Declining trust in media

Declining trust in media

: A new Gallup survey says that trust in media has taken a dramatic decline.

This survey was taken after the start of Rathergate but before the denouement. Gallup doubts that Rather is the primary cause. We all can — and certainly will — speculate about what the real causes in this decline are. You can predict that I’ll say the focus on and exasperation with mud-slinging is a factor. Some will say it’s the lack of coverage of the Bush and Kerry military stories; others will say it’s the excessive coverage. Whatever. I think that looking for a cause of this decline is as short-sighted as CBS appointing a commission to look just at the forgeries, not at the network.

This is a bigger story, of course, is the future and fate of journalism and news media. Trust and credibility are the only real assets of this business and Gallup says they are eroding, though we didn’t need Gallup to tell us that, eh? (See Tim Oren’s related post.)

So journalism must reform its relationship with the people formerly known as the audience (aka us). It must face us eye-to-eye and become transparent to rebuild trust. It must recognize that the internet allows people to go to the source sometimes — they report, they decide — and to talk back. It must admit the problems and failings it has. It must involve the citizens in that rebirth as equal partners, or they may as well not bother.


Can you hear that ringing sound, journalists? It’s another wake-up call from Gallup.

The Sept. 13-15 poll — conducted after the CBS News report was questioned but before the network issued a formal apology — found that just 44% of Americans express confidence in the media’s ability to report news stories accurately and fairly (9% say “a great deal” and 35% “a fair amount”). This is a significant drop from one year ago, when 54% of Americans expressed a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the media. The latest result is particularly striking because this figure had previously been very stable — fluctuating only between 51% and 55% from 1997-2003.

Conversely, 39% currently say they have “not very much” confidence in the media’s accuracy and fairness, while 16% say they have “none at all.”

Clearly, something new has happened to shake public confidence in the media, but whether that “something” is the recent CBS News controversy is a matter of speculation. One might assume that if the CBS News story were the culprit, that this would be reflected in a disproportionately large drop in confidence in the media among Republicans. However, the data on this is not conclusive. Trust in the news media is typically lower among Republicans, but all three partisan groups show a significant decline in confidence in the media since last year. It did drop by a somewhat greater degree among Republicans than Democrats, however.

My emphasis.

  • Andy Freeman

    The “memo” story confuses me.
    Suppose that the memos were authentic. Why are they news/interesting?
    Those memos wouldn’t change the position of folks who like Kerry/hate Bush – those folks already believe. Does anyone actually think that authentic memos would change the position of folks who like Bush/hate Kerry?
    To be a bit more blunt, is there anyone in the US who thinks “I’m voting for Bush because he was in the NG, otherwise I’d vote for Kerry”. Anyone who thinks that the answer is “yes” shouldn’t be trusted with a spork.
    Since large parts of the MSM fall into that category….

  • Michael

    Perhaps (god, I hope so) the public is becoming more savvy, more aware of bias & agendas, and generally more critical of the (news) media products they consume.

  • Guy

    Could someone older than myself remind me what would have happened after June 1976 to cause trust in the media to plummet so much?
    Bad 4th of July coverage for the Bicentenial year?

  • Michael

    Speaking of bias in statistics! This chart is very misleading for it shows a drastic decline in trust from the 3rd marker to the 4th. But if you examine the axis, you’ll note that the data jumps from June of 1976 to May of 1997. That is poor & misleading data presentation.

  • Michael

    Following up – it appears that Gallup didn’t ask this question between 1976 and 1997. That’s fine – but then they should show a “break” of some sort in their chart. The way it currently is presented is problematic.

  • Tudman

    It’s interesting that the last dip, although not nearly as sharp, was also in an election year. I hypothesize that in election years people are listening to (relatively) authoritative people (candidates) who have a reason to combat the lies, errors, and omissions, thereby pushing down the newsies’ rating.

  • From a personal point of view: I’ve only recently moved to the States from Canada – what I observe in Americans’ attitude towards the news is not so much that they not only feel it’s not worthy of their trust, but also that it’s hardly worth their attention. It’s known to be spurious, mindless pap – so why watch it?
    The media needs to get back to its roots – the ability to deal with a story in cold hard facts, to ask the tough questions, to engage in the real issues, not the superficial issues. The current treatment of the presidential race seems to more closely resemble a high school class campaign (“Vote for the jock!” “No! Vote for the nerd!”) than a political race to determine the best leader for the country. Honestly people, what is the mental age to which the current dialog appeals?
    In Canada, there’s this guy named Peter Mansbridge on the CBC News’ The National (I believe you can get him in the US on Newsworld). He’s the man. He tells it straight. When someone dodges a question, he comes at them until they answer the question (and the guests know to expect this – they don’t try to pull a Zell Miller act). If you want to see a journalist worthy of the title, check him out.

  • Tim

    Michael’s exactly right about the graph needing a break marker in the line.
    You ask a very difficult question, since there’s no data point from Gallup for 20 years. Likely there was not a single event, but a compilation of events and social changes that have affected attitudes toward the media.
    But, I would offer that in the late 80s and early 90s there were a number of high profile news scandals, a public sense that the news was being sensationalized, news organizations had become excessively adversarial (ambushes, one sided productions) that drove down confidence.
    I’ve commented on it somewhat here and Pew’s surveys perhaps provide additional data points to fill in the gap (i.e., 1993 poll NBC Dateline scandal).
    News Council
    “a two-way relationship”

  • TomK

    Noting the comments about the non-linear timeline on this graph, I was trying to think of a way to fill in the gap. Does anyone have access to readership numbers? Maybe the percentage of people who regularly read a paper or watch a news program? If people are losing trust in reporting, you’d expect it to show up in their habits, no?
    If anyone can point me to the data I’d need, I’d be more than happy to throw a graph together. I’m a geek, and working in Excel is fun for me. :)

  • Michael

    “If people are losing trust in reporting, you’d expect it to show up in their habits, no?”
    Not necessarily. I don’t “trust” many media sources I read, but I still read them – the more information from the more perspectives the better.
    In fact, this type of question is mostly meaningless, since the actual meaning of the concept of “trust” is left undefined. Of course, I think all polls and statistics are a meaningless exercise….