Poll Shows Growing Distrust of Media Among Americans

More than two-thirds of respondents said they are concerned about bias in the news other people are getting, while less than a third said they worry about their own preferred sources being biased.

The New York Times building in New York City. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

(CN) — A survey released Tuesday shows Americans’ trust of the news media is declining even though they still see the institution as invaluable to democracy, indicating growing skepticism toward what many see as journalists straying from objectivity in the internet age.  

The report assembled by Gallup and the Knight Foundation surveyed 20,000 Americans as part of the firms’ Trust, Media and Democracy series, and it found that Americans are more pessimistic than ever about a perceived lack of objectivity in news coverage from a media apparatus driven by barely concealed agendas.

“With each passing benchmark study,” the report said, “the American people render deeper and increasingly polarized judgments about the news media and how well it is fulfilling its role in our democracy.”

Even though the Knight/Gallup poll found 84% of Americans say the news media is either critical or very important for a functioning democracy, 49% of those surveyed think the media is very biased and roughly three-quarters believe the owners of media companies are influencing coverage. The latter statistic is up 5 percentage points since 2017.

Fifty-four percent of people believe that reporters intentionally misrepresent facts, and 28% believe reporters make the facts up entirely, the survey found.

Like basically all aspects of civic life in the modern United States, the Knight/Gallup survey confirmed that distrust of the media breaks along partisan lines, with 75% of Republicans harboring an unfavorable view of the media and just 22% of Democrats sharing that unfavorable view.

Sixty-one percent of Republicans surveyed said attacks on the media are justified, whereas 70% of Democrats said such attacks are not justified, according to the report.

“As such, Americans have not only lost confidence in the ideal of an objective media, they believe news organizations actively support the partisan divide,” the report states.

Sam Gill, the Knight Foundation’s senior vice president and chief program officer, called the shattered confidence in America’s news media “corrosive for our democracy” in a statement along with the report’s release Tuesday.

The survey, conducted between November and February before the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic, reported that these polarized attitudes toward the news media have only gotten worse since Knight and Gallup began the project in 2017, which has “left open the possibility for dangerous false narratives to take root in all segments of society” during 2020’s emergent crises of the novel coronavirus and the generational movement for racial justice sparked by the killing of George Floyd on Memorial Day.

While Tuesday’s report reinforces the pervasive us-versus-them mentality currently permeating American life, it also found most people seem to have less trust even in their own chosen media sources.

Fifty-six percent of Americans see a great deal or fair amount of bias in their go-to news source, according to the poll. But, given the choice, 69% of those polled said they are concerned about bias in the news other people are getting, while only 29% said they worry about their own sources being biased.

In addition to political party, age also factored into the report’s findings, which show younger Americans are less trustful of the media than older Americans. The survey found that 44% of those 65 and older have very or somewhat favorable views of the media, but less than one in five respondents under 30 felt the same.

Diversity among members of the news media was another issue found in the survey, as 79% of those polled think news organizations need to focus on increasing diversity with new hires. But disagreement over prioritizing which type of diversity split largely on political lines, with 49% of Democrats and 60% of Blacks favoring prioritizing racial and ethnic diversity, as opposed to 51% of Republicans and 35% of whites feeling a diversity of political views should be the priority.

For those polled, the greatest challenge facing journalistic outlets is online misinformation, with 78% calling it a major problem that eclipses all others in the media environment and 73% wanting to see major internet companies find ways to exclude false and hateful information online.

Americans are also overwhelmed by the sheer volume and speed of news, as well as the way the news is presented to them, making it harder to stay informed. Sixty-three percent said they were overwhelmed by the pace or speed of news reporting as well as the increased number of news organizations doing the reporting, and 72% cited feeling overwhelmed by the mix of news interspersed with non-news on the web.

Stephen Farnsworth, a professor of political science and international affairs at University of Mary Washington, said Wednesday that while there has long been a partisan divide over how the news media is perceived, “that division is getting much more pronounced over the last several years.”

Farnsworth, author of several books including “The Global President: International Media and the U.S. Government,” places some of the blame on President Donald Trump, who he said “regularly attacks the mainstream media more aggressively than previous presidents have done.”

But the professor also sees the never-ending stream of news information available and the splintering within that field as causes of media distrust as well.

“The range of media outlets today allow news consumers to live inside a comforting cocoon of media that reflects their preferences if they wish to do so,” Farnsworth said.

“This is a major concern for having a national conversation,” as opposed to when people got their news from a relatively small number of newspapers and television stations “all sort of saying the same thing.”

And ultimately the reinforcement of consumers’ online news bubbles can be automatically self-perpetuating, since “what you click on shapes what you will be invited to click on going forward, so it does not even have to be a choice on the part of the consumer,” according to Farnsworth.

In the end, the sobering Knight/Gallup report found that while Americans largely feel the media is to blame for political division, a majority also believes the media is capable of mitigating division as well.

According to Tuesday’s report, 84% percent of respondents said the media bears either a great deal or moderate amount of blame for political division in the nation, but a nearly identical percentage said news outlets could do a great deal or moderate amount to heal those divisions.

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