Why Don’t People Trust the Media Anymore? (Part 1)

by John Sides on April 25, 2012 · 20 comments

in Media

This is a guest post by Georgetown political scientist Jonathan Ladd.

*****

Recently Jay Rosen and Ezra Klein discussed the causes of declining trust in the media. In my recent book, Why Americans Hate the Media and Why It Matters, I explore the causes and consequences of declining media trust. I agree with much of what Jay and Ezra have said. But I would also disagree on a few points and state the other points somewhat differently.

First, several things proposed by Rosen seem not to be central causes. I find little evidence that declining media trust can be explained by an overall reduction in trust in institutions. (Thus, I disagree with Rosen’s explanation #1.) Since 1973, the General Social Survey has included a fairly long battery of questions probing people’s confidence in various institutions, one of which is the press. The figure below compares confidence in the press with average confidence across all other institutions that were in the question battery from 1973 to 2010. The decline in press confidence is notably larger than the overall trend in institutional confidence.

I also tend to reject explanations that hinge on journalists simply becoming less noble in various ways—too arrogant, more prone to bias, or less vigilant against inaccuracy. Perhaps it is the political scientist in me, but I tend to be skeptical of any explanation for broad change that hinges of human nature simply improving or degrading. I suspect that human nature tends to be constant. Instead, I look for structural explanations. (Thus, I disagree with Rosen’s explanations #2, 3, 5, 6, and 8.) In this case, I think that the evidence for structural explanations is compelling.


I see two structural trends coming from outside of journalism as the main drivers of media distrust. First, the political parties have become much more polarized in their policy positions. Second, because of technological changes such as the rise of cable and the internet, as well as regulatory changes such as the end of the fairness doctrine, the media industry has become much more diverse and fragmented.

Media fragmentation produces more partisan outlets, and also leads to more outlets that eschew “hard news” and cover more entertainment and tabloid topics, as John Zaller and James Hamilton have shown. I found in survey experiments that tabloid style coverage tends to reduce general media trust.

Party polarization has raised the stakes in elections. And polarization combined with the growth of partisan media options has created an incentive for party leaders and activists to discredit the mainstream media among their supporters. Party leaders convince their partisans in the mass public to resist informative messages from the mainstream media and ideologically hostile outlets, and instead rely more on ideologically friendly new outlets.  In doing this, they can help to inoculate their supporters against voting for the other side. Polarization created the incentive for political media criticism, but the changing media industry created the opportunity for it to be effective because there were so many nonmainstream media outlets providing alternative messages.

Republicans were the earliest to adopt this strategy, and are still by far its most intense practitioners. But Democrats have also pursued this strategy to a lesser degree. This pattern is evident in the figure below. Among both parties, confidence in the press has been depressed by the increasing tabloid style of news and greater media criticism by party leaders and activists. But the latter has been strongest on the Republican side, leading them to have the lowest confidence levels.

In my follow-up post tomorrow, I’ll explore in more detail the consequences of declining media trust.

{ 20 comments }

Tom Doehne April 25, 2012 at 10:58 am

In my own experience, my distrust in the media has come from the poor reporting I’ve seen in areas where I actually have some expertise. Reading complaints by other experts (especially scientists), only accelerated the problem.

Now that we have the internet to help with fact-checking, the shoddy journalism that has been around for decades is exposed for all to see. Perhaps journalism was never terribly good, but now we can confirm that uneasy feeling that journalists are getting it wrong. Of course, some outlets have become more willing to publish bald-faced lies, easily confirming our suspicions.

Sardonic_sob April 25, 2012 at 1:59 pm

What he said.

People are starting to accept, on a large scale, the facts that 1) Journalists have, with almost no exceptions, POV bias which is pervasive and demonstrable, and 2) Journalists have, with almost no exceptions, no special talents or powers for producing more reliable information than anybody else with access to the Internet can obtain.

In my case, knowing these things doesn’t make me “mistrust” or condemn (most) journalists, it just makes me not take them very seriously. In the sense that I dont’t trust them to be particularly objective or reliable, I don’t trust them, but again with *almost* no exceptions, I don’t think they are actively trying to deceive me.

Phil Perspective April 25, 2012 at 12:45 pm

Second, because of technological changes such as the rise of cable and the internet, as well as regulatory changes such as the end of the fairness doctrine, the media industry has become much more diverse and fragmented.

How so? How many radio stations does Clear Channel(or other mega-corporations) own? And that’s just one example. I think you are confusing two different things.

Adam April 25, 2012 at 1:14 pm

Perhaps the “media industry” wording was confusing — and you’re right to point out that ownership within certain sectors has consolidated. But there’s no disputing his broader point: the modes of political-information delivery to the general public have fragmented dramatically over the past couple of decades.

genauer April 25, 2012 at 1:24 pm

I see this similar to Tom Doehne.

Before the Internet, you could not check things, you don’t believe.
Now you can verify that your suspicion are correct, bold lies, but also so often the cherry picking of 2 data points to fit the narrative.

And from my perspective most mass media had a left tilt, at least here in Germany. People with other opinions can now evade more easily.

Steffen Konrath April 25, 2012 at 1:58 pm

John, can you add the caption? I’m missing the details/reference to the “General Social Survey”? Would like to have a look at these data myself. – Thanks!
Steffen
Future of Journalism
Blog: http://www.nextlevelofnews.com
Twitter: http://twitter.com/#!/stkonrath

John Sides April 25, 2012 at 2:13 pm

This is the GSS website: http://www3.norc.org/GSS+Website

Taywray April 25, 2012 at 2:17 pm

“Media fragmentation produces more partisan outlets, and also leads to more outlets that eschew “hard news” and cover more entertainment and tabloid topics, as John Zaller and James Hamilton have shown. I found in survey experiments that tabloid style coverage tends to reduce general media trust.”

I think this Neil Postman-esque observation is a major explanation for rising media distrust that has yet to gain the credence it deserves among political and communication researchers. Not only are the masses (especially the young masses, imho) savvy enough to realize they’re being fed tabloid-ized trivia and gossip ABOUT news events rather than actual hard news, but every night, any remaining iota of trust is shattered when they turn to shows like The Daily Show and Colbert Report, where the nation’s true opinion leaders clearly display the daily idiocy of the mainstream media for our collective amusement (even as we cringe and cry a little on the inside, knowing that these are the people running our media and our government).

Case-in-point: This Monday, The Daily Show casually reported some really significant research from Pew about the absolute paucity of “hard” campaign coverage in this election cycle – 86% of the overall TV coverage has been about “campaign strategy” or “personal issues” vs. only 9% on issues!

What kind of political agenda is the media setting with this? An entertainment agenda – the funniest, hottest, hippest, wittiest, most telegenic candidate is now the de facto media favorite, and the obvious reluctance among the media to accept the inevitability of Mitt “The Rich Robot” Romney for the past six months shows that. Pretty soon, the voters are going to want to do away with these boring debates and just switch our electoral system over to a marathon of TV talent shows – why not run a TV show called America’s Next President every four years and pick the winner as the next leader of the free world? The media basically already are. (ironically, the Republicans may be the party most apt to resist this creeping Hollywood-ization of American politics, considering that white people can’t dance).

Daily show clip (FF to 11:30): http://www.thedailyshow.com/full-episodes/mon-april-23-2012-ben-rattray

Pew study: http://pewresearch.org/pubs/2249/mitt-romney-rick-santorum-newt-gingrich-ron-paul-media-coverage-republican-presidential-nomination-primary-campaign-horse-race

Taywray April 25, 2012 at 2:20 pm

correction: 76% “strategy and personal issues” coverage, not 86%

Tim April 25, 2012 at 4:38 pm

If you removed the military from average confidence across all other institutions that were in the question battery, what does the trend line look like? Obviously it will be closer to the press trend line, but how much closer?

Jonathan Ladd April 25, 2012 at 6:02 pm

Tim, good question. Trust in the military has gone up, and trust in some other institutions has gone down. But overall, the press’s relative trustworthiness compared to other institutions has declined. For an illustration, see Figure 1 and Figure 2 in this paper: http://www9.georgetown.edu/faculty/jml89/LaddMediaVoting06.pdf

Tim April 25, 2012 at 9:05 pm

re: “But overall, the press’s relative trustworthiness compared to other institutions has declined.”

I agree, but unpacking that relative trust as a trend over time provides important insight to the answer.

For example:

“Organized religion and television news had relatively higher scores in the 1970s compared to other institutions. This was no longer the case in later years. Furthermore, the press went into relative decline after 1990.” http://www.publicopinionpros.norc.org/features/2006/mar/seltzer2.asp

In U.S., Confidence in Newspapers, TV News Remains a Rarity
http://www.gallup.com/poll/142133/confidence-newspapers-news-remains-rarity.aspx

“In particular, we find that the same political indicators that lead to higher confidence in institutions in general drive down confidence in the press.”
http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/10584600701471591

Tim April 25, 2012 at 9:17 pm

Comment waiting moderation …

Jay Rosen April 25, 2012 at 6:15 pm

Jonathan: Thanks very much for this post, and that chart. Both are helpful to the cause of understanding this puzzle.

As I said to you on Twitter, I was baffled by this part. “I tend to be skeptical of any explanation for broad change that hinges of human nature simply improving or degrading. I suspect that human nature tends to be constant. Instead, I look for structural explanations. (Thus, I disagree with Rosen’s explanations #2, 3, 5, 6, and 8.) ”

I just don’t understand how you got there. Your post must have skipped several steps in the trail of reasoning you followed. Can you please spell them out? My post doesn’t say anything about human nature changing from the 1970s to 2012, so why is your disagreement phrased as “human nature tends to remain constant…”?

I mean: Who said otherwise? As a result I have no idea why you think you disagree with explanations 2,3,4,5,6 and 8, since none of them say: “human nature changed on or about the conclusion of the Watergate episode.” I don’t see how they even imply that.

Perhaps what you meant to draw out is not the contrast between human nature and environmental shifts, but between fundamental and less fundamental factors.

Please clarify.

Jack April 25, 2012 at 6:45 pm

I think the accurate response to this would be that we don’t have good ways of fully measuring and quantifying changes such as journalists becoming “too arrogant, more prone to bias, or less vigilant against inaccuracy.” I certainly wouldn’t say these have nothing to do with what happened to trust in the media–I think they played a role. But Ladd’s discussion of structural factors ARE quantifiable and can be tested empirically. The fragmentation of news sources, the rise of intentionally biased media outlets, and political polarization seem to have discouraged trust in “the media.”

I’d be curious to see what trust looks like in various media outlets–blogs vs. network news vs. cable news vs. talk radio. I think we would find that the ideology of the respondent may affect how they view media such as talk radio and various cable news outlets (namely, Fox vs. MSNBC). This seems evident and polls have asked these questions. This would lend support to Ladd’s claim that polarization has affected trust in the media. If you ask the generic, “Do you trust the media?” question, Democrats may think of Fox News and be less inclined to answer in the affirmative. The same would be true of Republicans and MSNBC or perhaps even CNN.

Jonathan Ladd April 26, 2012 at 12:31 am

Jay,

I apologize that I wasn’t as clear as I could have been. The position I was trying to take may not be that different from your views. What I was trying to say was that journalists haven’t simply developed a greater natural propensity to behave like “bad actors,” or exhibit bias, or be out of touch with the public, or co-opted by elites, or to miss scandals (like the Jayson Blair scandal) for too long, or exhibit other behaviors that we as observers might fault them for.

Perhaps this is not what you meant, but I frequently hear people claim that these types of, for lack of a better term, professional and/or moral failings of the press simply presented as reasons why people distrust the media. I want to push back against this.

To whatever extent these things contributed to declining media trust, the ultimate cause is more structural. Journalists didn’t simply become more likely to engage in all of these ways. But to the extent that all of these actions have become more prevalent and that has reduced media trust, the root causes are changes in the political system and the economics of the news business.

Jonathan Ladd April 26, 2012 at 11:32 am

Sorry. a few typos in that last comment. In the second paragraph, it should read “…I frequently hear these types of, for lack of a better term, professional and/or moral failings of the press simply presented as reasons why people distrust the media.”

And in the last paragraph, it should be “more likely to engage in all these behaviors.”

Lorenzo from Oz April 26, 2012 at 5:32 pm

I wonder if the proportion of serving journalists who are graduates of journalism schools/media studies courses is relevant here. If journalists are becoming less diverse in their origins/more homogenised then that night open up more of a gap with their audiences.

Since partisanship does not entirely match ideology, though more so over time I gather, what are the liberal/conservative results on trust?

don peacock-unanon April 27, 2012 at 10:33 am

The Press ??? Agenda pedaling, information control, Major issues ignored, inconsequential celeberties glorified,…Mainstream Media a failure, biased, controlled,…you mentioned Trust?…hahaha…you want on AFV or what?

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