After decades of declining trust in the press, coupled with relentless rhetorical attacks on the media by President Trump, there’s finally some good news: Trust in media is up since last year, and the great majority of Americans trust their local news sources.
The new Poynter Media Trust Survey found 76 percent of Americans across the political spectrum have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in their local television news, and 73 percent have confidence in local newspapers. That contrasts with 55 percent trust in national network news, 59 percent in national newspapers and 47 percent in online-only news outlets.
The divide in attitudes toward local versus national news is especially pronounced among Republicans: 71 percent said they trust local TV news in their community, 43 percentage points higher than those who trust national network television news. Similarly, 62 percent of Republicans said they trust their local newspapers, 33 percentage points higher than their confidence in national papers. Democrats had high levels of trust across the board.
The findings are reminiscent of Fenno’s Paradox, the notion that Americans disapprove of Congress, but support their own members of Congress. Just as members of Congress cater to constituents and bring money into their districts, local news tailors its coverage to useful information for local audiences, said Jason Reifler, a political scientist at University of Exeter in the U.K. and a co-author of the Poynter study.
Reifler and co-authors Brendan Nyhan of the University of Michigan and Andrew Guess of Princeton University based the study, the second in a series for Poynter, on a survey of 2,000 respondents. The survey work was done by YouGov, a global public opinion and polling company, and analyzed respondents’ media consumption, demographic characteristics, political attitudes and perception of journalistic practices.
The findings “really underscore that local and national news are different animals; people perceive them differently," said Joy Mayer, director of the Trusting News Project, an initiative that has worked with 53 news outlets to build trust by engaging communities and explaining how newsgathering works. "Most local journalists are not covering things that relate to national politics. They may be covering high school sports, local business, education and crime affecting their communities.”
The high trust in local news observed in Poynter’s study is on par with the historical high-water mark of 72 percent trust in all news media recorded in 1976 by Gallup, which began asking the trust-in-news question four years earlier.
“Anyone who says that people don’t trust the news media isn’t looking hard enough,” said David Chavern, president and CEO of the News Media Alliance, a national association representing the newspaper industry, in an email. “Trust is based in experience, and people have had long and deep experience with local news publishers.”
Despite Trump’s effort to tar journalism as “fake news,” trust in all forms of news media across the political spectrum has risen since the Poynter’s last survey, done in November 2017, suggesting that the president’s attempts to discredit the news may be having less effect a year and half into his presidency. Fifty-four percent of respondents expressed “a great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in news media in Poynter’s latest survey, compared with 49 percent in Poynter’s survey eight months ago.
“The fact that Republicans are somewhat more trusting suggests there’s some backfire or boomerang effect from the president suggesting that news media writ large is untrustworthy,” said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute in Washington, D.C. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Don’t trust the media about me and my administration,’ but it’s much more disturbing to say ‘All media everywhere are untrustworthy.’ Where are people left in a society if they can’t trust information they get from the media about anything?”
Even with the rise in trust that Poynter measured, attitudes remain deeply divided along partisan lines. Eighty-six percent of Democrats now express confidence in news media, 12 percentage points higher than the last Poynter survey in November 2017. Only 23 percent of Republicans trust news media overall, though that is four points up since the last survey. As the interactive charts demonstrate, Democrats and Republicans are at opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of their trust or distrust in the news.
Trust is highest among Democrats who are most knowledgeable about current events (97 percent of that group have confidence in news media) and lowest among the best-informed Republicans (only 15 percent of them trust the press). That’s consistent with the last Poynter survey and suggests carefully following news has a polarizing effect among party loyalists.
“It’s dangerous if people think that part of being a Republican means hating the press or endorsing draconian attitudes toward the press,” said Nyhan, co-author of the study.
Attitudes toward local news are not as influenced by political affiliations, the survey found.
“When the media is reporting realities that people experience in their daily lives, that reinforces perceptions that the reporting is accurate,” said Joel Simon, executive director of the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists. But when people observe “the distant theater of the White House briefing room and the way the president engages with media,” perceptions of the media become less about the substance of the news and more about how people feel about politics and the president.
The favorable findings for local news have implications for newsrooms seeking to build consumer confidence to boost subscriptions and advertising as they battle for their survival. “We’re all wondering about the future of local news; it’s hard for them to compete at scale, and they’re more vulnerable if they’re afflicted by trust issue,” Rosenstiel said.
The far higher trust levels in local news compared with national or online news that Poynter found are new, though broadly consistent with work by leading journalism researchers. Timing and the wording of various survey questions make comparisons inexact.
In May 2017, the Pew Research Center also found higher trust among Republicans, Democrats and independents in local news, but the gap was smaller than Poynter’s survey because Pew focused on respondents who trusted each source “a lot.” Poynter’s study instead follows Gallup in considering how many people express either “a fair amount” or “a great deal” of trust in the media.
Similarly, American Press Institute and AP/NORC Center last year found far higher trust in respondents’ favorite news sources — “my media” compared with “the media."
Mayer said the solution to boosting trust in media may come from addressing perceptions with different messages for local versus national news.
“It’s not efficient or practical to try to change the story about ‘the media’ overall,” said Mayer, an adjunct faculty member at Poynter. “It’s up to each media outlet to understand our critics enough to anticipate complaints and causes of distrust and do something about it. How to educate our audiences about why we’re worthy of trust includes explaining our ethics, our values, our choices, our processes and our motivations.”
Journalists need to ask themselves, “What about this story I’m working on might people misunderstand and how can I get in front of that?” Mayer said. She cited the example of WPCO, a Scripps TV station in Cincinnati that did a project on police accountability and explained its motivation for the investigative project — that “they were on the side of the community.”
Likewise, to counteract perceived bias in politically sensitive coverage, newsrooms can explain how coverage decisions are made. In its Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of allegations that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore pursued sexual relationships with teenage girls, The Washington Post described in its first story how it heard about the claims and found the alleged victims and vetted their claims.
When researchers asked about trust and confidence in Fox News and CNN, the partisan divide was especially pronounced (MSNBC and other cable networks were not included). Only 21 percent of Democrats expressed “a great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in Fox, while only 19 percent of Republicans expressed the same trust in CNN. The distrust on each side was a mirror image.
Some troubling results raise flags for both news executives and front-line reporters. Forty-two percent of Americans surveyed believe the news media fabricate stories frequently, slightly down from 44 percent in Poynter's last survey. And more than one in four Americans said “the federal government should have the power to revoke broadcast licenses of major news organizations it says are fabricating stories” — consistent with the similar levels of support for government crackdowns on press freedoms in our last poll. That’s not new or unique to the Trump era.
As Ariel Edwards-Levy, polling editor at HuffPost Politics noted via Twitter, a Roper Poll in 1979 found 22 percent of Americans agreed "the President has a right to close down a newspaper that prints stories that he feels are biased or inaccurate,” while 26 percent favored "a law prohibiting newspapers from printing stories that embarrass the President, the government or the country.”
“There’s always been a strain of the U.S. population that has illiberal views about the press,” Michigan's Nyhan said.
Poynter found that strain of anti-press sentiment is far more pronounced among Republicans and Trump supporters. Thirty-six percent of Trump supporters supported draconian restraints on the press. That’s down from 42 percent of Trump loyalists who had the same view last November, suggesting a slight dampening in enthusiasm for attacks on the press, even among the president’s loyalists.
This is a summary of the study with commentary from other experts on media trust issues and background on other similar studies. To see the scholars' paper, click here.
Interactive graphics by Ren LaForme
Craig Newmark Philanthropies provided a special grant to fund this study.