In an age of information overload, Americans are increasingly distrustful of traditional media to provide them with the correct information. According to a study conducted by Pew Research Center in August 2020, almost half of Americans have little to no confidence in media outlets to have their audience’s best interests in mind.
This lack of confidence stems from several different factors, many of which Americans believe news outlets can improve upon, considering 75% of Americans studied said confidence could be raised. This skepticism is seen as a healthy thing for most Americans, though.
I do believe that skepticism is a healthy thing and can point to an exercise in critical thinking. An critical audience can require better reporting from media outlets. The problem arises when belief is that news outlets are not acting in the best interest of the public. I see that as different than a healthy level of skepticism.
As criticism of media grows, I have seen more and more Americans fall prey to social media opinions and conspiracy theories. Power and corruption are inextricably linked in most middle-class minds, and many see media outlets as corrupted positions of powers, regardless of the fact that the grueling job does not often provide a rewarding salary.
The financial aspect of media outlets is a contributing factor to public distrust in media. 72% of the American public believe that news organizations are not transparent enough with their funding. The bankruptcy of a news chain in 2020 provided insight into media financials. The news chain McClatchy “made 46.8% of its revenue from the audience (print and digital subscriptions), 45.8% from advertising, and 7.3% from everything else.” I believe that these insights don’t point to the partisan allegiance that many viewers believe rule media bias as media funding is largely dependent upon their audience.
Pew Research Center asked their participants to evaluate reporters based on five criteria: “whether or not they care how good of a job they do; whether or not they act professionally; whether they protect or hurt democracy; whether they stand up for America or are too critical of the country; and whether or not they care about the people they report on.”
37% of Americans did not believe that news organizations cared about how good of a job they did, yet a peer-reviewed study of journalists (Verification as a Strategic Ritual) observed that all of their participants took verification and accuracy very personally, considering it the bedrock of journalism and an integral part of their character.
The study found that the process of verification is nuanced and variated across platforms, individual reporters, and material. This lack of uniformity may be cause of concern for the public, but what I find interesting is that the portions of the public that have come to their own contrary conclusions about what the media is telling them consider their process of verification more trustworthy than journalists who have devoted their livelihood to information.
An interesting facet to public distrust in the media is partisan divides. America is perhaps the most divided it has been in several decades. This division reaches across all career fields, religious affiliation, and socioeconomic status. The conservative half of America has identified with President Trump as the face and protector of the middle-class, despite his clear position within the financial 1%.
Throughout his presidency, Trump has criticized the media for bias, corruption, and intentional dishonesty because any media outlets have been critical of his administration and leadership. Trump’s very vocalized criticism has empowered and deepened the public’s distrust, according to another study conducted by Pew Research Center. Instead of examining Trump’s performance and character against the media’s criticism, many self-identified conservatives have considered the media as corrupted conglomerate and enemy of the presidency and even America as a nation with 35% of Americans convinced that the media is too critical of America.
There is a 46-point gap between all Democrats and Republicans regarding trust in the media, with Democrats more trusting, but that gap widens to 75 points between those who are more politically aware and engaged. This disconnect can be attributed to viewer bias or media bias, but the answer is most likely somewhere in the middle.
According the aforementioned study, viewers are more likely to trust organizations that seem to care about them. Gaining public trust is contingent upon journalists’ continued dedication for accuracy and transparency, and the public’s willingness to consider viewpoints across party lines.