Populism, Not Politics, Dictates Mistrust of Media, Study Finds

(CN) – A populist world view drives mistrust of the media far more than left-right political ideology, according to a Pew Research study published Monday.

About 16,000 people in eight Western European countries responded to a survey conducted by the Pew Research Center designed to explore the correlation between political beliefs and public trust of major media institutions. The results demonstrate that those who held populist views were significantly less likely than those who did not to trust the media, while giving lower grades to media outlets for how they cover major contemporary issues like immigration, the economy and crime.

“Trust in the news media dips lowest in Spain, France, the UK and Italy, with roughly a quarter of people with populist views in each country expressing confidence in the news media,” the study says. “By contrast, those without populist leanings are 8 to 31 percentage points more likely to at least somewhat trust the news media across the countries surveyed.”

To qualify as someone who holds populist views – as defined by Pew for the survey – one must meet three underlying criteria. Populists view “the people’s will” as the source of government legitimacy, believe that “the people” and “the elite” are two separate homogeneous groups antagonistic to one another, and that “the people” are good and “the elite” are self-serving and corrupt.

Populist views are held by people who harbor both liberal and conservative political ideologies, Pew said, meaning it transcends the typical binary representations of political belief. The study contends populism is on the rise throughout Western Europe, but taking root in Europe’s southern countries more than the north.

For instance, 45 percent of Spain hold populist views according to Pew, with a similarly large share in Italy of 43 percent. By contrast, only a quarter of Denmark’s citizens espouse populist views and just 12 percent of Swedes are populists.

This delineation between north and south in Europe persists when it comes to trust in the media, as only 3 percent of Italy expressed strong trust in the media and just 29 percent acknowledging they somewhat trust the press.

Conversely, 20 percent of Germans polled said they trust the media somewhat, with 20 percent putting a great deal of trust in the press.

In Germany, the stark divide in perceptions of the media between those with or without populist views was particularly pronounced, with populists about 29 percent less likely to approve of the media’s coverage of major issues like immigration and the economy – the widest disparity in any of the eight polled countries.

One anomaly in the north-south divide on the continent is the United Kingdom, where inhabitants skewed more closely to the south in terms of the percentage of populist views and widespread mistrust of the media.

Only 5 percent of British respondents said they have a lot of trust in the media, and only 32 percent of the country trusts it somewhat, which is in line with the views of Italy and Spain.

About a third of Brits maintain political populism, Pew says.

The U.K. is also interesting in that of all the eight countries, it has the most commonality in its news source, with nearly half of the country saying the BBC functions as the main source of news.

Nevertheless, outside of the BBC there is more ideological division in terms of news source selection.

“When it comes to outlets besides the BBC, there are notable left-right political divides in usage,” the study says. “The magnitude of those differences in the U.K. looks similar to what occurs in the more ideologically divided southern countries studied.”

This shows that even if populists use the same sources as nonpopulists, they are more likely to mistrust the news organizations and their messages, Pew says.

In five of the eight countries, populists and nonpopulists have the same source of news. Beyond that most people tend to pursue news outlets that conform to their beliefs on the left-right spectrum, according to the study. That spectrum is also consequential in terms of trust in media institutions, but not as determinative as holding or not holding populist views.

“In Spain, Germany and Sweden, public trust in the media also divides along the left-right ideological spectrum, but the magnitude of difference pales in comparison to the divides between those with and without populist leanings,” the study says.

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