Most Americans say they have lost trust in the media

The results of a new Knight Foundation and Gallup poll released on Tuesday won’t come as a huge surprise to most journalists: Trust in the media is down. Again.

A majority of those who were surveyed said they had lost trust in the media in recent years, and more than 30 percent of those who identified themselves as being on the conservative end of the spectrum said they had not only lost faith in the media, but they “expect that change to be permanent.” According to a separate Gallup poll from earlier this year that tracked trust in major institutions, newspapers and television news were among the lowest, exceeded only by Congress.

Is this decline in trust related to the repeated attacks on “the lying media” by President Trump and his supporters, who like to describe the press as “the enemy of the people?” That kind of analysis is beyond the scope of the latest Knight/Gallup study, but it has to be part of the backdrop. Respondents who said they paid the least amount of attention to the news were among those who mistrusted the media the most—is that because all they hear about the media is that it makes things up and is out to get the president?

When people were asked why they don’t trust the media, about 45 percent referred to things like inaccuracy, bias, “fake news,” and “alternative facts,” the latter two being common descriptions given by Donald Trump and members of his administration. A general lack of credibility and the fact that reports are “based on opinions or emotions” are two of the other reasons given for a loss of trust. About 10 percent of those surveyed also mentioned sensationalism, “clickbait,” or hype as a negative factor. Interestingly, twice as many young adults (18 to 34) as older respondents said politically focused coverage or partisan bias was a factor in their lack of trust.

The study did try to come up with a few rays of light. For example, the survey asked people whether they thought their trust in media might be restored somehow, and almost 70 percent of them said yes—60 percent of those who identified themselves as Republicans and 86 percent of those who said they were Democrats. And what might restore that lost trust? Respondents chose a variety of factors such as accuracy (including “not reporting stories before [a news outlet] verifies all the facts and being willing to correct mistakes it makes”), as well as lack of bias, and transparency (including “providing fact-checking resources and providing links to research and facts that back up [the news outlet’s] reporting”).

As the study’s authors admit, however, these proposed solutions aren’t as straightforward as they might appear. Whether a news outlet is being accurate when reporting the facts of a story, for example, is something different readers are going to come to different conclusions on, depending in some cases on their political views. If an outlet reports that Donald Trump is under suspicion for influence peddling with the Russians, to take just one hypothetical example, those who are inclined to believe this may see it as accurate, while those who vehemently disagree will see it as inaccurate and therefore untrustworthy. Trust, as an earlier Knight/Gallup poll suggests, is a slippery topic when it comes to the media.

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Here are some more links about the complex relationship between trust and the media:

  • The rebound effect: Both Twitter and Facebook have talked about trying to expose users to a broader range of views to burst their filter bubbles, but a sociologist writing in The New York Times says his research shows that doing this causes people to become more entrenched in their views, not less.
  • What about trust ratings? Another experiment by Knight and Gallup using the same testing platform looked at whether crowdsourced ratings of trust or accuracy changed people’s expectations about a news article, and it turns out they do—stories that have trust ratings are actually trusted less than those that don’t.
  • A culture of listening: The American Press Institute recently held a symposium on ways that media organizations can help to build or regain the trust of their readers, and those who participated came up with a number of recommendations, including talking with “ex-fans” to see why they left, and also not being an “ask-hole.”
  • Optimizing for trust: New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen has written about what it means when a media outlet “optimizes for trust,” a recipe that includes transparency about potential conflicts, a commitment to accuracy, and a view of readers that sees them more as contributors rather than just consumers of content.

Other notable stories:

  • Brazilian fact-checkers working with Facebook to flag fake news stories in the run-up to elections in that country next month say they have been harassed and even subjected to death threats for their work, according to a report from Poynter.
  • Cory Doctorow writes about why European authors, journalists, and publishers need to fight the European Union’s newly proposed copyright laws, which could force online services and publishers to remove content if it matches an index of copyrighted works, and could also impose a tax for linking to external articles.
  • Bryan Goldberg, the founder and CEO of Bustle, plans to re-launch Gawker, the flagship site of the former Gawker Media, which filed for bankruptcy after a lawsuit launched by former wrestler Hulk Hogan. Goldberg acquired the domain name and archives of Gawker for $1.3 million in an auction in July.
  • Facebook is testing a new feature in its CrowdTangle service for journalists that would allow them to flag a news story as inaccurate from inside the service. CrowdTangle, which Facebook acquired in 2016, allows journalists and other users of the tool to see what stories, photos and videos are trending on the network.
  • Twitter and Facebook may get most of the attention when it comes to news, but a Pew Research Center study seems to show that Reddit is the most news-centric social service of them all. According to the survey, 73 percent of Reddit users say they get their news there, compared with 71 percent for Twitter and 67 percent for Facebook.
  • Nick Diakopoulos writes for CJR about an emerging category of social-media “bots” or automated accounts that actually help rather than cause harm, by aggregating or distributing information that has public value, including automated accounts that track changes in New York Times articles or Wikipedia entries.
  • Left-leaning news site ThinkProgress has complained that one of its articles was improperly flagged as inaccurate by The Weekly Standard, a conservative site that is a member of Facebook’s fact-checking program. Alexios Mantzarlis, who runs the International Fact-Checking Network, wrote on Twitter about some of the problems raised by the case, which he says were exacerbated by the post’s headline.

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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.