Imagine dozens of Americans of different political and socioeconomic backgrounds in a room, looking for common ground. A safe place to start would be distrust in the news media.
Last year, we conducted sixty Zoom-based interviews with a diverse sample of adults in the United States to understand the relationship between the sources that people turn to for their news, the stories that they tell themselves about the news, and the steps they take to distinguish fact from fiction. (Findings from this research were published this week in New Media & Society.)
We found that Americans of all political persuasions agree that the news media is fundamentally untrustworthy, even as they tend to tune into the same channels and spend similar amounts of time engaging with the news. Many said they got their news from television, including cable news, major networks, and local affiliate stations. One person––whom, like all of our interviewees, we agreed not to identify as a condition of participating in our study––said that her news routine included CBS and Fox News. “It’s habit,” she said. “I’ve watched these news channels for years.”
Many of our respondents were more glued to the news than usual when we spoke to them in spring 2020. They explained it was related to the pandemic: more time at home due to layoffs or transitions to remote work, as well as the demands of social distancing and their own personal investment in updates about the virus. “Prior to the coronavirus pandemic, I would still wake up and check the news,” one person told us, “but it definitely didn’t carry on throughout the day the same way that it does now.”
Despite higher engagement, interviewees also expressed deep skepticism about the news. Many said it was impossible to fully trust any particular news source, because they felt that all journalists were biased, and the news they produced was reported—either deliberately or unintentionally—in ways that would best serve their political agendas. “It’s all slanted, in my opinion,” one interviewee said.
Participants’ sense that the news media is biased was a strike against all news outlets, including those they felt were biased in the same direction as their own political beliefs. “I hear NPR as anti-Trump. I am also anti-Trump, but I don’t want the news delivered to me necessarily in that snarky way,” one interviewee said. “I don’t know who delivers it that way. I guess that’s the problem.”
If news consumers do not feel they can wholly trust any particular news outlet, we wondered, then how do they determine the truth about what’s going on in the world? The answers we heard were consistent: interviewees pointed to their own thoughtfulness, critical thinking skills, and independent-mindedness as evidence that they were qualified to vet the news. This was true regardless of age, political affiliation, or education level.
“I’m always skeptical,” one person said. “If the journalists are asking for the right facts, then I’m okay. If the journalists aren’t asking for the right facts, I wonder why they’re not asking for the right facts.”
Our respondents viewed themselves as capable of piecing together ideologically slanted half-truths they noticed in the news. They also felt compelled to corroborate news reports themselves. “You shouldn’t take the article as gospel,” one interviewee said. “You should still do some research and determine if what they’re saying is correct.” One person said he typically Googles facts on his iPad while watching the news.
In other words, our respondents saw a need––and had faith in their own ability––to do journalists’ jobs for them.
Many added that if they saw the information presented in one source repeated by others, they were more inclined to believe it. If they saw information reported by one source and disputed by another, they might split the difference and assume the truth was somewhere in the middle.
When we asked how they could tell when something is a fact, one person responded, “I would just like to rely on instinct.” Another said, “Is it from a news source that I trust? Reading it, I feel like I have a pretty good sense. I get an intuition.”
They also claimed to seek out the source of the information published in a news story or featured in a news broadcast. For example, if the story mentioned coronavirus testing rates or positive cases, they might go directly to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s website to determine if those statistics were accurate.
Even when our interviewees’ fact-checking missions did corroborate the original news source, it failed to alleviate their distrust in journalism. We found that, regardless of the outcomes of their research, people’s assumptions about the news tend to be rigid.
Taken together, our findings offer a counter-narrative to the conventional wisdom surrounding the mechanisms by which news consumption unfolds. Many tend to assume that people seek out news that will confirm their political viewpoints. In reality, people see the news as inherently untrustworthy and feel obligated to do journalists’ work for them.
Our interviewees consistently described themselves as being the kinds of news consumers who interact with the news in a discerning way. The phrase “I take it all with a grain of salt” came up time and time again, as did the claim that our interviewees were not “sheep” who would mindlessly accept whatever a news source told them was true. For many of the people we spoke with, the news serves as an intellectual foil—something they can push against and knock over.
Distrusting the news, in a sense, is presented as a badge of honor.