Can Americans trust the news?

While Americans rely heavily on the media for information about the coronavirus pandemic, election and other momentous events, they remain largely distrustful of the mass media. A Gallop Poll found four in 10 U.S. adults say they have “a great deal” (9%) or “a fair amount” (31%) of trust and confidence in the media to report the news “fully, accurately, and fairly,” while six in 10 have “not very much” trust (27%) or “none at all” (33%).

Americans see a variety of factors as important when it comes to deciding whether a news story is trustworthy or not, but their attitudes vary by party affiliation, demographic characteristics and news consumption habits, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

Overall, broad majorities of U.S. adults say it is at least somewhat important to consider each of five surveyed factors when determining whether a news story is trustworthy or not: the news organization that publishes it (88%); the sources cited in it (86%); their gut instinct about it (77%); the person, if any, who shared it with them (68%); and the specific journalist who reported it (66%).

Just 24% of adults say it’s at least somewhat important to consider a sixth factor included in the survey: whether the story has a lot of shares, comments or likes on social media.

Republicans, Democrats consider a variety of factors when deciding whether a news story is trustworthy

But notably fewer Americans see each of these factors as very important. Half of U.S. adults point to the news organization that publishes a story as a very important factor when determining its trustworthiness, while a similar share (47%) point to the sources that are cited in it.

Fewer cite their gut instinct about the story (30%), the specific journalist who reported it (24%), the person who shared it with them (23%) or the engagement it has received on social media (6%), according to the March 8-14 survey of 12,045 adults. The survey was part of a broader study of media coverage of President Joe Biden’s first 60 days in office.How we did this

Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents are slightly more likely than Republicans and GOP leaners to say it’s very important to consider the news organization that publishes a story (55% vs. 47%) and the sources that are cited in it (51% vs. 44%). Republicans, in turn, are more likely than Democrats to see their own gut instinct as very important (35% vs. 26%), though this is a minority view in both parties.

Older Americans are generally more likely than younger Americans to point to the news organization that publishes a story and the sources that are cited in it as critical factors when determining its trustworthiness.

For example, among those 65 and older, 57% say the news organization is a very important factor and 54% say the same about the sources cited. Smaller proportions of adults under 30 see these as very important factors (42% and 41%, respectively).

These findings are consistent with previous Pew Research Center studies, which found that younger Americans tend to feel less connected to their sources of news and are less likely to remember the sources of online news links they clicked on.

When it comes to education, 59% of adults with a college degree say it’s very important to consider the news organization that publishes a story, and 54% say the same of the sources that are cited in it. That compares with around four-in-ten of those with a high school diploma or less education (43% and 40%, respectively).

Conversely, those with a high school diploma or less are more likely than those with a college degree to see the other factors asked about as very important when determining a news story’s trustworthiness.

Black Americans are more likely than those in other racial and ethnic groups to see some factors as very important when determining the trustworthiness of a news story.

For example, around four-in-ten Black adults (38%) point to their own gut instinct as a very important factor, compared with three-in-ten or fewer White (30%), Hispanic (26%) and Asian American adults (22%). Black adults are also more likely than other Americans to point to the specific journalist who reported the story and the person who shared it with them; about a third of Black adults say these are very important factors to consider.

Avid news followers are more likely to see all of the factors asked about in the survey as critical when deciding on a news story’s trustworthiness.

For instance, Americans who are very closely following news about the Biden administration are especially likely to say it’s very important to consider the news organization that publishes a story (69%) and the sources that are cited in it (65%).

Among those who are following Biden administration news less closely, fewer see these factors as very important.

Around one-in-five Americans pay very close attention to the sources cited in news stories

In addition to asking about the factors that the public considers when deciding whether a news story is trustworthy, the survey asked Americans how closely they pay attention to the sources they see in the news. Overall, 22% of U.S. adults say they pay very close attention to the sources that are cited in news stories, while another 45% say they pay somewhat close attention.

Democrats are slightly more likely than Republicans to say they pay very close attention to the sources cited in news stories (25% vs. 19%) – a finding that aligns with the fact that Democrats are more likely than Republicans to see sourcing as very important to a story’s trustworthiness.

Americans ages 65 and older (27%), those with a college degree (27%) and Black adults (28%) are also especially likely to say they pay very close attention to the sources that are mentioned in news stories.

Americans who have been following news about the Biden administration very closely are again the most likely to say they pay very close attention to the sources cited in news stories. Nearly half of these Americans (47%) say this, compared with smaller shares of those who follow news about the Biden administration fairly closely (20%) or not too or not at all closely (8%).

A Gallup Poll conducted last year found that while Americans were relying heavily on the media for information about the coronavirus pandemic, the presidential election and other momentous events, they remained largely distrustful of the mass media.

Four in 10 U.S. adults say they have “a great deal” (9%) or “a fair amount” (31%) of trust and confidence in the media to report the news “fully, accurately, and fairly,” while six in 10 have “not very much” trust (27%) or “none at all” (33%).

Gallup first asked this question in 1972 and has continued to do so nearly every year since 1997. Trust ranged between 68% and 72% in the 1970s, and though it had declined by the late 1990s, it remained at the majority level until 2004, when it dipped to 44%.

After hitting 50% in 2005, it has not risen above 47%.

The latest findings, from Gallup’s annual Governance poll conducted Aug. 31-Sept. 13, 2020, are consistent with all but one recent trust rating — in 2016, a steep decline in Republicans’ trust in the media led to the lowest reading on record (32%).

Republicans’ trust has not recovered since then, while Democrats’ has risen sharply.

In fact, Democrats’ trust over the past four years has been among the highest Gallup has measured for any party in the past two decades. The result is a record 63-percentage-point gap in trust among the political party groups.

Americans’ confidence in the media to report the news fairly, accurately and fully has been persistently low for over a decade and shows no signs of improving, as Republicans’ and Democrats’ trust moves in opposite directions.

The political polarization that grips the country is reflected in partisans’ views of the media, which are recently the most divergent in Gallup’s history. 

In our fractured media ecosystem, it’s not uncommon for both Republicans and Democrats to seek out news sources that reinforce their political beliefs.

A number of studies found that exposure to media that is partisan — whether liberal or conservative — reduces people’s overall trust in the mainstream press regardless of political party.

What sets Republicans apart at this point is their steady reliance on just one source for all their news: Fox News. A staggering 92 percent of people who said they voted for then-President Trump in 2020, strongly or somewhat agreed that “the mainstream media today is just a part of the Democratic Party.”

One of the fundamental ways in which the internet is transforming society is by dramatically increasing the availability of information.

In removing barriers to access, it is unclear whether the internet is a democratizing force that helps to level the playing field for underrepresented perspectives and social movements or a caustic influence that has eroded the power of traditional gatekeepers to set the boundaries, allowing rumors, misinformation, and biased accounts of reality to flourish.

Former White House chief of staff John F. Kelly told an audience in Morristown on February 13, 2020, “So if you only watch Fox News because it’s reinforcing what you believe, you are not an informed citizen.”

As a result, those who put the most trust in Fox News coverage are most likely to accept falsehoods as fact.

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