Public trust in the media is at an all-time low. Results from a major new Knight-Gallup report can help us understand why.
As the debates over trust in media, misinformation and control over information rage, a new Knight-Gallup survey of more than 19,000 U.S. adults shows that Americans believe that the media have an important role to play in our democracy — yet they don’t see that role being fulfilled.
Part of the Knight Foundation Trust, Media and Democracy initiative, the new report, one of the largest on this topic, holds important implications for the future of journalism. As news organizations and policy makers contemplate ways to advance the role of strong journalism as essential to our democracy, it also underscores the competing views and perceptions that are affecting American trust in the media. Here are 10 findings that stood out to us:
1. Americans think the media is key to democracy — but many can’t name an objective news source.
Eighty-four percent of Americans believe the news media have a critical or very important role to play in democracy, particularly in terms of informing the public — yet they don’t see that role being fulfilled and less than half (44 percent) can name an objective news source.
2. Perceptions of the media vary depending on political affiliation.
While the majority of Americans clearly recognized the importance of media in a democracy, there were clear differences between Democrats and Republicans in their views of the media. While 54 percent of Democrats have a very or somewhat favorable opinion of the media, 68 percent of Republicans view the news media in an unfavorable light.
3. More sources make it harder than ever to be well informed.
Fifty-eight percent of Americans say the increased number of news sources makes it harder to be informed. Thirty-eight percent say it’s easier. Half of adults (50 percent) say there are enough sources to sort out facts, down from 66 percent in 1985. There is some nuance, and the most digitally-oriented consumers are among those who say it is easier to be informed.
4. Concern over “fake news” is high.
Seventy-three percent of Americans say the spread of inaccurate information on the internet is a major problem with news coverage today, more than any other potential type of news bias. Just 50 percent of them feel confident people can cut through bias to sort out the facts in the news — down from 66 percent a generation ago. And less than one third of Americans say they, personally, are very confident they can tell when a news source is reporting factual news versus commentary or opinion.
5. Perceptions of what constitutes “fake news” vary.
A majority of Americans believe people knowingly portraying false information as if it were true “always” constitutes fake news. Forty percent of Republicans say accurate news stories that cast a politician or political group in a negative light should “always” be considered fake news.
6. Public divided on who is responsible for informing citizens, individuals or the media.
When asked who is mainly responsible for making sure Americans receive an accurate and politically balanced picture of the news, 48 percent of Americans said individuals, and the same percentage said the news media. Republicans tilt toward placing the main responsibility on the individual (53 percent), while Democrats tilt toward placing responsibility on the media (53 percent).
7. Many Americans get their news from social media, but most don’t view it positively.
While Americans believe the internet, news aggregators, citizen videos and cable news have had a more positive than negative impact on the U.S. news environment over the past 10 years, the majority (54 percent) say that the impact of social media sites like Facebook and Twitter on the news environment has been negative. And 53 percent say political leaders using social media to directly communicate with the public has been more negative than positive.
8. Americans report sharing news mostly with people they know agree with them.
Sixty-four percent of Americans say they “frequently” (27 percent) or “occasionally” (37 percent) share news stories with friends, family or social media followers. However, Americans who share news stories admit that their sharing is mostly done with people who hold similar (68 percent) rather than different views from their own (29 percent).
9. Public is divided on whether platforms should be regulated.
The majority (57 percent) considers internet platforms’ methods to select news stories for them as “a major problem” for democracy; however, Americans are divided on whether regulation of these platforms, including Google and Facebook, is warranted. Forty-nine percent say there should be rules or regulations on the methods on these major websites, and 47 percent say that they should be free to provide users with news content using whatever methods they choose.
10. Peoples’ trust in the media is highly influenced by partisanship.
Older Americans tend to view the media more positively than younger adults do. Democrats largely trust the media and Republicans largely distrust it. The divergence based on political affiliation was also seen in perceptions of bias in the news. Forty-five percent of Americans say there is a “a great deal” of political bias in news coverage (up from 25 percent in 1989); 67 percent of Republicans say they see “a great deal” of political bias in the news, versus only 26 percent of Democrats.