To provide our own baseline for trust with respondents, we began by asking about their level of trust in the news media. We asked the question differently than Gallup does annually—giving people three levels of trust to choose from rather than five—but the results are basically similar.
Overall, about 40% of people say the media is trustworthy; another 37% say it is not.
Sixty percent say the news is at least somewhat accurate while 25% think it is “not too accurate.”
Disturbingly, a majority of Americans (60%) say that the media tries to cover up their mistakes. Majorities of Americans also believe the media doesn’t care about them.
Why Republicans and Democrats disagree about the media
But as with other studies, our data found the biggest divide in trust is revealed in partisan splits. A majority of Democrats (64%) say the press is trustworthy, while a similar majority of Republicans (63%) say it is untrustworthy. More independents say the media is untrustworthy (37%) than say it is trustworthy (28%).
But the point of this study was to dig beneath those well-known partisan divides and explore causes for the lack of trust. To do that, we turned to a growing body of work in social science called Moral Foundations Theory. The work, developed by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and colleagues, tried to probe the moral intuitions that motivated people, and it has become an important new way of thinking about the differences between cultures and even between different political groups within the United States.
The theory attempts to understand the underlying framework from which different people and cultures base their morality. As we noted earlier, the framework includes asking people about five moral foundations. Each has a corresponding opposite value.
Haidt and colleagues such as Jesse Graham theorize that these foundations stem from ancient qualities that allow humans to peacefully co-exist in groups. The five foundations they have identified are:[ref Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (New York: Vintage Books, 2012); Jesse Graham, Brian A. Nosek, Jonathan Haidt, Ravi Iyer, Spassena Koleva, and Peter H. Ditto, “Mapping the Moral Domain,”Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 101, no. 2 (2011): 366–385.]
Care versus harm: Care measures the attention or sensitivity toward the pain of others, especially the less fortunate. This is the balance between cherishing and protecting other people, and a level of ambivalence to their pain. It is tied to virtues such as kindness and gentleness.
Fairness versus cheating: Fairness stems from the evolutionary principle of reciprocal altruism and justice in society. The value of fairness refers to the instinct to punish or correct dishonesty or deceit, as well as the importance people place on autonomy and personal responsibility.
Loyalty versus betrayal: Loyalty refers to how much someone feels tied to a group or idea. It relates to self-sacrifice for the collective benefit of the group, patriotism, and conformity. This value emphasizes the sense of belonging to a group or ideal over individualism.
Authority versus subversion: This measures how much a person relies on tradition, hierarchical structures, and legitimate authority. It refers to how much people prefer obedience and order. Respect for tradition and official leadership is high.
Purity versus degradation: This measures someone’s feelings of sanctity and disgust for things that people would consider revolting or unnatural. It can be related to beliefs that underlie religion but are not unique to religion, such as striving to live a noble life and avoiding immoral activities.
The survey used questions to measure the moral foundation values that have been developed and used by scholars previously.[ref Jonathan Haidt, “The New Synthesis in Moral Psychology,” Science 316 (2007): 998–1002.] Using the short version of these Moral Foundational Theory questions, we scored respondents based on their responses and coded five different variables that measure how strongly a respondent agrees with each moral foundation value.[ref Respondents answered each item from 1-Strongly agree through 6-Strongly disagree. Half of the items are favored to one side of a value or the other. We reversed coded half of the items so that all range from 1-low in value to 6-high in value. We averaged each of the four items measuring a value, excluding missing items. The final average of items for each value is the final item score.]
For example, to measure how strongly a respondent considers care as an important value, we asked how much they agreed or disagreed (using a 6-point Likert scale) to the following survey items:
Compassion for those who are suffering is the most crucial virtue.
One of the worst things a person could do is hurt a defenseless animal.
We also asked respondents how relevant each of the following items is when deciding whether something is right or wrong. We used a 6-point scale that ranged from extremely relevant to not at all relevant.[ref Respondents answered each item from 1-Extremely relevant through 6-Not at all relevant. Half of the items are favored to one side of a value or the other. We reversed coded half of the items so that all range from 1-low in value to 6-high in value. Each of the four items measuring a value are averaged, excluding missing items. The final average of items for each value is the final item score.]
Whether or not someone suffered emotionally
Whether or not someone cared for someone weak or vulnerable
The full set of questions used to create the variables for the other moral foundation values—fairness, loyalty, authority, and purity—can be found in Appendix I.
To better explain differences in people’s beliefs about the values, we divided respondents in four equal-sized groups for each of the moral and journalism values. Respondents in the highest quartile are those 25% who consider that value most important. Those in the lowest quartile are those 25% who emphasize it least.
For example, a person’s responses to the four care questions could show they emphasize it more than most other respondents, which would place them in the highest quartile. That person may also fall in the top 25% of other values, or they may fall in lower quartiles because each value score is unrelated to the other scores.
Throughout the report, we highlight what percent of groups are among those who place the highest importance quartile on each value. These figures help highlight how a value is tied to people’s demographic characteristics or other attitudes.
Our findings were consistent with previous research on these values. Republicans and conservatives tend to fall in the highest quartile on values like loyalty, purity, and authority. Democrats and liberals tend to be among those who most emphasize the importance of care and fairness. For instance, more than a third of Republicans (36%) place high importance on loyalty, twice as many as Democrats (18%). Conservatives were also twice as likely as liberals to be among the highest quartile in purity (30% versus 14%). To be clear, the findings here and in other Moral Foundations Theory research do not imply conservatives do not care for others or about fairness in society. But these values fall somewhat lower on the scale than the value put on loyalty. And the reverse is true of liberals. They value loyalty, but less so than others.
Age also makes a difference. Older adults are more likely than younger Americans to most emphasize the importance of all five values. In that sense, you might say we become more morally balanced as we age. A third of adults 60 or older, for instance, fall in the highest quartile for thinking fairness is key, twice as many as those age 18-29 (16%). Older adults also value loyalty more, with 38% falling in the highest quartile for the importance of loyalty, compared to 16% of adults 18-29, and just 13% of adults age 30-44. Women are also more likely than men to highly value care and fairness. Men are more likely to care about loyalty. Meanwhile, Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to highly value fairness (35% versus 21%), authority (26% versus 18%), and purity (35% versus 22%).
Those without college degrees are more likely than those with graduate degrees to highly value care (25% versus 16%), loyalty (30% versus 20%), and purity (28% versus 15%).
Assessing public attitudes toward five journalism values that relate to core principles of the profession
The moral foundational questions gave us a baseline to work with. After we asked these people about their moral foundational instincts, we then asked them to respond to five journalistic values that we had identified as broadly important to news people.
We wanted to know two things: If these five journalism values were basically universally held among journalists, did the public share them? And if not, was there any correlation between supporting any of these journalism values and the moral instincts people had?
First, we identified through our own experience five professional principles that most journalists endorse. We then refined these ideas over the course of a day’s working session with a diverse group of journalists and experts (see Appendix III). From that process we selected five values that drive the types of stories journalists pursue and how they frame them:
Oversight: This value measures how strongly a person feels there is a need to monitor people in power and know what public officials are doing or saying. The flip side of this value is worry about intrusiveness or this oversight becoming a hindrance, getting in the way, or placing too much importance on insignificant events.
Transparency: This is the idea that transparency is usually the best cure for what’s wrong in the world, and that on balance it’s usually better for things to be public than for things to be kept secret. The inverse is that sometimes the need to keep things secret is more important than the public’s right to know and that most problems can be solved without embarrassing facts being laid out in the open.
Factualism: This value measures whether on balance more facts are always better and facts are the key to knowing what is true. The flip side is that the truth is more than just a matter of adding facts and that this emphasis on factualism can mask bias.
Giving voice to the less powerful: This value measures whether people want to amplify the voices of people who aren’t ordinarily heard and if a society should be judged on how it treats the least fortunate. The inverse instinct is that inequalities will always exist and favoring the least fortunate does not always help them.
Social criticism: This value measures how important people think it is to put a spotlight on a community’s problems in order to solve them. The flip side puts more emphasis on the value of celebrating things that are going right or working well in order to reinforce them and encourage more of them.
To assess public attitudes toward these core journalism values, the survey asked respondents a series of questions modeled after the type of statement used to measure the moral foundations. We used two affirmative statements and two contradictory ones to measure each journalism principle. Through these answers, we created five variables that measure how strongly a respondent agrees with each journalism value.
For example, to create the variable for the value of oversight, we asked respondents how much they agree or disagree (using a 6-point Likert scale) with the following survey items:
The powerful need to be monitored or they will be inclined to abuse their power.
It’s important to put some trust in authority figures so they can do their jobs.
It’s vital that the public know what government leaders are doing and saying each day.
Leaders need to be able to do some things behind closed doors to fulfill their duties.
The questions used to create the variables for the other journalism values—transparency, factualism, giving voice to the less powerful, and social criticism—can be found in Appendix II.
Similar to the moral foundation values, the population was divided into four groups or clusters. We focus in the rest of the report on the 25% of the population that places the highest emphasis on each principle.
Journalism values and demographics
The study found significant differences in support of journalism values depending on people’s partisanship, ideology, race, and education.
We found that ideology and partisanship do relate closely to the core journalism values that journalists define as part of their mission. That finding by itself may help explain why journalists often argue they are just doing their job and some conservatives will see bias.
To put it simply, liberals are just more likely than conservatives to consider the five journalism values important. There are numerous examples. Nearly half of those who described themselves as liberal in the study (41%) think it’s important to spotlight problems in order to solve what is wrong in society. Only 8% of conservatives put the same value on such social criticism.
Partisan differences also showed up when it came to how much importance people put on the need to have oversight of the powerful and how important it was to amplify the voices of the less powerful. At least 3 in 10 Democrats (30%) were among those who ranked such oversight and giving voice to the less powerful (35%) as top values. Just 6% of Republicans fell into the highest quartile when it came to giving voice to the less powerful and 13% for oversight.
Age and race also seem to make a difference in how people view these core notions about journalism. Older Americans are more likely to place a high value on transparency in society. Twenty-seven percent of adults age 60 or older fall into the highest quarter for valuing transparency in society. Nineteen percent of adults 18 to 29 are among the top quartile.
Black Americans are more likely than white Americans to place a high value on four out of five of the journalism values we tested. They are much more likely to place a high value on the need for oversight of the powerful, offering voice to the less powerful, the importance of transparency in society, and spotlighting or criticizing problems. Black Americans and white Americans endorsed at similar rates the idea that more facts about a subject are usually better, and this value was the one most widely embraced across the public.
Education is often correlated with support for journalistic principles, except for one of the five concepts. People with college degrees were less likely than others to value the watchdog role of the press.
The link between moral values and journalism values
One of the key findings of this study is how strongly moral foundation values are connected to how people view core journalism values. In particular, people who highly value care or fairness are more likely to embrace journalism values, while those who put most stock in loyalty or authority are less likely to endorse journalism principles. This connection between people’s moral values and views of journalism principles exists regardless of people’s age, race/ethnicity, education, gender, political affiliation, or ideology. This is particularly important for the news media because it provides a deeper understanding of how people’s moral framework associates with journalism’s core principles.
Americans who stand out for the importance they put on caring for others or fairness in society are more likely to strongly support each of the five journalism values. However, adults who stand out for the importance they place on the values of loyalty or authority, are more likely to put the least emphasis on each of the journalism values.
Those who put the highest value on caring for others, for example, are three times more likely to consider the watchdog principle of the press as vital as those who put a low emphasis on caring for the less fortunate (30% versus 16%). They are also, perhaps not surprisingly, four times as likely to think it is important to offer voice to the less powerful than those who rank caring for the less fortunate as a lower value. This effect was similar when it came to factualism, social criticism, and transparency.
People who put a high emphasis on fairness in society are similarly more likely to endorse journalism values. This group, for instance, is four times more likely to also consider transparency vitally important compared with those who consider fairness in society not that important (36% versus 10%).
While higher emphasis on care and fairness correspond to putting a higher value on most journalism principles, those who most emphasize either loyalty or authority tend to place the least emphasis on journalism values.
For example, adults who most emphasize loyalty are less likely than those who least embrace it to support journalism values such as social criticism (13% versus 33%).
Similarly, adults who place the most emphasis on authority tend to place the least importance on the journalism values we tested. Only 13% of adults who most emphasize authority place a similar emphasis on giving voice to the least powerful. For those who are the most skeptical of authority, the number is 35%.
How values relate to attitudes toward the media and news behavior
An important set of findings from this study is how people’s values are associated with their attitudes toward the media. For example, we find that people who highly value care or fairness are more likely to trust news, while people who are high in loyalty and authority tend to be more skeptical of the media.
There is also a surprising result when looking at the two sets of values and people’s beliefs about the media: People’s moral values are more likely to be connected to trust in the media than to their views of core journalism principles.
Understanding the way both sets of values relate to these attitudes toward the news is critical for journalists and media in general.
Moral values and news behavior
People who put particular emphasis on two of the five moral foundation values—the importance of caring for others and fairness in society—are more likely to trust the news, think it accurate, and believe the media protects democracy than do people who put lower stock in the importance of those two moral values. This is true even when controlling for political partisanship and demographic factors.
In contrast, people who put more stock in the moral values of loyalty, authority, and purity tend to be more skeptical of the media.
Almost 8 in 10 of those who most value care say the media is accurate. Of those who least emphasize care, just 53% think the media is accurate. Similarly, people who place the most importance on caring for others are twice as likely to think the press is trustworthy than those who rank low on care (56% versus 28%).
People who put great stock in society being fair also are more likely to rate the media highly. Those who rank at the top for thinking fairness is an important value, for instance, are twice as likely to believe the press protects democracy as are those who rank low in fairness (41% versus 21%). We see the same pattern when we asked people if the press was trustworthy. People who most value fairness were twice as likely to see the press as trustworthy as those who rank lowest in fairness (54% versus 26%). Those who most emphasize fairness are also more likely to think the news is accurate than those who least emphasize it (75% versus 54%).
If support for two of the five core moral values usually are related to giving the press high marks, the three other moral values tend to work the other way. The more emphasis people put on the importance of authority, loyalty, and purity, the more likely they are to doubt the news media’s intentions, its morality, and the idea that it protects democracy. People who rank high on authority, loyalty, and purity also believe the press usually hides rather than admits its mistakes.
Indeed, skepticism about the press seems deeply associated with people who put high stock in being loyal, on trusting authority, and believing in the importance of purity and sanctity.
Views toward journalism principles and attitudes toward the media
People’s views toward several of the core journalism principles are tied to their broader attitudes toward the media. In particular, people who most embrace the journalism principles of giving voice to the less powerful and social criticism are more likely to have positive opinions of the news.
For example, those who most embrace giving voice to the less powerful are more likely than those who least emphasize it to say the news is trustworthy (61% versus 25%). Likewise, those who most endorse the journalism principle are more likely to say the news media is moral and protects democracy.
Americans who place the most emphasis on the journalism value of social criticism also tend to have more positive views of the media.
Aside from the two values of social criticism and giving a voice to the less powerful, the rest of the journalism values aren’t related to these opinions of the press.
Moral values, journalism values, and news consumption
What people cite as their foundational moral values and how they respond to journalism values also appear to be related to the way people read, watch, or listen to news, but not in predictable ways.
For instance, people who put a high value on authority—a value not correlated to trusting news or embracing news values—are more likely than those who rank authority as less important to be active news consumers who seek out news rather than just bumping into it (72% versus 59%). Again, this is true even when controlling for political partisanship and demographic factors.
That is also true of people who put high stock in the value of social fairness, a group that is more trusting of the press.
And whether people actively seek out the news they are interested in (we call them seekers) or they tend to just randomly bump into the news (we call them bumpers) tends to be associated with how people feel about the news they see. People who actively seek out news are more likely to say they value the journalism principles of giving voice to the less powerful, of importance of facts, of social criticism as a way to solve problems, and of transparency in society more generally.
Interestingly, there is one value that news seekers do not tend to rate more highly than other Americans. They put no special stock in the press playing the watchdog over people in power.