(Editor’s note: This article is the final installment in a series exploring media literacy and its multiple facets. This week, experts weigh in on press distrust and what can be done to curb it.)
Despite the public’s trust in media improving in most countries surveyed, U.S. rankings remain low.
According to the annual Digital News Report 2021, released by the Reuters Institute and University of Oxford, the U.S. rates last in media trust out of 46 countries.
The percentage of Americans surveyed that trust the media? Just 29 percent.
This takes on an even more cynical dimension, said Gary Hicks, longtime journalist and professor of mass communications at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.
“It’s not just a mistrust, it’s downright hatred,” Hicks said.
Given the prevailing opinion, these low rankings do not necessarily come as a surprise to journalists and media scholars.
“I think it’s been an issue to a degree for a long time, but it certainly intensified the last several years and I think awareness both in the media and in some academic circles is way up,” said Rick Edmonds, media business analyst at the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism school.
With the help of others in the field, including one of the report’s authors, Edmonds analyzed these findings in a June 2021 piece for Poynter.
Why the distrust?
For many, President Donald Trump stands out as the catalyst for mass recognition of individuals distrusting journalists. As mentioned previously in this series, the 2016 presidential election popularized the term “fake news” in that it eventually found its way into the Oxford English Dictionary.
Yet, politicians fueling media distrust predates Trump.
Edmonds said Richard Nixon’s administration – especially after Watergate – were “very combative against the press.” Hicks said a few administrations later, President Ronald Reagan changed how the public saw the press’ role when he limited journalists’ access to covering foreign war.
It’s not just well-known politicians whose ideologies shape their views on the media. Hicks and Edmonds said. Highly political individuals are more likely to feel the press is biased against their side, the report showed.
“Any press that tends to disagree with their perception of reality, which might in fact be the truth, (can cause) quite literal discomfort,” Hicks said. “If you watch news that conforms with your own beliefs, research has shown it provides the ‘warm fuzzies’ for us – we feel comfortable and we seek out more of the same. If we see news coverage that goes against our preconceived notions, instead of weighing it and trying to rationalize whether it is in fact right, it causes what’s called cognitive dissonance. It translates into a literal physiological pain, and then of course when people feel pain they want to run away from it.
“So we have people – both on the right and on the left – who have put themselves into these news silos and they only trust the news that makes them feel good, as it already aligns with their ideas,” Hicks said.
Some may write the news off as too negative in general, even if it doesn’t necessarily conflict with their personal viewpoints, Edmonds said.
“There are people who say journalists are too negative and that they’re always looking for the bad,” Edmonds said. “There are people who say ‘I just don’t want to read these things, they’re a bummer’ and so they don’t. There may be an element of ‘I don’t trust things are really as bad as they say.’”
As previously explained in this series, the vast array of information available these days can make it hard for consumers to determine which sources are reliable and worth their time and what is mere misinformation.
Edmonds said the most recent Reuters Institute report found those who filter information by quickly skimming articles are more likely to distrust the press.
“People who are most mistrustful often are fairly light readers of the news. They only look at a headline or maybe a couple of pictures, so they make snap judgements and that’s one more thing that leads to distrust,” Edmonds said. “You can write a story that’s pretty carefully balanced and have the right context and so forth, but they may never get that far. If they’re coming in thinking, ‘This given news outlet is biased or biased against my point of view,’ they kind of confirm their own leanings frequently.”
Edmonds said there are understandable reasons why some may be reluctant to trust the press.
“Different people have different reasons for distrust in the media, and some are really good reasons,” Edmonds said. “Some people have the experience that they read stories about somebody they knew or a situation they were involved in and say ‘That’s not really what happened.’ Another issue that has really come to the forefront is that many people in minority communities, ethnic communities, will read a paper or watch TV and feel like their group is left out.”
These groups often include young women, Black Americans and Hispanic Americans, the report showed.
Both Edmonds and Hicks acknowledged that in national media, rural America has often been thrown by the wayside.
Trust in local news?
It’s a commonly cited statistic: Local news is trusted over national news.
Recently, an article published in the April 2022 edition of Pub Aux said Susquehanna Polling and Research Inc. found this remained true just a month before.
“A plus side of local news is that the local news staff is closer to home … we want (the community) to prosper and we want improvement,” Edmonds said.
Hicks said while he believes this statistic, it might not be entirely born out of positivity. As last week’s article reviewed, local newspapers are increasingly being bought by – or otherwise subject to the decisions of large companies.
This can result in local news outlets being stripped of resources, such as manpower, to prioritize grossing a higher bottom line. This may lead to local outlets running lighter stories that can be produced quickly instead of larger, more investigative pieces.
“This is probably because they’re being fed just a diet of exactly what they want to see, and that’s happy news stories, promotions of local companies and businesses, coverage of high school basketball and football games,” Hicks said of the statistic. “As long as they see what’s making them feel good, they’ll say ‘I’ll trust it.’”
Edmonds said at the same time local news may be dubbed more trustworthy, it does not necessarily mean people are investing in it.
“There’s a little hitch in that unfortunately which is surveys show people are trusting local news more, but that doesn’t mean they consume as much of it as they do national news,” he said.
The 2021 Digital News Report found only 21 percent of individuals in the U.S. pay for news online. Of that figure, only 23 percent pay to get their news from local or regional sources.
Edmonds said readers may be more inclined to prioritize national stories over local ones as they filter what information they take in, and communities with younger populations may not feel as invested in them.
While media literacy may certainly be a start, many state journalists themselves must play an active role in building and maintaining audience trust.
This is a key tenant of Trusting News, a project that helps journalists master this goal. Trusting News assistant director Lynn Walsh said outlets should focus on explaining their processes to the audience.
“We have learned that a lot of times mistrust in news is based on a misunderstanding of how the reporting and editing process works, and more importantly, how would a non-journalist know how that process works?” Walsh said. “Traditionally, journalists have not always done a great job explaining that process. So, we look for opportunities to demonstrate credibility by explaining news processes, coverage goals and journalism ethics. We believe journalists have to stop assuming people understand the mission, ethics and processes behind their work.”
For more on how journalists consider ethics and how their content is determined, take a look at last week’s media literacy article.
Edmonds said community engagement beyond education is a must, too.
“(Outlets should) really listen to their communities instead of just talking to them,” Edmonds said. “People come up with a lot of good ideas and they appreciate being heard.”
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