Why Americans' trust in the media is at an all-time low

Only 32 percent of Americans say they have a 'great deal' or 'fair amount' of trust in the mass media, an 8 percent drop from just one year ago. 

Andrew Harnik/AP/File
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, accompanied by Traveling Press Secretary Nick Merrill (r.) speaks to members of the media on board her campaign plane as she travels to Tampa, Tuesday, Sept. 6, 2016.

Americans' confidence in the mass media has plummeted to an all-time low in 2016, according to a recent Gallup poll. 

In the survey, published Wednesday, only 32 percent of respondents reported having a "great deal" or "fair amount" of trust in the mass media, the lowest number in Gallup history and an 8 percent drop from just one year ago. 

The numbers reflect an ongoing trend of waning confidence in the US media, experts say. But that distrust has grown exponentially in the past year alone, fueled by a polarizing presidential election and a rapidly changing media landscape. 

This decline in trust is not unique to Americans, says Jonathan M. Ladd, author of "Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters." A similar phenomenon has occurred in a number of wealthy countries in the last 20 to 40 years. But it's "especially large" in the United States. 

Attitudes toward the media were "fairly negative" in the 1930s, Dr. Ladd explains, before growing more positive and "peaking" in the 1950s, '60s, and early '70s. Now, "they've been getting more negative ever since." 

Ladd attributes the steady decline in trust to three factors. First, he tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email, "there has been a general decline in confidence in all American institutions."

Second, "the parties have become more polarized, which incentivizes them to criticize the institutional media and urge their supporters to use more partisan outlets."

And third, "changes in technology have allowed many new news sources to come into existence, many of which are commercially viable (and do good reporting) yet cover the news in a more sensationalist way that reduces the esteem in which the public holds them." 

The rise of the internet has created an influx of online news sources, some reliable and some not so much, says David Jones, a professor of political science at James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. When people "go into their newsfeed or turn on the TV and they're getting information from a wide array of sources, and some of them are less than reputable ... it contributes to the sense" that all media is untrustworthy, he tells the Monitor in a phone interview. 

However, Dr. Jones says, he doesn't believe the media itself is primarily responsible for losing public trust. Rather, like Ladd, he sees the trend as part of a larger growing distrust in public and political institutions such as Congress, the military, and the Supreme Court that "sort of spills over into people's perceptions of the media." 

Just as political leanings can affect levels of confidence in such institutions, they can also determine how one feels about the media, analysts say. The Gallup poll found that the number of Republicans who say they trust the mass media is significantly lower than the number of Democrats: 14 and 51 percent, respectively. 

Anti-media rhetoric among Republicans began in the late 1960s, Jones says, and accelerated during the Nixon administration, as then-Vice President Spiro Agnew criticized television networks for their coverage of the Vietnam War. Then, "starting in the 1980s, when the news became a little more edgy and analytical and a little more opinionated, the gripes about the liberal media really took off." 

The partisan polarization surrounding the media has become more pronounced in recent years because of a number of high-profile journalists revealing political bias, says Jim Kuypers, a professor of communication at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. He cites as examples journalist Katie Couric, who is currently facing a defamation lawsuit for misleading editing in the documentary film "Under the Gun," and The New York Times's Jim Rutenberg, who wrote in an opinion piece last month that covering Republican nominee Donald Trump in a different way from other presidential candidates was "unavoidable." 

"America’s trust in the media parallels its belief in the objectivity of the media. So, trust and the perception of fairness go hand in hand," Dr. Kuypers tells the Monitor in an email. "The more instances of breaking trust and of rank partisanship, the lower rated the media is" and "the more Americans are driven away from the mainstream news into the arms of alternative media." 

In an election year that is particularly polarizing, the concept known as the "hostile media phenomenon" – or the tendency of people of all political leanings to see bias against their side in the media – is especially strong, Jones says. 

Complicating things further is Republican candidate Donald Trump, who has been vocally critical of the mainstream media and implemented a temporary ban on a number of major news outlets including The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and Buzzfeed. 

"[T]his year is especially difficult," says Staci Rhine, professor of political science at Wittenberg University in Ohio, in an email to the Monitor. "Donald Trump has made criticizing the media one of his central claims, thereby inoculating himself from media criticism among his supporters." 

But Republicans, while reportedly more likely to distrust the media, are not the only demographic whose confidence is waning in this election year. 

"I also suspect that Hillary Clinton’s supporters are angry about what they perceive to be a false equivalence in terms of coverage," Dr. Rhine adds. 

Such widespread levels of distrust in the media can be dangerous to the healthy functioning of a republic like the US, Jones and other experts warn.

"I think we need to think about the lack of trust in the media as being very bad for our democracy," Jeff McCall, professor of communication at DePauw University, told Fox News's Bill O'Reilly in response to a 2014 Gallup poll. "Citizens need information, they need to get it from the media. The First Amendment was set up to create a media that served as a surrogate role for the public, and if the public is not engaged and they move on and they're not consuming news ... it's really a disservice and it hurts our democracy a lot." 

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