By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Detail levels of trust in the media in the US and around the world.
- Discuss why levels of trust in the media have steadily declined.
- Explain why we should care about levels of trust in the media.
- Explain what possible reforms can increase trust in the media.
Every time a newspaper dies, even a bad one, the country moves a little closer to authoritarianism.
—Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist, Richard Kluger
The beginning of this chapter discussed how the press safeguards people’s rights and keeps democracy healthy. Authoritarian regimes such as North Korea do not allow freedom of the press because they know that an informed citizenry is a powerful one. Despite the inherent importance of the media, levels of trust in the institution are precariously low both in the United States and globally. This section will examine levels of trust in the media and the causes of mistrust, then go on to examine possible reforms.
Do People Trust the Media?
In order for the media to fulfill its goals as a gatekeeper and purveyor of information, there needs to be trust in the institution. So why do some countries trust the media more than others? A study of 44 countries found that factors such as higher levels of political interest, interpersonal trust, and exposure to television news and newspapers are positively correlated with trust in media, while education and exposure to news on the Internet are negatively associated with levels of trust in the media. The same study showed that ownership also affects levels of trust: state ownership of television is positively associated with trust in media in democratic societies and negatively associated with trust in media in nondemocratic societies.137 Other reports have found that levels of democracy and media freedom are not necessarily correlated with trust in the media. Evaluations of the economy also have been suggested as a factor in people’s trust in the media.138
A 2019 Gallup report on global trust in the media noted that the percentage of respondents who expressed at least some trust in journalists ranged from a low of 12 percent in Greece to a high of 93 percent in Uzbekistan.139 Most people around the globe trust people they know personally over people they know through online exchanges, and there appears to be a healthy skepticism of online news and content in general.
Some question whether increased political polarization has contributed to lower levels of trust in the media. Given the apparent causal relationship between political polarization and online echo chambers, perhaps the relationship between trust in the media and political polarization is more analogous to the well-worn question about which came first, the chicken or the egg. Wilfred Laurier University professor Anne Wilson, PhD candidate Victoria Parker, and University of Toronto professor Matthew Feinberg describe this as a polarization feedback loop, in which increasing polarization among political elites and the media “selectively amplif[ies] the worst the other side has to offer” and ultimately feeds into mistrust of the media and polarization of the electorate.140 The schism is particularly apparent in the United States, where political partisanship is evident not only across many policy issues but also when it comes to trust in the media.
When looking at a more detailed breakdown of who doesn’t trust the media, the polling website FiveThirtyEight notes that Republicans in the United States have built on their long-held belief that the media has a liberal bias to incorporate an “anti-media” stance into their overall ideology.141 In 2018, nine in 10 Republicans said they had “personally . . . lost trust in the news media in recent years.”142 As people’s choices in media content have increased, it is not surprising that both Republicans and Democrats have sought out news sources that reinforce their political beliefs, and the Internet has made this especially easy. Additionally, conservatives are more likely to surround themselves with like-minded views online, while liberals are more likely to block friends who do not agree with them on social media.143 This self-imposed exposure to partisan media ultimately reduces people’s overall trust in the mainstream press, regardless of party.144
Why Should We Care about Trust in the Media, and How Can We Increase It?
An informed citizenry is a precondition for democracy, and in order for citizens to act collectively and cast votes in their best interests, people should be able to rely on the media as a source of unbiased information. Without a foundation of trust in the media, people will find their information elsewhere. While one cannot assume that all voters will make an effort to make educated choices, the ability to develop informed decisions makes trust in the media a crucial first step. As former United States congressman Lee H. Hamilton writes, “The truth is that for our democracy to work, it needs not just an engaged citizenry, but an informed one.”145 The public’s habits and their trust have moved in lockstep with one another, and as people have walled themselves off from news they do not believe in, their trust in institutional media has fallen, as has their ability to remain informed. The decline of trust in both governmental and media institutions has real consequences. The erosion of trust in public institutions damages the credibility of those institutions, further undermining their effectiveness and perpetuating a vicious circle.146
What can be done to restore trust in the media as an institution? Organizations in the United States and around the world have proposed numerous strategies for supporting media institutions and promoting trust. The Knight Foundation points out that a majority of respondents in a 2020 survey believed that it is possible to raise levels of trust in the media, and in pursuit of that goal, the foundation makes two substantial suggestions for the media: official corrections (that is, admitting to errors and publicly correcting them) and increased representation.147 Respondents indicated that when the media issues official corrections, this increases rather than decreases trust, suggesting that transparency is key to raising trust levels. With regard to representation, readers appear to want more representation in newsrooms, with journalists who look like them and more closely reflect their communities.
NPR’s public editor suggests that the lack of trust also stems from content quality. “Cable networks . . . prioritized talking heads148 over reporting. Print media . . . conflated opinion, analysis, and straight reporting.”149 In response to this, the Trust Project, which partners with 200 news outlets across 12 countries, works with media organizations to incorporate what it calls “the 8 Trust Indicators”150 in order to facilitate improved news quality and increase reader trust.151 Addressing the issue of media concentration may also encourage higher-quality content and promote a closer relationship with readers and viewers, thus contributing to engendering trust.
The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE), the world’s largest intergovernmental organization dedicated to security, elections, human rights, and press freedom (among other concerns), makes a number of recommendations for improving both content quality and people’s trust in the media. The OSCE advises European governments to
- tackle the problem of media concentration by reducing certain taxes for newspaper companies;
- develop guidelines for editorial independence from corporate owners;
- strengthen intellectual property and bargaining rights for journalists; and
- provide “sufficient” salaries for journalists.
Further, the OSCE encourages nations to monitor these recommendations.152 In the United States, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) could reverse rules that loosened restrictions on mergers, though as some point out, this would not necessarily prevent smaller media outlets from dying off. One novel suggestion is to require a transaction fee for each merger, with the proceeds going to fund local journalism, especially because it appears that trust is fostered when readers feel that the media outlets they use are tied to their communities.153
Help Stop the Spread of Misinformation
To combat misinformation online, organizations such as First Draft work globally with journalists to root out misinformation and provide reporters with resources and information to create the most informed content possible and build trust with audiences.154 The website hosts a free library of training content, including online courses, tool kits, and resources designed to help both journalists and the public build expertise and stay ahead of misinformation. Everyone has the ability to stop misinformation, and by educating yourself on how to stay alert to the spread of false news, you help promote a healthier media.