By Joy Mayer, Founder and Director of Trusting News
Originally published on Trusting News Medium
Only four in 10 Americans say they have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the news media. That’s according to Gallup, where they’ve been asking that question since 1972. Forty percent is bad, but it’s actually higher than it was in 2016, when the number was 32 percent.
You know what’s not better? The way those numbers shake out along political lines. There is a record 63-percentage-point gap in trust between Democrats and Republicans.
Only 10 percent of Republicans report generally trusting what they see in the news. Here’s Gallup’s breakdown over time.
Other data paint a slightly less grim picture. But in general, the theme is a familiar one across research teams, in newsrooms, and with people who moderate comment sections (who probably deserve a raise):
Conservatives increasingly feel like the news is not made for people like them or by people like them.
Often, when journalists talk about this phenomenon, the conversation focuses on the people in comment sections who choose conspiracy theories over facts and think journalists are the enemy of the people. Those people are definitely out there, and it’s unlikely they’ll be converted into your fans anytime soon. They are not the focus of our work at Trusting News.
But do 90 percent of Republicans fall into that camp? Of course not. Many genuinely want to be informed but feel disenfranchised by news outlets. A Gallup/Knight survey this year found that 81 percent of Americans say the news media is “critical” (42%) or “very important” (39%) to democracy. The majority say accurate, fair news reports are important for keeping them informed and holding leaders accountable. They also perceive political bias in the news and say that’s a problem.
Many also believe newsrooms need to increase political diversity on staff. It’s an issue that’s not discussed directly in a lot of newsrooms, but few would disagree that in addition to being much more white, educated and wealthy than the people they aim to serve, newsrooms are also more liberal. (Here’s Nate Silver’s take on the topic after the 2016 election.) Progress is not nearly fast enough when it comes to diversifying both newsroom staffs and audiences across other fault lines such as race and gender, of course, and plenty more hard conversations, self-reflection and action are needed there. Political leanings should be part of the conversation.
When it comes to how the news industry should address this trust chasm with conservatives, I have many more questions than answers. (I also recognize that a label like “conservative” is tricky and is not interchangeable with “Republican” — we need to be careful with language.) But I do feel strongly that we’re overdue for a thoughtful conversation about this issue.
We need to be asking things like:
- Are we listening to conservative audiences to understand what they’re looking for from the news?
- Are we committed to reflecting diversity of thought and perspective across our communities, and to hosting conversations that bridge those divides?
- Are we aware enough of the diversity of political thought (or lack of it) in our newsrooms (and our Twitter feeds)?
- Are we talking about any implicit political bias that might be present and how to acknowledge and compensate for it?
- Are we attempting to understand what signals of credibility conservatives are looking for and how those might be different from what we’re already doing?
- Are we considering how issues of bias are perceived not just in political journalism but in the ways we describe and reflect different perspectives on life in general?
- Do we understand perceptions of our own journalism and of any wire or partner content we share, and are we labeling and describing those types of content properly?
- Are we labeling and describing opinion content properly, making it less likely people will consume persuasive content but perceive it instead as biased news coverage?
- Are we over-relying on facts (and fact-checking) as a way to demonstrate our credibility?
- Are we willing to talk about our values as journalists and the value we offer our communities (and democracy)? Are we willing to tell a story about our ethics and integrity in a way that is compelling and authentic?
The bottom line for me is this: If we are to thrive in our service to democracy (as well as financially), don’t we need to address this more thoughtfully?