The Real Reason So Few People Trust the News Media

Forget Donald Trump. Here’s why the economics of journalism is to blame, and how the industry can regain the public’s faith. 

An issue of Time magazine on a newsstand in 2017. (AP Photo / Mark Lennihan)

(CN) — Trust in the news media is near its all-time low, and many people assume that this is simply a byproduct of the hyperpartisan hysteria of the Trump era.

Problematic for this theory, though, is that it was in 2015 when the number of people who say they have at least a fair amount of trust in the press hit bottom. The number has been rising since then, according to Gallup Inc., which has been polling people’s lack of trust for decades. That means that despite President Trump’s constant decrying of “fake news,” people believe the news more now than when he first descended the Trump Tower escalator to announce his candidacy. 

And despite what many assume, the news hasn’t become more partisan as a response to people being angry and wanting to hear things that reinforce their own views. 

When the Trust Project, an international consortium devoted to making journalism more transparent, conducted interviews with U.S. news consumers, “what we found is not so much animosity as anxiety, a fear of accidentally getting misinformation and sharing it,” Sally Lehrman, the group’s founder, said in an interview.

In other words, despite all the claims that people seek out news that confirms their views, most people really want unbiased reporting. 

And most reporters do, too, experts say. While there are always a few bad apples, the vast majority of working journalists simply want to inform the public and hold the powerful accountable regardless of political affiliation. 

And yet, while overall trust in journalism has risen from 32% to 40% since 2015, it’s still dramatically below its high-water mark of 72% in the post-Watergate era. Trust has been declining steadily for decades, and the real reasons have to do with economic and technological changes in the industry itself, not with a single controversial politician or fleeting partisan dispute. 

In journalism’s heyday, successful local newspapers — many cities had more than one — pumped healthy advertising revenue into in-depth coverage while the three major TV networks as well as radio stations were required by the FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine” to present a balance of differing viewpoints on controversial issues. Growing up with these media, the public had a fairly good sense of the differences between reporting, analysis and opinion. 

The first change to this model was talk radio, said Joy Mayer, a former journalism professor and director of Trusting News, a nonprofit dedicated to helping journalists improve their credibility. 

In 1987 the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine and the following year Rush Limbaugh began his nationally syndicated radio show, combining news and opinion and blurring the lines between reporting and entertainment. His show was popular because, like Trump 30 years later, he struck a nerve with a large segment of the population whose attitudes were underrepresented. But his success encouraged others to imitate not only his views but also his formula, often showing a complete disregard for the objectivity model that was standard in the mainstream press. 

Then in January 1991 CNN scored a coup by being the only network able to broadcast from Iraq during the early hours of the Gulf War, attracting over a billion viewers worldwide and eclipsing the three major U.S. broadcast networks. Cable news became a viable new information source, one that often broadcast live (without editors to carefully analyze copy) and that had to fill many hours a day rather than a single half-hour broadcast. 

Five years later a competing cable network, Fox News, launched. Its top prime-time host was Bill O’Reilly, who boasted huge ratings but who brought to television Limbaugh’s model of blurring news, opinion and entertainment, making it harder for the public to distinguish which was which. 

And then the internet happened. 

President Clinton holds Socks the cat as he and first lady Hillary Clinton host Washington area elementary school children at the White House on Dec. 20, 1996, for a reading by the president of “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” (AP Photo/Ruth Fremson, File)

In January 1998 the story of the decade — Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky — was killed by Newsweek hours before publication. But the spiking of the article was outed online by Matt Drudge, a 31-year-old gossipmonger and former CBS Studios gift-shop T-shirt vendor working out of his one-bedroom Hollywood apartment. 

The fact that Drudge’s story turned out to be true — and dominated headlines for a year and led to an impeachment — gave the Drudge Report a kind of rogue validity, even though the site rarely did any actual journalism and instead simply aggregated sensationalized headlines from elsewhere, and even though its flagship “scoop” didn’t involve reporting but simply the unauthorized publication of someone else’s reporting. The event led the public to think of unfiltered online gossip publications as potential news sources and romanticized the idea that anyone with a computer could become a citizen reporter.  

But the internet did far more harm to journalism than that. Its body blow was depriving newspapers of their cash cow of classified advertising, which migrated to sites such as Craigslist and eBay that offered wider exposure at cheaper prices, according to Jane Kirtley, a professor of media ethics at the University of Minnesota law school. 

Many newspapers also made the apparent strategic mistake of offering content for free online and hoping to pay for it with advertising, even though online advertising required newspapers to compete with larger non-news websites and was far less lucrative than print advertising had been. The resulting glut of free news commodified information and created an incentive to produce it as cheaply as possible, especially since ad revenue was down. 

Before long a large number of local newspapers folded or were sold to chains or to hedge funds and other businesses that were not primarily news organizations. 

These businesses “took something that had always had a public service component and focused only on the corporate bottom line,” said Kirtley. 

“They asked, ‘What is the minimum staff we can scrape along with?’ And that translates into indifference to the public, less interest in holding public officials to account, and no capacity for investigative work or even the day-to-day monitoring and watchdogging of local government.” 

Even when it was newspaper chains that took over, they consolidated the work and lost local accountability. “Gannett bought up a lot of local papers and most people think that it did not help journalism,” Kirtley said. 

She also noted that companies such as Clear Channel (now iHeartMedia) did something similar with radio stations: “They lost local news. In a weather disaster, they were getting their weather reports from four states away.” 

All these things diminished the public’s trust in journalism’s ability to get the facts right and tell the truth about matters of public importance. 

Once news organizations committed to the model of offering their product online for free and selling ads around it, they had to generate clicks, because clicks are the metric on which ad sales are based. And the pressure to get clicks became even greater with the rise of social media, which required journalists to produce information that could go viral and compete with the very different types of content found on Facebook and Twitter. 

“You cannot overstate the significance of social media” in declining trust, because social media are “optimized for attention rather than quality,” said Rachel Moran, who works at the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public and wrote her doctoral dissertation on trust in digital media. 

According to Lehrman, “Tech platforms took over the presentation of news, and news organizations struggled to fit into that world because emotion is what gets clicks.” The result was an overly sensational, emotional slant on the news. 

“One of their first innovations was to publish mugshots, and especially celebrity mugshots,” Lehrman said. “They were trying to get clicks and they didn’t think through the implications. It changed the perception of what the news is about and for.” 

Tech platforms also reward having a “voice,” Lehrman said, which led to reporters being pressured to show their own personality and provide analysis and opinion, often blurring the lines with straight reporting. 

Mayer added that as a result, “you often don’t know who is a reporter, and who is an anchor, and who is an expert, and who is an analyst.” 

Moran noted that even the way news stories are written is affected because “engagement editors” at news organizations often rewrite articles for search-engine optimization, favoring words that are trending even if they’re not the most accurate and shortening detailed explanations to tailor them to mobile devices. 

Lehrman said that because technology platforms have no journalism background, “they don’t understand the difference between news and other types of information and how to tell them apart.

“And to the public, it all looks alike, whether it’s legitimate news or an advertorial,” she added.

“And propagandists take advantage of that. We now have partisan-driven sites that are made to look like news and even have names that make them sound like a local news company. And then we see misinformation flood into system.” 

Adding to the problem is “the filter bubble that rewards you with what you signal you want,” Lehrman said. “It’s been documented that if you show interest in non-mainstream things on YouTube, it will lead you to more extreme videos and eventually into major disinformation systems.” 

Lehrman said that she’s clicked on Fox News stories, “and pretty soon I start getting ads for guns.”

“If you don’t deliberately diversify your news sources,” she continued, “you get pushed down a tunnel.” 

Dominion Voting Systems included this screenshot of Sidney Powell repeating baseless election-fraud claims in a federal complaint filed against the ex-Trump lawyer on Jan. 8. (Image via Courthouse News)

Kirtley agreed that “you can live in your own echo chamber via algorithms.” And Moran said that if over time you inadvertently only hear things from one point of view, suddenly hearing something different can make you feel suspicious. 

The result of all this is that the public has become convinced that the news media are deliberately biased. A 2020 study by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that 86% of Americans think the media are slanting coverage. 

“Most Americans have lost confidence in the media to deliver the news objectively,” said Knight senior vice president Sam Gill. “This is corrosive for our democracy.” 

But are the news media really biased, or does it simply appear that way because it has become so much harder to tell reporting from opinion and people are encouraged (or subtly manipulated) to get all their news from sources they agree with? 

“It’s definitely both,” said Mayer, although she believes that the actual bias is mostly unintentional. 

“As an industry, we have blind spots,” she said. “We need to look at the makeup of newsrooms, which have many more liberal people, and how that affects coverage. We’re overdue for some hard conversations about the lack of political diversity and the accidental disenfranchisement of conservative views.” 

But even what liberal bias exists is ultimately the result of industry economics, Kirtley argues, and the fact that consolidation has focused political coverage on a small number of national reporters in the District of Columbia. 

“Washington is a small town with an incestuous nature,” she said. “Reporters there live in a bubble. People know each other and have personal friendships; it’s how things work and it’s easy to slip into a lack of awareness that it’s problematic.    

“There was more of a basic level of trust in small-town newspapers,” she said. “If you have to interact with real people, you’re more in touch.” 

Lehrman added, “Reporters missed the 2016 election result because they weren’t listening to middle America.” 

On the other hand, “people overestimate bias,” Mayer said. “Things that are balanced or in the middle can look biased if you expect them to be.” 

And complaints about “media bias” are often the result of the confusing nature of what’s presented, said Kirtley. “Who are ‘the media’? If you ask people, they often mention things that are really entertainment. They’ll confuse Fox news with Fox opinion.” 

Moran said that there is no longer a consensus as to what is news. “If I ask my 85-year-old grandmother what the news is, I’ll get one answer, and if I ask a student, I’ll get a completely different answer,” she said. 

In other words, the reason that many people believe that journalists are biased is that they have been led to misidentify high-profile entertainers, political commentators and analysts with an axe to grind as “journalists.” 

The New York Times building is shown on Oct. 21, 2009 in New York. (AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

And many columnists and broadcasters are happy to stoke the flames of resentment by citing instances where an expert or analyst said something opinionated and then attributing that person’s bias to the entire news organization that presented it. 

The problem is only made worse when reporters are interviewed about their stories and asked for their opinion. “Reporters should not be acting as pundits,” Lehrman said. 

Interestingly, social media outlets have been facing a congressional crackdown of late and have been scrambling to suggest that they have ethics and will stamp out misinformation and incitement, said Kirtley. But doing so has only opened them up to charges of censorship, further fanning the flames of distrust. 

So what can be done? 

The Trust Project partners with news organizations around the world and promotes eight specific ways that they can improve trust by increasing transparency. These include explaining funding and conflicts of interest, clear separation of reporting from analysis and opinion, links to underlying sources, encouraging diverse perspectives, explaining methodology, and inviting feedback. 

Trusting News takes a different approach by working with individual journalists rather than organizations on how to communicate trustworthiness. 

“Our goal is not to get people to trust the media but to teach them which media to trust,” Mayer explained. “Because definitely not all media are trustworthy.” 

Moran sees a role for schools in educating students on media literacy, such as how to assess credibility and differentiate fact from opinion. We can no longer simply assume that people know these things, she said. 

Lehrman believes that public policy needs to be proactive with regard to emerging information technology in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past. “We need guardrails” with respect to personal assistants (such as Alexa), podcasts, artificial intelligence, and deepfakes, she said. “We need to be able to watermark things so you can tell what’s legitimately produced and what has been embedded or twisted.” 

And finally, Mayer thinks that in today’s confusing landscape, the public needs to accept more responsibility for using critical thinking and becoming smarter about what they read, watch and listen to. 

“People blindly share and have little curiosity and hit things that are making other people money by outraging them and getting emotional reactions,” she said. “I have a lot of empathy for news consumers because it’s hard to know where information comes from and who’s behind it. But they need to do more.”

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