The media today: Reader trust splits along party lines

As media companies struggle to deal with the twin threat of financial collapse and Trump’s accusations of “fake news,” many have focused on trust as a solution. If readers trust them—or so the theory goes—they won’t be seen as fake news, and then readers might be inclined to support them financially. Unfortunately, the relationship between trust and journalism is more complicated than we like to admit, as a new survey released Tuesday confirms.

The joint study by Gallup and the Knight Foundation finds most Americans don’t trust the news media to do a good job of making sure they have the knowledge they need to be informed about public affairs, but it also found trust was split along ideological lines: Almost 70 percent of Republicans said they had an unfavorable opinion of the media, compared with 54 percent of Democrats. When looking at a combination of factors, the trust level among Republican voters was just 21 percent, while Democrats scored the press twice as high.

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These kinds of results shouldn’t come as a surprise, since other polls have also found a decline in trust with a distinctly ideological bent. The annual Trust Barometer report from PR giant Edelman found an even larger gap in a survey conducted just after the election: 85 percent of Trump voters said they didn’t trust the news media, compared to less than half of Clinton voters. And a survey from the Pew Center last year found a similar divide between Republicans and Democrats when it came to trust.

This problem extends to the idea of “fake news,” which experts like Claire Wardle of First Draft News say has become almost meaningless. According to the Gallup-Knight poll, most Americans said the term could even apply to accurate stories that portray politicians negatively, and 40 percent of Republicans said such stories are always “fake news.” Not surprisingly, the survey also found an ideological divide when it came to the severity of the problem: Three-quarters of those who defined themselves as very conservative saw fake news as a very severe threat to democracy, while only 46 percent of liberals agreed with that statement.

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More on the issue of trust and journalism:

  • Trust and media globally: The Pew Center recently released a survey looking at global trust in the media, and there were some interesting differences between countries. Canada ranked highly for reporting on various subjects accurately, with about 75 percent saying they did, while the US ranked among the lowest, with just over 50 percent saying US media produced accurate reporting.
  • Can you automate trust? The Trust Project is an international consortium of news organizations—including Google and Facebook—led by journalist Sally Lehrman and hosted at Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. One of the project’s most recent initiatives was the development of “trust indicators” that a number of media outlets have agreed to add to their publications. Google, Facebook and Twitter have also agreed to use them.
  • Building bridges: The News Integrity Initiative was launched last year by Jeff Jarvis, who runs the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism at City University of New York, with $14 million in funding from Facebook, Mozilla, and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark. It plans to fund research and other activities that will “build bridges between the public and journalists to foster collaboration and develop mutual respect and trust.”
  • Good journalism isn’t enough: In a forecast for 2018, Molly De Aguiar—who runs the News Integrity Initiative—said that simply doing good journalism and hoping people will trust you is no longer enough. “If journalists want the public to listen, then journalists have to listen to the public,” she wrote. And if journalists want the public to care, “then journalists have to care about the public.” And that means listening to their concerns, not just seeing them as consumers.

 

Other notable stories:

  • The Awl, an independent arts and culture site created in 2009 by former Gawker Media staffers Alex Balk and Choire Sicha (who is now the editor of the Style section at The New York Times) announced on Tuesday that it is ceasing publication, with what an unsigned note on the site said was “a mixture of disappointment and relief.” The Awl’s sister site The Hairpin will close, but The Billfold and Splitsider have said they plan to continue publishing for now.
  • Newspapers owned by Digital First Media are bracing for “significant” buyouts and layoffs after an announcement on Friday. The company, which is controlled by hedge fund Alden Global Capital, owns papers such as The Los Angeles Daily News, The Orange County Register, and The Mercury News.
  • A site called Babe.net touched off a firestorm of criticism and debate on the weekend when it published a woman’s account of a painful and humiliating date with actor Aziz Ansari. What is Babe.net? According to The Cut, the site is a women’s news and lifestyle site that has only been around about a year and is a spinoff from a site called The Tab, which is published by Cambridge University students.
  • In an essay for Wired magazine, Zeynep Tufekci argues that while we may be living in a golden age for free speech, it brings with it a raft of social problems. In the past, the problem was that people were prevented from speaking, but now we have too much speech—a problem that has been exacerbated by platforms like Facebook and Google, who are monetizing the war for our attention.
  • CBS foreign correspondent Elizabeth Palmer talked to CJR’s Pete Vernon about the experience of reporting on the civil war in Syria and how challenging it is for journalists. Palmer won the Alfred I. duPont Award—that’s the broadcast journalism equivalent of a Pulitzer Prize—for her work on what she calls “one of the great humanitarian tragedies of our time,” and accepted the award at a ceremony on Tuesday night.

Correction: An earlier version of the newsletter said that The Awl’s sister site The Billfold was also closing. It and Splitsider said they are thinking about their future but have decided to continue publishing for now.

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Mathew Ingram is CJR's chief digital writer. Previously, he was a senior writer with Fortune magazine. He has written about the intersection between media and technology since the earliest days of the commercial internet. His writing has been published in The Washington Post and the Financial Times as well as Reuters and Bloomberg.