Why Trust In Journalism Has Collapsed
And how it can be rebuilt.
It’s no secret that public trust in the media has fallen to historic lows. The most recent evidence is an October Gallup survey, which found that just 34 percent of Americans have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly. That’s less than the 38 percent who reported having no trust at all in the media. And it’s a huge drop from 1976, when 72 percent of Americans had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the media, and just 4 percent had no trust.
There are many reasons for the decline. I’d like to address two of them. The first has to do with the difficulty many news consumers have in distinguishing between straight news and opinion content.
It’s a relatively easy problem to address, by separating and clearly labeling which content is opinion and which is straight news, and never allowing the two to mingle. But even within the opinion sections of many publications, there are important distinctions. Most newspapers publish editorials written by members of the paper’s editorial board that act as the publication’s institutional voice. They also publish numerous op-eds (which in print newspapers used to appear opposite the editorial page, hence the label “op-ed”), written by outside contributors. That distinction can be lost on many readers. An op-ed written by an outside contributor can easily be mistaken for the newspaper’s position on that issue.
That’s especially true on social media, where one study estimated that 71 percent of people often get their news. A study found that 75 percent of Americans said they could easily distinguish between news and opinion articles on their favorite news outlet, but only 43 percent said so about articles appearing on Facebook or Twitter.
To address this type of confusion, my employer (The Hill) very recently added a sentence above all op-eds on our website that reads, in red upper-case font, “THE VIEWS EXPRESSED BY CONTRIBUTORS ARE THEIR OWN AND NOT THE VIEW OF THE HILL.”
Dig a little deeper into the Gallup numbers and you’ll find that the loss of trust in the media has occurred almost entirely among Republicans and independents. In 1976, 75 percent of Democrats, 74 percent of independents, and 63 percent of Republicans trusted the media. Today, the share of Democrats expressing confidence in the media has dropped slightly to 70 percent, while confidence among Republicans and independents has plummeted to 14 percent and 27 percent, respectively.
Other polls confirm that media distrust is a phenomenon of the political right. An October New York Times/Siena College poll found that 59 percent of registered voters see the mainstream media as a “major threat to democracy.” But the partisan breakdown was stark. 87 percent of Trump voters and 33 percent of Biden voters saw the media as a major threat.
Some have suggested that former President Trump’s attacks on the media as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people” are what’s driving Republicans’ deteriorating trust in the media. But, as the above data show, the decline began long before Trump was even a glimmer in the GOP’s eye. In 2014, the year before Trump launched his first presidential bid, just 27 percent of Republicans had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the media.
This brings me to the second reason for the loss of trust in the media, which is that most conservatives and many independents believe that a liberal bias infects much of the media’s news coverage.
That bias is revealed when outlets decide which topics and events are worth covering and which are not; how much attention stories receive, where they appear and how they’re discussed; which stories get promoted on social media and which are banned; and much more.
At the root of that bias is the fact that a disproportionate share of political journalists who work for mainstream media outlets are liberal, and very few are conservative. Mainstream outlets can be hostile to conservatives, and the few who do work at such outlets tend to keep their heads down and their views to themselves, lest they contradict the prevailing progressive wisdom, possibly endangering their jobs.
Political journalists live and work disproportionately in deep-blue coastal cities, attending the same universities, going to the same parties, and using the same social media platforms, i.e. Twitter. Many rarely leave their ideological bubbles long enough to challenge their own biases.
This insularity is a problem because, in a newsroom, reporters and editors turn to one another when they have questions. They provide key counsel to each other, offering input and solicited as well as unsolicited advice on a range of issues. If the person sitting next to you has had different life experiences, comes from a different place or espouses different political beliefs, he or she can act as a check on your own biases, and vice versa. But when those experiences and beliefs are the same as yours, the newsroom can become an echo chamber where biases and beliefs are reinforced and groupthink prevails.
Media organizations have come to appreciate the importance of gender, racial, and ethnic diversity so that newsrooms look a little more like all of America. The same logic should apply to political ideology. This is especially true for national outlets that aspire to cover and engage with the entire nation. Those outlets in particular should have newsrooms that represent the entire country in all its diversity.
Of course, it’s unrealistic to think all bias can be eliminated from news coverage. This means consumers need to be shrewd and discerning about the media they consume and how they consume it.
It’s about knowing that, say, the New York Times is a liberal outlet and that even its reporting may be swayed by its institutional bias. That does not mean people should not read the Times. It has the talent and resources to do some of the best reporting in the country and is, in my opinion, indispensable. But it is important to know that the Times is advancing a certain viewpoint and to balance a story in the Times with a similar story in a conservative outlet, such as the Wall Street Journal or National Review.
Remaining in our media bubbles may feel good in the moment, reinforcing our own biases and making us feel as if our worldview is the right one. It feels sort of like the rush of dopamine we receive when we eat junk food. But just as we need a balanced diet to nourish healthy bodies, we need a balanced media diet to maintain a healthy body politic.
To fix our deeply polarized media, journalists and media outlets must recommit to journalistic independence and creating more ideologically diverse newsrooms. And news consumers must commit to being more deliberate about where they get their news, and how they consume it. At a time when political polarization is deepening across the country, our democracy may depend on it.
Daniel Allott is an opinion editor at The Hill and the author of “On the Road in Trump’s America: A Journey Into the Heart of a Divided Nation.”
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