stories of the day, the percentage who feel “very well informed” jumps to 33 percent from 24 percent when people are thinking about the media they rely on instead of the media in general.
Do the news media care about the people they report on? The answer changes dramatically if people are thinking about the news media in general or the news media they rely on most. Just 22 percent of people say they believe the news media generally care about the people they report on. But the number who say the media care nearly doubles to 41 percent for the media they used most often (and the number who think the media do not care drops 12 percentage points).
Are the media willing to admit their mistakes? Only 27 percent think the media in general do, while the majority (58 percent) think the media try to cover up their mistakes. When asked about the media they use most often, however, 47 percent think the media usually admit their mistakes, and fewer (32 percent) think they try to hide them.
Do people think the media are moral? Just 24 percent think the media in general are moral. But 53 percent think the media they use most often are.
What about the impact of the media on democracy overall? Does the press protect democracy or hurt it? When asking about the media in general, people are split—34 percent say the media tend to help democracy, while 30 percent say they hurt it.
But when people think about the news media they use most often, 48 percent think the press helps democracy while far fewer, 20 percent, say it hurts.