Whom do you trust for news and information?
Over recent years, the Pew organization has asked Americans how much they trust the information that comes to them from national or local news organizations and on social media. The trends are not surprising, especially the gap between Democrats and Republicans, considering the Trump effect.
But those trends are nonetheless alarming even as we perhaps enter a post-Trump era and maybe a post-trust or post-“truth” era.
Everyone is, of course, entitled to decide whom to trust for news and information. A generation ago, in what we might call the Walter Cronkite that’s-the-way-it-is era, most Americans said they trusted the network news shows with their iconic anchors, and their local newspapers to tell them the truth about the daily news. Obviously that trust has declined, even as more and more sources of news and information have emerged. And, just as obviously, a wide gap in trust has emerged across partisan and ideological lines, especially after the reign of a deeply divisive president who renamed the news media “fake news.”
The Pew poll finds that between 2016 and June of 2021, when the most recent sample was polled, the portion of all adults that said they had “a lot” or at least “some” trust in the information that comes from national news organizations fell from 76 to 58 percent. By itself, that’s concerning, not only for journalists but for anyone who thinks that the level of such trust is important for the proper functioning of a democracy.
But the breakdown by party is more concerning. Of course, you saw this coming, but the decline of trust in national news organizations fell much, much more among Republicans than Democrats.
Specifically, among Republican respondents in the Pew Poll, the portion who expressed “some” or “a lot of” trust in information reported by national news organizations fell from 70 percent in 2016, the year of Donald Trump’s emergence as a national political figure, to 35 percent in 2021.
It fell among Democrats (and Dem-leaners) too, but much less, from 83 to 74 percent, according to Pew’s poll.
In the aftermath of the Trump era, that leaves us with a massive gap between Democrats, among whom 74 percent have at least some trust in what they read, watch and hear from the news media, and Republicans, among whom just 35 percent can muster “some” trust.
(By the way, the numbers were down, but much more stable, when respondents were asked separately about local news organizations. And they were down, but only slightly, among Democrats and Republicans, when respondents were asked about their level of trust in information they receive via local media. Although the decline was smaller, the level of trust in information coming via social media was much lower than the level for news media in all the surveys.)
Make of this what you will. For me, a lifelong news scribbler, I find it sad but not surprising. I still believe in the importance of citizens in a democratic society following public affairs through some form of media, and preferably several. I’ve long understood the power of “selective perception” and “confirmation bias” in the way people consume and understand new information.
I’d still like to believe, although it’s harder than ever, that people can be open-minded enough to take in new information and adjust their overall views to accommodate it, however gradually or marginally. But selective perception and confirmation bias are powerful. It takes an effort to read, watch or listen with an open mind to information that contradicts one’s existing views.
But, of course, it’s even harder to do so in the new system of “news” in which it’s easy to tune out sources that might cause you to have a rethink about long-settled views and easy to just bathe in the deep waters of “confirmation bias.”
I’m old, and will soon lay down my burden as a purveyor news and views. I am well aware of many flaws in the old system, what we used to call the objectivity model of news reporting. But I’m quite worried about the impact on our democracy of the new model, in which it’s so much easier to bathe regularly in the smug certainty of confirmation bias.