Distrust of the news media didn’t start with Donald Trump, but he has amplified and stoked those doubts like no American president before him. Trump is also not the first politician to discredit any negative reporting on him, but his effort to undermine a shared understanding of facts conveyed in fair, vetted reporting takes a page from the playbooks of authoritarians in China, Cuba, Russia and Venezuela.
As the year draws to a close, we wanted to assess the impact of a sustained campaign by the president to undercut the media as “fake news” and “enemies of the people.” In research commissioned for Poynter’s inaugural journalism ethics summit this month, political scientists at Dartmouth College, Princeton University and the University of Exeter found that Trump’s frequent attacks on journalists and threats to restrict press freedoms have widened a stark, partisan divide in attitudes toward the media. While Democrats have gained confidence in the press this year, Republicans’ confidence continued to erode. Strikingly, Republicans who were most tuned into the news were the least likely to trust the mainstream press.
The Poynter Media Trust Survey found 49 percent of Americans surveyed say they trust the media to report the news “fully, accurately and fairly” — the highest uptick in confidence in the media since the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks. That overall number masks a deep divide: 74 percent of Democrats expressed confidence in reporting, compared with only 19 percent of Republicans. (Gallup has measured a long, steady decline in confidence in the media since 1976, and also saw an uptick from an all-time low of 32 percent trust in September 2016 to 41 percent confidence in September 2017).
Disturbingly, the Poynter survey found nearly half of Americans — 44 percent — believe the press invents negative stories about the president, including 74 percent of Republicans. The finding should be a fire alarm for newsrooms; a widespread, fundamental misunderstanding among the public of what we do points to an urgent need to be more transparent about how and why we report news. Remedies to begin restoring audience trust include annotating stories and linking original documents and images to show how we know what we know, and publishing reports and videos taking the audience step-by-step through ethical standards, methods, sourcing and fact-checking. The Washington Post is doing that in a new series called “How to Be a Reporter,” which cited the Poynter survey as an inspiration and launched four days after Post editor Marty Baron spoke of the need for more transparency to address the trust gap at the Poynter Ethics Summit.
The Poynter survey was a representative poll of 2,100 American adults that surveyed attitudes toward the press and analyzed consumption and knowledge of the news based on anonymized website browsing and questions about current events. It was co-authored by Brendan Nyhan of Dartmouth College, Andrew Guess of Princeton University and Jason Reifler of the University of Exeter.
In the second episode of our series based on our inaugural ethics summit, we’re synthesizing what the survey tells us about people’s skepticism of the news, their consumption of content across the political spectrum, and the implications for us as journalists. These are some of the points made during a panel discussion about the survey.
Watch some excerpts from the panel:
On unprecedented attacks on the media by the president …
Jason Reifler: We have aggressive tweets from the president of the United States and aggressive press conferences. In fact, I imagine some people in this room have personally been called fake news either in a tweet or in a news conference by the president.
In a speech, he attacks journalists as sick people who don't like our country. These are pretty unprecedented attacks on the media.There are reasonable questions what affects in consequences to these types of attacks have on attitude towards the media and perceptions of the media.
Major findings from our survey …
Reifler: One piece of good news is that media trust is up. Now, that's not the greatest news and that it's mainly up among Democrats. It's not really up among Independents or Republicans.
Those with the most knowledge among Democrats are even more favorable towards the media and those with more knowledge among Republicans are even less favorable towards the media.
Brendan Nyhan: Quoting Trump saying the media is fake news doesn't make people disbelieve in the media more. If you're fearful of one more attack on the media changing how the American people feel about our free press, our experiment might be somewhat reassuring. The bad news is the stability of these attitudes … means that they are likely to be with us long after Trump leaves the political scene. These attitudes are crystallizing and people are forming them in a way that is likely to be relatively durable.
The danger of partisan polarization in attitudes toward the media …
Nyhan: It feels like a double-edged sword to me to get an increase in trust driven by one political party. We've seen these dynamics occur on issues with scientists and their perception is being affiliated with the Democratic Party and that really harms scientific credibility in the public debate. If journalists go down that the same road and become seen as part of the Democratic [Party] coalition, I think it's very harmful to the ability of all you to do your jobs and to create this reasonably broad, shared consensus about the nature of reality that we'd like to hope is a mission of journalism.
Implications for press freedom …
Reifler: When we asked a specific question about Trump's claim that journalists are an enemy of the people, the same very large partisan distinctions [were revealed].
The Trump approvers readily agreed to this, a majority agreed with it, whereas, the Trump disapprovers only a small minority agreed with it. When we asked a question about should government be able to block media coverage that they find objectionable or inaccurate or biased, Trump approvers said, "Yes."
On the influence of social media …
Andrew Guess: Social media can make us more extreme and induce this group dynamics.
On the other hand, you're coming in the contact with a lot of perspectives … into your feed that you wouldn't encounter otherwise. I think there are these two competing forces — one towards more homogeneity in terms of the messages you're seeing, and the other in terms of just diversity. The deeper question is what are we paying attention to based on what's actually in front of us?
Some good news: news’ consumers partisan filter bubbles aren’t as bad as we thought …
Reifler: There's a little bit of good news here in that people overestimate going to like-minded partisan sites and under-report going to counter-attitudinal websites.
What we see here is that among Fox News, Democrats go a little bit more than they say that they do or Republicans go less than they say that they do. Among Huffington Post, a more liberal outlet, we find that Democrats say that they go more than they actually do and Republicans go more than they say that they do.
But people distrust news they don’t like and it’s hard to persuade them otherwise …
Nyhan: One of things that we find over and over again is that people who have high levels of political knowledge are able to consume and resist information they don't want to believe is true, at least under some circumstances.
The classic model of public opinion will tell us, it's the people in the middle of the knowledge distribution who are most responsive to this kind of signals. The low knowledge folks are tuned out of politics and won't hear it, the high knowledge folks are going to have really durable attitudes that are hard to change. It’s those folks in the middle; the marginal news consumer in the middle is the one who is going to hear that message the most.
Correction: Jason Reifler is associated with the University of Exeter. An earlier version of this story named a different university.