Why Americans don’t trust news media (and what journalists can do about it)

September 2, 2020 01:30

Americans believe journalism is important                 
Nearly half of Americans say the news media is “critical” – up 5 percentage points since 2017 – and more than 80% say it is at least “very important” in providing accurate information and holding the powerful accountable, according to a Gallup/Knight Foundation study published in August.

76% say democracy only works well when people are informed.

More Americans also now say that it’s harder to be well-informed. They cite a confusing mix of types of content on social media, the fast pace of reporting, misinformation online and bias among the news media as major barriers to being informed.

According to a Pew Research Center survey, a majority of Americans feel some skepticism of news media is healthy.

But 75%, according to Pew, say confidence in news media has the potential to improve and 80%, according to Gallup/Knight, believe the media has the potential to bring people together.
Americans believe news has lost, but can regain, trust
The Gallup/Knight Foundation study found that as many Americans as say the news media has the potential to bring people together also say the media bears at least some blame for political divisions:

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

73%, it found, perceive news media bias as a major problem. More perceive a great deal of political bias in media than did in 2017, and they worry about bias in others’ news sources as well as, to a lesser extent, in their own news sources.

Americans are split on whose responsibility—news producers’ or news consumers’— getting an accurate picture of news falls, with slightly more saying it’s on audiences.

In practice, American news audiences shoulder that responsibility in a variety of ways, some more effective than others. When overwhelmed by news, the Gallup/Knight study reports, news consumers are most likely to pick one or two trusted sources (though some tune out altogether), while Pew reports 63% of news consumers it surveyed don’t feel particularly loyal to their news sources. The data also suggests that consuming a wide range of media from various perspectives makes news consumers more aware of bias in sources with which they align as well as those they don’t.

It’s important to note that the Gallup/Knight study tacitly defined “news media” broadly as “national media outlets” – which could include news, analysis, commentary and other types of media – in questions regarding bias.

Local news is more widely trusted and perceived as much less biased overall – though a previous Gallup/Knight study in 2019 indicated some softness in trust of local news as well.
As such, local news organizations would do well to note American’s other perceived shortcomings in news – and their potential remedies.
Lunch & Learn | Thursday, April 22, 2 pm ET/11 am PT

Tips and Tools for Building Trust with your audience

How can you build trust with your audience when trust in the news media is at a historic low? A former national president at SPJ, Lynn Walsh, and journalism professor and entrepreneur Paul Glader will explain simple methods and tools your news organization can use to build trust with its audiences. One zone is to improve the way you manage corrections and feedback from your audience. Another is to better label opinion content. Walsh and Glader will offer tips and tools and field your questions in this 30-minute training.

Free but registration required. Register here.

What Americans want from news
According to the latest Gallup/Knight study, Americans most want news, in order of preference, to:
  • “provide accurate and fair news reports”
  • Keep people informed about public affairs
  • Hold leaders accountable
They rate news media overall as performing slightly worse in each of these functions than in past years.

Demonstrating accuracy and fairness is of growing importance, especially for outlets wishing to differentiate their journalism from other types of media.
Keep Fact Checking! Americans consider misinformation online to be an even bigger problem than perceived media bias, and those who most get their news online are among the least trusting of news and the least informed about their communities. Further, most want internet companies to stop mis- and disinformation and hate online. This suggests the importance of a continued role for local news in fact checking and countering online misinformation, particularly on social media.

Americans largely perceive shortcomings in accuracy and fairness because of a lack of transparency about the motivations, business and process of news.

For example, 70% or more cite dramatization of news to attract audiences and owner influence on reporting as major problems. Similarly, Pew found that Americans believe 60% of news organizations don’t report conflicts of interest and 72% don’t explain the sources of their funding.

More transparently explaining your newsroom’s mission, values and ethics can help skeptical viewers  The Trusting News project, for example, offers research tested strategies for showing viewers how your newsroom works.
Accuracy and transparency are guiding principles of the RTDNA Code of Ethics.

Americans also mistrust news media because of their perceptions of errors in news. Gallup/Knight find that 8 in 10 Americans feel errors are intentional misrepresentations, while Pew found lower perceptions of intentional errors but that almost 7 in 10 believe news outlets typically quietly cover up errors.

According to the RTDNA Code of Ethics, “Ethical journalism requires owning errors, correcting them promptly and giving corrections as much prominence as the error itself had,” and confidence in news does increase when news consumers see corrections.
Keep Covering Tough Topics! Americans say that news organizations should not give less coverage to controversial or divisive issues. Rather, they report that news media can better heal political divisions by covering community members engaging in civil discourse, hosting community forums, and diversifying both newsrooms and sources.

Caring and connection
Of six measured functions of news media, Gallup/Knight found the only area in which American’s don’t evaluate media more negatively than positively is how well news media is connecting people to their local community.

News consumers also rated this role at a lower priority than others, but 70% still label it very important.

However, according to Pew, 57% of news consumers do not feel valued by the news sources they use most, and 59% don’t feel their sources understand people like them. On the other hand, news consumers who felt personal connections to news stories were more likely to rate the coverage and news media overall well.

Demonstrating understanding of, caring for and relevance of news to audiences is something local news has a particular opportunity to do – as is connecting audiences to their local communities.

Gallup/Knight found that more local TV viewers, 35%, say local news does a good job connecting them with their communities than those who get news primarily online, 21%.

Americans largely feel they’re not very knowledgeable about how to get involved in local affairs, how to give feedback to local officials or how others in their community feel about local government. Local news outlets can focus on filling these gaps – and already does to some extent.

Local news consumption is strongly correlated with more favorable views of news media, more confidence in the ability to have a say in the community and increased participation in local elections.

Focusing further on the “why”  and “what now” behind local stories, providing local audiences resources on how to get involved in their communities, is an opportunity for local newsrooms to continue to differentiate themselves from other, less trusted types of news media.