Why Do Americans Distrust the Media?

Donald Trump, anti-elite sentiment, and the dark side of media abundance

Republican candidate Donald Trump looks at a newspaper
Paul Sancya / AP

Do Americans “trust” “the media”? The question is often asked and often answered. But, to be fair, it’s not a very precise question.

Trust is a slippery measuring stick. Do I “trust” technology? Well, I trust strangers on Uber to be on time, but don’t trust my cable company to arrive within a four-hour window; I trust my iPhone to not explode, but don’t trust my email to be unhackable. Asking whether I trust “technology,” yes or no, is asking for an non-summarizable opinion of a diverse group of products and people, which fall along a continuum of confidence.

“The media,” like “technology,” is not a single tangible object, but rather an information galaxy, a vast and complex star system composed of diverse and opposing organizations, which are themselves composed of a motley group of people, each of whom are neither all good nor all bad, but mostly flawed media merchants, with individual strengths, weaknesses, biases, and blindspots. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are almost 200,000 Americans working for broadcast television and cable programming, 197,000 employed in digital publishing and broadcasting, 183,000 working for newspapers, 99,000 working for magazines, 86,000 in radio, and 64,000 employed in the editing and production of books. Asking survey respondents to briefly summarize their feelings about the daily work of one million strangers is asking for an impossible, and potentially meaningless, oversimplification, like, “Do you think food is too raw?” or “Is clothing red?"

With these enormous caveats out of the way, the fact remains that Americans’ “trust” in “the media” is falling steadily, according to Gallup. Even if the precise definitions of these terms is debatable, the overall decline is clear and noteworthy.

This collapse in trust is not evenly spread across all demographics. The drop has been most dramatic among young and middle-aged respondents and, most recently, within the GOP. Together, it seems reasonable to conclude that the recent decline in media trust has been concentrated among middle-aged Republicans, a key part of the Trump constituency.

What is behind this collapse? Here are four somewhat overlapping hypotheses.

1. It’s the media’s fault.

Certainly, when some people read the headline that trust in the media is falling, their response might be, "yes, and deservedly so."

Although a great deal of excellent journalism is produced every week, it is never hard to find the low-lights. This is hardly a new phenomenon. Twenty years ago in The Atlantic, James Fallows  criticized newspaper reporters and the television shows for treating politics like a partisan tug-of-war in which policy issues were reduced to playing the part of the oft-forgotten rope. “The discussion shows that are supposed to enhance public understanding may actually reduce it, by hammering home the message that issues don't matter except as items for politicians to fight over,” he wrote.

Two decades later, many of Fallows’ observations are so fresh they could be auto-tweeted each morning. The last few months, in particular, have seen a bonanza of false equivalence and theater criticism masquerading as political analysis during the election. Beyond the moral rot at the head of Fox News and Trump’s embrace of Breitbart (the Internet’s most crowded den of race-baiting conspiracy theories), even many major newspapers failing to properly cover the candidates’ many flaws. If public trust in the press has gone up in flames, there are more than enough media organizations to be held liable for the arson.

2. It’s the elections’ fault.

As the first graph indicates, American trust in mass media seems to decline around presidential elections. It fell in 2004, and again in 2008, and again in 2012, and now it's collapsed in 2016. Perhaps the hyper-politization of elections, which cleaves the electorate and entrenches two opposing viewpoints on a single national story, erodes public faith that “the media” can be fair to both camps.

This election campaign, however, is exceptional for the  fact that Trump routinely so denounces the media for being unfair to him. This would explain why faith in the mainstream press has collapsed among middle-aged Republicans. Trump has even questioned conservative staples like Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, which would explain why we’re seeing an unprecedented drop in faith among the GOP in this election.

3. It’s modernity’s fault.

It would be easier to blame the press exclusively if faith in the media were declining at a time when trust in the rest of the nation’s institutions were rising or holding steady. But the opposite is happening.

Fewer than half of Americans now say they trust the church, the medical system, the presidency, the Supreme Court, public schools, banks, organized labor, the criminal justice system, big business, and Congress. Public faith in each of these institutions has fallen this decade.

There are several reasons why trust in so many elite institutions might be declining at the same time. Fareed Zakaria, in his book The Future of Freedom, blamed the “death of authority” on the uber-democratization of American institutions, pointing out that Americans have historically put more faith in organizations that hover above the fray and the news cycle (like the Supreme Court, or the military) while reserving their contempt for institutions that respond to public whims (like the U.S. Congress). Chris Hayes, in his book The Twilight of the Elites, argued that elite institutions were failing due to a collapse of competent oversight across many sectors of American life, from the military, to big business and the press.

But declining trust in institutions is not strictly an American trend. Since the 1960s, “public trust in government and political institutions has been decreasing in all of the advanced industrial democracies,” according to one United Nations report. “Although the pattern and the pace of the decrease are dissimilar across countries, the downward trend is ubiquitous.”

4. When it’s easier to find news sources that confirm people’s biases, it’s also easier to find news stories that inflame their outrage.

Competition among media organizations is healthy. But the race for readers and ratings carries the risk of reducing trust in “the media” because so many media organizations often distinguish themselves by demonstrating their superiority over mainstream news. The term “mainstream media” is a dirty word on Fox News. Popular shows like Bill Maher’s Real Time and The Daily Show make a living by skewering the hyperbolism of cable coverage. It’s as if every media organization is also a media critic.

Today’s journalists are more comfortable taking strong positions on partisan issues than they used to be. This is often a good thing. But the increased partisanship of large news outlets might feed a public perception that neutral objectivity doesn’t exist, and therefore, people are entitled to scream “partisanship!” about any viewpoint that they disagree with. The Pittsburgh-Tribune Review recently asked Donald Trump Jr., how he felt that the Pulitzer Prize-winning team at PolitiFact found that 70 percent of his father’s claims were false, more than twice the ratio of Hillary Clinton. Trump’s response: “I would argue that PolitiFact is a very liberal organization.” The shocking thing about this claim is that it’s not shocking, at all. It has become acceptably normal for a politician to call a Pulitzer-Prize winning organization “very biased” if it disagrees with him. There is also no risk in saying so.

What role does Facebook (or Twitter, or Reddit) play in this? Many argue that these sites seal audiences’ ideological echo chambers, organizing the world of information so that some readers only see news that they are likely to agree with. Another outcome of a media diet dominated by “shareable” news is that people might be more likely to see news whose purpose is to provoke outrage. Projecting moral outrage has a specific psychological purpose: It signals the noble morality of the outraged sharer at the expense of the news source. When Facebook and Twitter users share news coverage for the purpose of highlighting the most outrageously bad journalism, it has the effect of making the majority of journalism seem outrageously bad.

And so, it may be inevitable that a competitive digital media environment will foster a hate-Congress-but-love-your-Congressman attitude toward the press. If there are enough outlets for every American to read that their biases are right, there are enough outlets for readers to get the impression that most people, and most media, is wrong.