Media Distrust at Record High, but Why?


Most Americans have little or no trust in mass media, and the highest distrust of newspapers, TV and radio of any time since Gallup started keeping track.

1997-2010 Trend: In General, How Much Trust and Confidence Do You Have in the Mass Media When It Comes to Reporting the News Fully, Accurately, and Fairly?

Who's to blame? You can start with the news, itself. Sometimes, bad news breeds distrust, which explains why the high-water mark for media trust came in the late '90s, and the peaks in distrust came during the most violent parts of the Iraq war and the recession. You can also blame the fragmentation of media, which is siphoning viewers off into their respective ideological corners. Today, you can incubate in hyper-conservative medialand or the super-socialist blogosphere and ignore the middle in a way you couldn't when there were only three TV networks and blog was not a word.

But I also blame journalists.* On the one hand, you can make the good case that we are in a golden age of journalism, where technology and innovation are enriching story-telling and creating a kind of infinite buffet that serves every interest and proclivity of the American audience. On the other hand, mainstream media voices increasingly distinguish themselves by telling us not to trust the rest of the mainstream media.

Think about all of the mass media today that tells us how stupid mass media is. Bill O'Reilly is the most watched person on cable news, and he regularly complains about the stranglehold of liberals on the news cycle. Fox News and MSNBC attract a good deal of attention by identifying (or sometimes fabricating) media strawmen to slay with a quip. Glenn Beck is the most ascendant figure in modern media, and his central message is: Don't trust anybody. Jon Stewart is the most trusted figure in media, and his central message is: Don't trust Glenn Beck. The former treats media as a conspiracy. The latter treats media as a joke.

So to consume opinion journalism -- a category to which I probably belong, and which is gaining currency in newspapers, magazines and television --- is to consume a product that exists to tell you that the product is inherently rotten.

In short, I suspect we think about the media the way we think about congressmen or banks. The broader institution stinks. But we stand by our man.

There is nothing new about this, or opinion journalism. The opinion modifier is as old as journalism, itself. You could argue that ideology is the natural state of the industry. You could argue that the 20th century emergence of valued objectivity was an historical hiccup. We've moved from yellow journalism, to Cronkite, to red-blue journalism, and the pendulum could swing back to balance.

So I'm not saying the state of journalism is historically unique, or historically rotten. But in this industry, attracting attention encourages one to distinguish himself from the muddy mainstream by attacking the mainstream. You can't blame viewers for growing to distrust the thing everybody seems to be warning us against.


*Update: There is the argument that we trust journalists less but journalists are worse at journalism. I don't want to get into the argument that mass media is worse today than 30 years ago, in part because the term "mass media" is so nebulous nowadays, and also in part because it's a value judgment that's hard to prove one way or the other. (If somebody likes NYT or WSJ more today than 30 years ago, how would you prove them wrong?)

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Derek Thompson is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he writes about economics, labor markets, and the entertainment business.

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