A record number of Americans view the news media in an unfavourable light, according to a new study on trust in news.
The report, American Views, Part II, by the non-profit Knight Foundation and polling company Gallup, found that 26% of Americans have a favourable opinion of the news media. This is the lowest level since Gallup and Knight jointly began tracking attitudes in 2017.
According to the report, more than half (53%) of the 5,600 adult Americans surveyed view the media unfavourably. While down from the record highs of 2020, this means that more than twice as many Americans hold an unfavourable opinion of news media than those who view it positively.
Previous studies have shown that Americans’ trust in the news media is affected by perceptions of news organisations’ accuracy, bias and transparency.
The new report said however that there is a “disconnect between newsrooms’ efforts to rebuild the public’s trust and the continued decline of confidence in that effort”. To that end, the study looked specifically at the difference between practical and emotional aspects of trust in news. Many people, said the report, believe that news organisations deliberately mislead the public, leading to a lack of “emotional trust” in news, despite believing that news organisations have the capacity to report accurately and fairly.
According to the report, higher trust in news is linked to more willingness to pay for news, more trust in democracy and feeling more able to navigate the current media environment. Some 84% of Americans with high emotional trust in national news organisations said that although they thought that news was not entirely free of bias, they felt able to sort out the facts.
“This data offers further evidence that sustainable journalism begins and ends with trust,” said Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibargüen. “We believe a citizenry that trusts the news is more informed, more engaged and better prepared to participate meaningfully in our democracy.”
The survey also found significant differences in emotional trust levels between national and local news. More than twice as many Americans (44%) have higher emotional trust in local news than in national news (21%).
While the majority of people believe that journalists at national news organisations are competent, respondents expressed concern about the intentions of national reporters and felt that they cared less about the impact of their world. Only 35% of people surveyed said that most national news organisations care about how their reporting affects society, culture and politics. Half (50%) said that most national news organisations intend to mislead, misinform or persuade the public.
Trust in local news organisations was higher. 53% said that most local news organisations care about the impact that their reporting has on their community. Just under half of people (47%) said that most local news organisations care about the best interests of their audience, with a similar proportion (44%) saying that local news organisations do not aim to mislead or misinform the public.
As previous studies have shown, Democrats were much more likely to say they trusted news organisations than Republicans. Trust in news has, however, fallen among people of all political affiliations. People who claim to have no political affiliation were most likely to report decreased levels of trust in news – with the percentage saying they had an unfavourable opinion of news rising from 48% in 2019 to 66% in 2022.
Younger Americans were also more likely to hold negative perceptions of the news media than older citizens. There were differences by race too. White and Hispanic Americans were twice as likely to report low emotional trust in national news (45% and 41%, respectively) compared to Black Americans (21%).
The findings have important implications for the financial outlook of new organisations. The study found that higher emotional trust in news is linked to a higher likelihood of having paid for news in the past and more chance of choosing to pay for it in the future. Some 35% of Americans with high emotional trust in national news said that they had paid for news in the past, with 25% expressing that they would pay for news in the future.
An overwhelming majority (90%) of Americans with low emotional trust in national news believed that most news organisations prioritised their own financial interests over those of the public and wider societal well-being.
Survey respondents were more willing to pay for news content from organisations that they felt balanced their business needs with public interest.
The situation for local news was less dire. Higher levels of trust in local news meant that respondents expressed higher levels of willingness to pay for it – particularly to outlets that respondents felt did not have the resources to report the news accurately and fairly. While 23% said they would pay for local news, this rose to 45% for outlets respondents felt had fewer resources and capacity.
The report also looked at how Americans get their news, with nearly half (47%) saying they preferred to get most of their news online. This group were, however, less likely to have faith in news. Just 15% of online news users said they had high levels of emotional trust in the news, compared to 25% who get their news daily from television.
Trust in news was also linked to respondent's favoured outlets. 45% of viewers of cable outlets such as Fox News, CNN or MSNBC reported low levels of emotional trust in national news, compared to viewers of network news such as ABC or CBS (17%). Users of smaller news sources (those outside the top 20 most commonly used) said they trusted news particularly little, with 70% reporting low emotional trust in national news organisations.
The study also found a link between level of news consumption and trust. More than half (55%) of people who said they do not pay much attention to news reported low emotional trust in news. Among those who reported paying no attention at all to local news, 44% had low emotional trust in local news – half as many have high trust (22%).
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