Nieman Foundation at Harvard
After criticism over “viewpoint diversity,” NPR adds new layers of editorial oversight
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Sept. 11, 2018, 9 a.m.
Audience & Social

Figuring out just how to rebuild Americans’ trust in media is proving to be a tricky question.

The Knight Foundation and Gallup shared their latest findings on mixing the perfect potion, after previously testing whether articles featuring their sources or community-rated trust metrics would improve readers’ trust in media organizations. Spoiler alerts: Nope and nope. (Disclosure: Knight has provided funding to Nieman Lab in the past.)

This time around, Knight/Gallup researchers did this thing where they just asked (and also tested) their survey respondents what helps increase or decrease their trust in news organizations. In addition to deeper questions, respondents were able to select from 35 different factors for determining trust in organizations, such as “The type of media it uses — newspaper, TV news, radio or website” and “Its commitment to accuracy — not reporting stories before it verifies all the facts and being willing to correct mistakes it makes.”

(Note: The Reuters Institute for Journalism asked similar questions in a multi-country study last November.)

Here’s the bad news first: The majority of U.S. adults say that in recent years they have personally lost trust in the media. About a third of those who identify as being on the political right “have lost faith in the media and expect that change to be permanent.” Good news: 69 percent of all those who say they’ve lost trust believe that it can still be restored.

The most important factors are accuracy and minimized bias; 71 percent also said a news organization’s commitment to transparency is very important (bonus points if the organization provides “fact-checking resources and providing links to research and facts that back up its reporting”).

“These results indicate that attempts to restore trust in the media among most Americans may be fruitful, particularly if those efforts are aimed at improving accuracy, enhancing transparency, and reducing bias,” the researchers write. “The results also indicate that reputations for partisan leaning are a crucial driver of media distrust, and one that may matter more for people themselves than they realize.”

But the researchers also acknowledge that centering on a common definition will be difficult: “A major challenge in fostering trust in the news media is that accuracy and unbiasedness are often in the eye of the beholder.”

Here are some snippets of what respondents — young and old(er), Republican and Democrat, news nerds and news avoiders — say matters when it comes to earning (or losing) the reader’s trust:

Nearly four in 10 U.S. adults who are inattentive to national news (39 percent) say they do not trust any news organizations. That compares with 17 percent of those who pay a moderate amount of attention to national news and 8 percent who are highly attentive.

[Of those who lost trust], five percent say negative stories about President Donald Trump and 3 percent say news organizations that protect or support him cause them to lose trust.

In all, three-quarters of respondents mentioned bias-related reasons at least once in their comments as a reason they did not trust news organizations, and two-thirds mentioned accuracy-related reasons at least once.

Republicans, Democrats and independents are about equally likely to bring up inaccuracy as a reason they distrust certain news organizations. Republicans (36 percent) are somewhat less likely than Democrats (43 percent) and independents (49 percent) to raise the bias issue in general terms, though 17 percent of Republicans, compared with 3 percent of independents and 1 percent of Democrats, more specifically mention liberal or anti-conservative bias.

Young adults (aged 18 to 34) are twice as likely as older adults (aged 55 and up) to say politically focused or partisan bias is a factor in their lack of trust in news media organizations, 18 percent to 9 percent, respectively. Young adults (47 percent) and middle-aged adults (47 percent of those aged 35 to 54) are also more likely than older adults (34 percent) to mention biased, slanted or unfair reporting more generally.

Thirty-nine percent of Republicans versus 28 percent of Democrats mention accurate and factual reporting, and 43 percent of Republicans compared with 33 percent of Democrats remark on a news organization having fair, unbiased or nonpartisan reporting. In contrast, at least twice as many Democrats as Republicans mention fact-checking, research and verifiable facts (25 percent to 9 percent), good or professional journalistic practices (24 percent to 12 percent), and history or longevity (11 percent to 3 percent).

While accuracy and bias are commonly mentioned when Americans indicate why they trust or do not trust particular news organizations, accuracy is mentioned more often than unbiasedness as a reason for trusting an organization, and bias is mentioned more often than inaccuracy as a reason for distrust.

Young adults (83 percent) see links to research and facts to back up reporting as more important to earning their trust than adults 35 and older (65 percent) do.

Older adults seem especially sensitive to news organizations’ records of making mistakes — 62 percent of those aged 55 and older say it is a very important factor in their trust in news media organizations, compared with 48 percent of adults younger than 55.

Read the full report here.

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