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.


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