Before coming to the United States for the WPI fellowship, one of my primary concerns about journalism was the growing lack of trust in the news. It bothered me that for too many people facts were not sacred anymore and they only believed the information that confirmed their bias. I assumed this mistrust in news would eventually lead to a crisis that would be the end of journalism as we know it.
Seven weeks later, I have come to the conclusion that trust doesn’t really matter much for news.
Do people really mistrust the media?
How do we know that people mistrust the media? Mostly from perception surveys done by organizations like Gallup and Pew Research Center. Almost all the recent surveys point to the “fact” that people mistrust the media. But a closer look reveals that public mistrust is not just for the institution of news, but it is for almost every institution. Gallup says the public confidence in all major U.S. institutions has continued to decline from 1979 (48%) to 2022 (27%). So, the mistrust is there for the overall order of which the news is a part.
In addition to this, there are question marks over the public responses, because it has become cool to say “I don’t trust the news media.” But when you dive deep into the surveys, you’ll find people mentioning their go-to news organizations.
And this mistrust is political and based on ideological convenience, i.e., the right trusts the media more when the left is in power and mistrusts the media when their own candidate is in the White House. The trust Democrats had in media in 2008 (when Obama came into power) saw a downward trend – 60% in 2008 to 51% in 2016. Trump comes into power and the trust in media among Democrats rises from 51% to 72% in just one year. The same trend is on the other side of the political divide. What do you make of these responses that are based on political convenience? For me, it only speaks to the fact that survey responses are merely perceptions that may not have solid factual backing.
Mistrust leads to decline in news consumption?
The same Gallup survey of the U.S. audiences, in 1974 only 4% of people said they have no trust at all in the mass media. But in 2022 that number has gone up to 38%. So, if people do not trust the media, then it means that they are not consuming the news right? Wrong.
Despite all the surveys, news consumption has gone up. The number of The New York Times subscribers and their revenue is going up. Fox News is seeing higher ratings than ever before. In the first quarter of 2023, their viewership even surpassed that of ESPN – a sports channel, that’s supposed to bring more eyeballs.
Another angle to look at trust and news consumption is the fact that most of the surveys have concluded that people trust local news more than national news. But if the trust was a factor in driving viewership, then why are we seeing more and more local news outlets shutting down and news deserts across the United States?
There’s the money element, too. The money spent on news advertisements has continued to hover around $64-$68 billion every year. It hasn’t gone down considerably, especially when the web is attracting more and more revenue.
So, that’s why I have this belief that the so-called “trust” in journalism doesn’t matter as much as we like to believe. It’s a manifestation of a larger problem, but we’ll survive this wave of mistrust and come back stronger. Fingers crossed.