Monday, August 31, 2020

Survey: Skepticism of News Media Seen As Healthy

A major new Pew Research Center analysis marks the culmination of a yearlong exploration of Americans’ views of the news media. Building on previous research focused on the relationship between political party identification and COVID-19 on trust in the media, the current study finds that while large swaths of the public express negative views toward journalists and news organizations, U.S. adults are also open-minded about the possibility that their trust in the industry could improve.

The analysis finds that there is indeed room for growth – no more than half of U.S. adults have confidence that journalists act in the best interests of the public or think that other Americans have confidence in the institution. And while most Americans (61%) expect the news they get to be accurate, nearly seven-in-ten (69%) say news organizations try to cover up mistakes when they do happen.

Americans see a range of reasons why mistakes make their way into news reporting, from malicious to more accidental. For example, many U.S. adults say that careless reporting (55%) or a desire to mislead the public (44%) are major factors behind significant reporting errors. That's in addition to the 53% who say that the accelerated pace of breaking news may be responsible for mistakes.

Public skepticism toward the media does not appear to be purely antagonistic. In fact, most Americans view some level of wariness toward the news media as healthy for a well-functioning society – roughly two-thirds of Americans (63%) believe that it is better for society if the public is skeptical of the news media. This is far higher than the portion who say it is better if the public is trusting of the news media (36%). A focus group member (Man, age 34) expressed this sentiment saying, “You don’t want to not trust them [the news media] no matter what, but you don’t want to be on the other side and trust a news organization one hundred percent of the time.”

Still, three-quarters of Americans (75%) say it is possible for the public to increase its level of confidence in the news media, compared with about a quarter (24%) who say it is not possible. This view is largely shared by members of both political parties, as well as across demographic groups.

The public takes issue with what they perceive as a lack of transparency by news organizations – a large majority of Americans (72%) say news organizations do an insufficient job explaining to the public where their money comes from. In addition, six-in-ten U.S. adults (60%) say news organizations do an insufficient job disclosing conflicts of interest; how they choose and find their sources (57%); whether a story is opinion or factual (55%); how a story is produced (51%) and whether a correction has been made (48%).

Primarily based on a survey of 10,300 U.S. adults conducted Feb. 18 to March 2, 2020 on Pew Research Center’s American Trends Panel, the survey questionnaire (and this analysis) are also informed by a series of ten focus groups conducted among U.S. adults with a range of demographic and media-related traits across three U.S. cities in November 2019: Houston, Texas; St. Louis, Missouri; and Charlotte, North Carolina.

Among the key findings from this in-depth analysis of trust in the news media:
  • The survey finds that having personal connections with audiences may be an opportunity for the news media to gain more trust. Americans who feel more connected to news outlets – whether in feeling valued by, understood by, or loyal to them – express more positive views toward the news media. For example, 46% of adults who feel their news sources value them say news organizations are highly professional, compared with the quarter who do not feel valued and say the same.
  • Americans' connections with specific news stories are also linked with their attitudes toward the media. Americans who think the media covered a story that was close to them “well,” express far more favorable views of the news media in general than those who think the story was “not covered well.”
  • While many Americans want to have personal connections with their news sources (55% feel it is at least somewhat important), many do not experience this. More than half of U.S. adults say their news outlets do not particularly value them (57%) or that news organizations do not understand people like them (59%), and nearly two-thirds (63%) say they do not feel particularly loyal to the outlets they get their news from.
  • About half of U.S. adults (51%) say that seeing official corrections increases their confidence in a news organization, compared with just 12% who say it makes them less confident. A focus group member (Woman, age 32) expressed this sentiment saying, “I like when they report something and get it wrong, they apologize for it and retract it. They say it out. ‘We made a mistake, we reported this and it wasn’t true.’ Some don’t.”
  • Deep partisan divides persist in views of the news media, with Republicans who strongly support Trump more critical than their GOP peers. For example, six-in-ten Republicans and Republican-leaning independents cite a desire to mislead audiences as a major reason why significant mistakes make their way into news stories, compared with about a third of Democrats (32%) who feel this way. Within the GOP, this view is especially prevalent among Republicans who strongly approve of the job Trump is doing as president.
  • Black Americans see representation as key in determining how they stay informed. At a time when questions about representation in U.S. newsrooms are amplified, this survey finds that nearly seven-in-ten Black adults (68%) say it is at least somewhat important for news outlets to ‘cover people like me in stories,’ 27 percentage points higher than White adults (41%) and also higher than Hispanic adults (54%) who say the same. And Black (38%) and Hispanic (33%) adults are much more likely than White adults (13%) to say it is at least somewhat important that ‘journalists look or sound like me.'
  • A focus group member (Man, age 64, Black) expressed this sentiment saying, “We live in America where diversity counts; so, I also look at a station that actually is fully diverse and, of course, have a format that is conducive to the entire population. … Well, in terms of being fully diverse, in terms of staff, it’s very important to me, I’m able to have my kids see individuals like themselves, too.”

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