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The Cultural Changes That Destroyed Trust in Media

The critical question isn’t whether traditional media are trusted but whether their model can even survive the tsunami of the internet
A man puts wooden blocks with the words Fact and fake. Concept of news and false information. Yellow press.

Felix Salmon, chief financial correspondent at Axios, shares the gloomy news:

For the first time ever, fewer than half of all Americans have trust in traditional media, according to data from Edelman’s annual trust barometer shared exclusively with Axios. Trust in social media has hit an all-time low of 27%.

Felix Salmon, “Media trust hits new low” at Axios (January 1, 2021)

But the trust issue is highly polarized:

When Edelman re-polled Americans after the election, the figures had deteriorated even further, with 57% of Democrats trusting the media and only 18% of Republicans.

Felix Salmon, “Media trust hits new low” at Axios (January 1, 2021)

But even if media are willing to just write off Republicans, it can’t be good news for them that only 57% of Democrats trust them.

Salmon thinks that the solution is for CEOs of trusted organizations to express trust in media, hoping that that will sway the public: “CEOs have long put themselves forward as the people able to upgrade America’s physical infrastructure. Now it’s time for them to use the trust they’ve built up to help rebuild our civic infrastructure.” But that, of course, assumes that the CEO has a reason to trust media.

The CEOs might want to hesitate. The trust problem is apparently worse in the United States than in many other countries, according to journalism watering hole Poynter:

The United States ranks last in media trust — at 29% — among 92,000 news consumers surveyed in 46 countries, a report released Wednesday found. That’s worse than Poland, worse than the Philippines, worse than Peru. (Finland leads at 65%.)

The annual digital news report from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford also found some improvement in trust in nearly all the countries surveyed — probably thanks to COVID-19 coverage — but not in the U.S. where the low rating was flat year to year.

Rick Edmonds, “US ranks last among 46 countries in trust in media, Reuters Institute report finds” at Poynter (June 24, 2021)

In general, local media was somewhat more trusted than national media but the pattern of use of media provides a clue:

The most popular local news topic, by a wide margin (62%), was weather. Staples of local newspaper coverage like politics (33%) and education (16%) lagged. Those surveyed indicated a preference for local broadcast (52%) as a source over newspapers (16%).

Rick Edmonds, “US ranks last among 46 countries in trust in media, Reuters Institute report finds” at Poynter (June 24, 2021)

The main message here is that people are simply not engaging much with traditional media, unless it is necessary (local weather, for example).

While conservatives generally thought that coverage of their issues was unfair (75%), young minority group members felt left out (presumably regardless of their political views), according to Erasmus Klaus Nielsen, director of Reuters Institute:

“Many Americans do not feel that news organizations are covering people like them fairly, and those who say the news media are treating them less fairly are less likely to trust the news. This includes, for example, younger people (young women, in particular), Black Americans and Hispanic Americans.”

Rick Edmonds, “US ranks last among 46 countries in trust in media, Reuters Institute report finds” at Poynter (June 24, 2021)
Retro old television in vintage wall pastel color background

Of course, the question arises, would these young people lean toward traditional ways of consuming news if they perceived that news media were treating them fairly? It’s possible that, if they got around to paying more attention to traditional media, they would regard many of them as hopelessly antiquated.

A 2018 Knight Foundation Gallup poll provides a longer term view:

An experimental approach not only showed the importance of accuracy, bias and transparency, but also revealed a complex relationship between partisanship and media trust. Both Republicans and Democrats were less likely to trust news sources with a partisan reputation that opposes their own. However, they did not express much greater trust in news sources that have a reputation for a partisan leaning consistent with their own.

These results indicate that attempts to restore trust in the media among most Americans may be fruitful, particularly if those efforts are aimed at improving accuracy, enhancing transparency and reducing bias. The results also indicate that reputations for partisan leaning are a crucial driver of media distrust, and one that may matter more for people themselves than they realize.

Media Release, “Indicators of news media trust” at Knight Foundation (September 11, 2018)

The Knight Foundation remained hopeful that trust can be restored but so far their hopes have not been realized. Columbia Journalism Review riffs,

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.

Mathew Ingram, “Most Americans say they have lost trust in the media” at Columbia Journalism Review (September 12, 2018)

It seems more likely, at this distance, that Trump and his staff — subtly blamed for the trust problem — were reflecting a commonly held opinion than that they were creating it.

Here’s an approach that may shed light on the situation, though it will bring little cheer to traditional news media: It’s very difficult for traditional media of any type to match the immediacy, personalization, and breadth of social media — for good or ill. Social media consumers are largely creating personal news channels and choosing the news they want to consume on an individual basis. If they don’t trust a medium, they just don’t include it in the package, much as they would not put a product they didn’t trust in their shopping carts at the supermarket. But they need not have anywhere near the investment in any individual medium that their grandparents might have had in the town paper.

The new media world may free them from the institutional bias of a town paper but it could also just be, as one writer put it, the Daily Me. With freedom comes a need for judgment and character.

Thus the critical question isn’t whether traditional media are trusted but whether their model can even survive the tsunami of the internet. We’ll look at models for survival in upcoming articles.


You may also wish to read: Newsletter group creates alarm plus demands for censorship Substack is getting a lot of ink these days — raising both hope from readers and hand wringing from old media. The surprising thing about “controversial” Substack is that it is a restoration of the very old idea that we should pay a small amount for the content we want.


Denyse O'Leary

Denyse O'Leary is a freelance journalist based in Victoria, Canada. Specializing in faith and science issues, she has published two books on the topic: Faith@Science and By Design or by Chance? She has written for publications such as The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and Canadian Living. She is co-author, with neuroscientist Mario Beauregard, of The Spiritual Brain: A Neuroscientist's Case for the Existence of the Soul. She received her degree in honors English language and literature.

The Cultural Changes That Destroyed Trust in Media