USA First Look

Survey says the majority of Americans trust the media over Trump

In a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, 52 percent of respondents chose the media over President Trump when asked who they trusted to 'tell you the truth about important issues.'

President Trump takes a question from CNN reporter Jim Acosta during a news conference at the White House on Feb. 16, 2017.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters
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Even in the era of "fake news," a slim majority of Americans say they trust the media more than they trust President Trump.

In a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday, 52 percent of respondents chose the media over Mr. Trump when asked who they trusted to "tell you the truth about important issues." Just over one-third, 37 percent, reported finding Trump more trustworthy.

Since the start of his presidential campaign in 2015, Trump has repeatedly railed against the press, decrying unfavorable polls and coverage from organizations such as CNN and The New York Times as "fake" and dishonest. "The FAKE NEWS media ... is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!" he wrote in a controversial tweet last week. 

Trump's criticism of the fourth estate comes at a time when the public's trust in the media had already been on a steady decline. Americans' confidence in the mass media plummeted to an all-time low in 2016, according to a Gallup poll published in September. 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 prior. Among Republicans, that number was even lower: just 14 percent expressed confidence. 

The results of the recent Quinnipiac University poll were similarly divided among partisan lines, with 86 percent of Democrat voters choosing the media and 78 percent of Republicans choosing Trump. 

Public attitudes toward the media have grown increasingly negative across the board since the 1970s, Jonathan M. Ladd, author of "Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters," told The Christian Science Monitor in September. This phenomenon can be attributed in part to changes in technology and a general decline in confidence in all American institutions, he said. But partisanship is also to blame: "The parties have become more polarized, which incentivizes them to criticize the institutional media and urge their supporters to use more partisan outlets."

The divisive 2016 presidential election saw a rise in the popularity of fake news sites, characterized by misleading or false headlines and political conspiracy theories. Sites like Alex Jones's Infowars and Liberty Writers News were particularly popular among Trump supporters during his campaign, as Story Hinckley reported for the Monitor in December: 

In Monitor interviews, fake news readers defend these outlets as alternative media that mirror their own rejection of the Republican and Democratic political establishments, as well as a mass media that underestimated and shamed their faith in Mr. Trump. Put simply, neither Fox News nor the conservative National Review go remotely far enough for these readers. Fake news sites are essentially the only outlets these readers say can trust....

In that way, fake news is the ultimatum of a political news culture that has increasingly focused on confirming readers’ own worldview instead of challenging them, experts say. 

But the phenomenon isn't just limited to conservatives – since Trump's election victory in November, more liberals have found themselves turning to left-leaning fake news to confirm their pre-existing political views as well.   

"The problem is that we are too credulous of news that reinforces our predispositions and too critical of sites that contradict them," Brendan Nyhan, a political scientist at Dartmouth University in Hanover, N.H., told the Monitor in December. 

The rise of fake news across social media and Trump's denunciation of organizations like CNN and The New York Times have raised questions about the future of American journalism as we know it. But in some ways, the White House's hostility toward the press appears to be having the opposite of its intended effect, as Trump opponents rally behind the "mainstream media." 

"The media, so demonized by the Trump Administration, is actually a good deal more popular than President Trump," Tim Malloy, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Poll, said in a statement. 

As Linda Feldmann reported for the Monitor on Tuesday: 

How the media work through this challenge will affect not only how this insurgent presidency is portrayed, but also how the American public sees the role of the press – as a biased meddler or an essential pillar of American democracy.

But it’s not all bad news for the media...

Paid subscriptions to news outlets have jumped during the Trump presidency. The New York Times reports a surge in digital subscriptions – 276,000 in the fourth quarter of 2016, the single best quarter since 2011, when its pay model launched.

Donations have spiked to the nonprofit investigative outfit ProPublica and to liberal standard-bearer Mother Jones. Online-only outlets have seen a surge in Web traffic, boosting ad revenue. CNN, perhaps the cable channel most reviled by Trump, reports 2016 was its best year for viewership.

"His relentless barrage of abuse, not least about 'fake news', has fatally undermined the trust of the American people in their traditional sources of news; and by denying the Washington press corps access to his administration, he has neutralised a key weapon in the armoury of political journalism," wrote Amol Rajan, media editor at the BBC, earlier this month. 

But "contrary to the prevailing orthodoxy, Donald Trump is not the man who will kill the mainstream media," Mr. Rajan added. "He is the man who could save it." 

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