This research was conducted by the Media Insight Project — an initiative of the American Press Institute and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research
For years, studies have shown Americans’ trust in the news media is steadily declining. In recent months, the rise of so-called fake news and the rhetoric of President Donald Trump about journalists being “the enemy of the people” have made the question of trust in a free press an even more prominent issue facing the country.
At the same time, data show that over the past decade, people have been consuming more news than ever. How are we to explain the apparent paradox?
New research released today by the Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, suggests public attitudes about the news media are more complex and nuanced than many traditional studies indicate, with attitudes varying markedly depending on what media people are asked about.
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The findings show that on many fronts, Americans are skeptical of “the news media” in the abstract, but generally trust the news they themselves rely on. And most people mention traditional or mainstream news sources as the ones they turn to.
As an example, only 24 percent of Americans say they believe the news media in general are “moral.” But that number more than doubles, to a majority of 53 percent, when people are asked about the news media they use most often.
Just 17 percent of Americans give the news media high marks for being “very accurate.” But twice as many (34 percent) say that about the news media they use.
Only 22 percent believe the news media in general “care about the people they report on,” while more people (36 percent) say they do not (about four in ten say neither option reflects their view). But the reverse is true if people are asked about the news media they turn to. Nearly twice as many people believe the news media they rely on care about people than doubt it (41 percent vs. 24 percent).
The country is evenly divided over whether the press on balance “protects” or “hurts” democracy. In all, 34 percent say it protects while 30 percent say it hurts. But that division disappears when people are asked about the news media they use. More than twice as many (48 percent) believe the press outlets they use protect democracy than say they hurt it (20 percent).
While Republicans and, to a lesser extent, independents trust the news media less than Democrats do, many of those divisions also shrink, and in some cases go away, when people are asked about the news media they rely on most.
For example, only 8 percent of Republicans but 31 percent of Democrats describe the news media as “very accurate.” But that number jumps to 40 percent for Republicans when they think of the news media they use most, a number similar to what is seen among Democrats.
The change is not simply because Republicans and Democrats are turning now largely to partisan or ideological news sources, though there is some of that. There are partisan divisions in what people consume. When asked in an open-ended question to name the news sources they use most often, Republicans are more likely to cite cable news as a favorite source (52 percent) than are Democrats or independents (both at 37 percent). Republicans are also more than twice as likely to cite Fox News as a favorite source (40 percent) than CNN (18 percent); Democrats are more likely to cite CNN (30 percent) and far less likely to cite Fox (7 percent).
Americans appear to consider “the news media” a general category that includes both good and bad actors, and their confidence in the media in general is shrinking. But most Americans are able to find at least one outlet they have confidence in.
But traditional broadcast television—both national and local—is the second-most commonly cited news source, regardless of party identification. And people across the political spectrum are equally likely to say local news sources (newspaper, radio, and television) are among those they rely on.
To be sure, this report does not imply that the issue of media trust and reliability is a myth or somehow magically disappears depending on the media consumers are thinking about.
But the findings suggest the issue is more complicated than some may think. Americans appear to consider “the news media” a general category that includes both good and bad actors, and their confidence in the media in general is shrinking. But most Americans are able to find at least one outlet they have confidence in across a number of metrics asked about in the study. And the idea of Americans retreating from news entirely out of lack of trust—or heading for purely ideological corners—oversimplifies what is occurring.
Even at a time of growing distrust in the media generally, people can find news sources they think are accurate, fair, moral, transparent about mistakes, and trustworthy. And these sources are not purely political. In cable news viewership, there is more party overlap among viewers than people might imagine. And about 35 percent of Americans across the political spectrum cite broadcast television news—local and national—as a source they use often.
The new research does reveal stark partisan divisions in public attitudes about the press, much as other research has. But these partisan divisions, too, depend on whether people are asked about the media in general or the media they personally use.
There is another noteworthy element in the data, however. There are significant generational differences in the levels of trust in media. Americans under age 40, regardless of ideology, trust the news media far less than their elders do.
And while these differences become smaller when adults under age 40 are asked about the sources they rely on, they do not entirely disappear.
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The following sections examine the difference between “the media” and “my media,” how this phenomenon plays out among Republicans and Democrats, differences by generation, and how confusing opinion with news is eroding trust.