Why Distrust of News Needs More Sophisticated Analysis

With a start of a new year, some notable public attitudes about critical institutions seem to be on a downward trend.  These include traditional media, like newspapers, broadcast stations, and cable networks, which are often thrown together in opinion polls aimed at gaining key insight into their credibility with audiences of readers and viewers.

The Edelman Trust Barometer found only 46 percent of Americans trust traditional media.  This is the lowest number recorded since the data was first tracked two decades ago.  It found 58 percent of Americans believe that “most news organizations are more concerned with supporting one ideology or political position than with informing the public” and found over half also think that the Fourth Estate is “trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.”

Yet beneath this data is a broad assumption over the nature of news that does not necessarily coincide with how traditional media really packages and presents information.  Nearly all online and print newspapers, as well as local broadcast news, are placed in separate news categories.  So not surprisingly, popular news sources include weather reports and financial news, where everyday experience reflects a much higher level for media trust than the numbers seem to suggest.  Large swaths of these kinds of news continue to be relied on as credible with Americans.

When we are presented with a weather forecast, our understanding is confirmed in a way that reinforces the validity of that information.  For a hurricane or flash flood alert, we do not instinctively feel it is set out for any other reason than reporting information honestly and without gross exaggeration.  Even if a weather forecast proves to be less reliable for a certain day, we also know that models can veer off course on occasion, but a weather forecast overall remains a reliable resource.

When we read or hear about rises and falls in the stock market, or about a corporate merger or bankruptcy, this information is absorbed directly into our financial lives.  We rely on it for investing, creating family budgets, and making decisions about economic growth.  So it is likely trusted to a larger degree than the data may reflect.  Our understanding about food also is of broad interest whether as a recipe or a review of a restaurant.  Mouths and stomachs are solid indicators of what we decide to believe. 

This all illustrates that not all news fits into a “just the facts” framework.  We look for entertainment reviews and travel news to assist us with our leisure pursuits.  We like to hear rumors about celebrities, and know full well they may be generated solely for the purpose of having celebrities in the public eye.  Sports news tells us what athletes have been injured or the size of their deals, but it can lean away from objectivity to focus on the virtues of the home team and the vices of opponents.  But this does not increase our skepticism of the ideology of the news outlet.

Viewed with a wider prism that reflects our actual news intake, it is clear we know little about media trust at large.  The focus on domestic politics as a news category is important to assess our civic life, while achieving a higher level of trust has to be the aspirational benchmark.  But we have to keep this news category in perspective.  To the extent that audiences find it deficient to their needs, media outlets should aim to elevate their trust levels with adaptation to find out why they are strong in a range of other news categories but far less so with government activities.

Opinion polls also need to ask about news credibility in a more granular way.  I suspect that if such an approach were pursued, we would find that traditional media continues to be a trusted information resource among Americans of all political persuasions.  Having such specific news category data would be useful in understanding the nature and intensity of the media distrust and credibility problem, and in developing targeted strategies for improvement in the short term and the future.

Stuart N. Brotman is a Distinguished Fellow at The Media Institute and is a member of the Institute’s First Amendment Advisory Council.  He is the author of Privacy’s Perfect Storm: Digital Policy for Post-Pandemic Times.  This article appeared in TheHill.com on Jan. 26, 2021.