Trust in Media Plummets and it Impacts You

Trust in American national news media continues its rapid decline. But local outlets continue to earn the trust of their communities. 

There may be times, like an emergency, when you or your organization will have to contend with the media. Let’s take a look first at how trust in media is at an all time low. Then we’ll explore ways to navigate their coverage when they point their cameras your way.

Media’s Trust Problem

According to polling by Gallup, trust in the media continues to decline. When Gallup first began monitoring trust in media in the early 1970s, trust ranged from 68% and 72%. 

In 2020, only 9% of Americans say they have “a great deal” of trust in the media. 31% say they trust the media “a fair amount”. “Trust” in this poll is assessed by whether they believe media reports the news “fully, accurately, and fairly.” For news outlets, 60% of Americans believe they do not.

Furthermore, a person’s political leanings tend to significantly influence their trust in the media. Gallop’s polling showed in 2020 that 73% of democrats have at least a fair amount of trust in the media. However, only 10% of republicans do. That’s a 63% difference.

If the majority of people agree national news outlets are biased and untrustworthy providers of news, and are more or less entertainment designed to appeal to our political leanings, then what exactly are they attempting to accomplish?

Trust Influenced by Ideology

The Pew Research Center dove further into this idea that political leanings sway a person’s trust in the media. Pew polled on a more granular level. They listed 30 news sources – some leaning left politically and some right – and asked respondents to gauge trust for each outlet. 

Similar to the findings from Gallup, democrats tend to trust the news media far more than republicans. But in this poll, we are able to assess individual outlets. The majority of democrats trust CNN, NBC News, ABC News, CBS News and PBS for political and election news. On the contrary, the majority of republicans trust only one source – Fox News.

Fox News and CNN received the highest percentage of people who had turned to them for political or election news in the past week during the survey. Interestingly, they just about mirror one another in terms of political party association. 

39% of all respondents claimed to have watched Fox News in the past week. 60% of them aligned closer to the republican party and 23% aligned closer to democrats. With CNN, the same percentage of respondents claimed to have watched them during the past week during the time of the survey – 39% – but 53 of them align closer to the democratic party and 24% align closer to republicans.

The top viewed national print publications for news were the New York Times (20%), The Washington Post (17%), and Wall Street Journal (13%). The New York Times and The Washington Post are both more heavily favored by democrats than republicans. The Wall Street Journal is one of the very few outlets considered that receives relatively similar scores across party affiliation.

This leads to a realization that we likely don’t need all this data to tell us – Americans perceive the media as biased and primarily tend to tune into the sources that align with their political ideology.

Trust in Local Media

If you are forced into a situation where you must engage the media, it is in your interest to focus on local outlets who are more likely to portray the news in an accurate and unbiased fashion. 

Locally, a 2018 Poynter Media Trust Survey showed that 76% of Americans have a great deal or fair amount of trust in local television news and 73% trust local newspapers. Compare that to the 40% of Americans that Gallup says have confidence in national outlets.

The trend continues when you break it down by political party affiliation. According to the Poynter survey, 88% of democrats trust local television news and newspapers. However, the high marks continue as 71% of republicans trust local TV news and 62% trust their local newspaper. Compare that to Gallup’s survey that shows only 10% of republicans trust national media.

So what insight does this provide to organizations? Mostly that if you are forced into a situation where you must engage the media, it is in your interest to focus on local outlets who are more likely to portray the news in an accurate and unbiased fashion. 

If you or your organization are being covered by the media, understanding how they operate and the potential impact on you is crucial.

Who are Local Media Personalities?

A major reason for the less biased approach of local outlets are the journalists, producers and editors working at these outlets. Most of them are not household names making seven, or even six, figure salaries. They are hard-working individuals who are doing their jobs as best they can. They hope their good work will result in them being valued and considered for more lucrative positions. This is no different than any of us in our various professions. 

The shift occurs once these journalists and editors are scooped up by a national outlet or publication, become household names, and are firmly encamped in their political beliefs and those of their outlet’s funding sources. 

Those who deliver the news on a national platform have less incentive to deliver unbiased and accurate reporting. Instead, their primary purpose is to attract viewers and advertisers. They believe that by telling their audience what they believe they want to hear, they can best accomplish that objective.

Intent of Media

So what is the true purpose of the media? For local media, according to the polling, most Americans tend to agree the primary purpose is to deliver accurate news reporting. For the most part that is true. You may encounter a rogue reporter here or there who thinks they are the next CNN or Fox News personality, but a bigger concern for you are honest mistakes by young journalists who lack experience.

But what about national outlets? If the majority of people agree national news outlets are biased and untrustworthy providers of news, and are more or less entertainment designed to appeal to our political leanings, then what exactly are they attempting to accomplish?

Money and Influence

Mostly, these outlets, and the personalities associated with them, are seeking money and influence. 

News is a business that is funded by your attention. By clicking a story, watching a channel or purchasing a publication, you are providing the outlet with your attention. The outlet then sells your attention to advertisers who pay very good money to sell products or services in spaces you will see. This is in the form of commercials and advertisements. The more attention an outlet receives, the more profit they can generate.

Additionally, national media outlets have become communication arms of politicians and political ideology. They have great influence over those who grant their attention to the outlet. We established earlier that much of the news media is biased. Furthermore, they have come to embrace their bias and don’t even attempt to claim objectivity anymore. 

They understand that their brand has a great power to influence those who pay attention. So, as they turn your attention into profit, they simultaneously pick and choose what to share in an effort to influence your thinking, beliefs, and understanding of the world around you. 

A challenge media outlets encounter for your attention is the race to cover stories before their competitors. In an all-out effort to get the news on the air first, the media sacrifice accuracy and accountability. They run full steam ahead with inaccurate information, faulty logic, lack of confirmation from authorities, and outright lies in an effort to outdraw their competitors and attract your attention. 

This is dangerous for those who watch the media and especially for those organizations and individuals the media is covering. If you or your organization are being covered by the media, understanding how they operate and the potential impact on you is crucial.

Managing Unwanted or Negative Media Attention During an Emergency

First, don’t lose your cool. You may understand that a media outlet is running with the wrong story and it could potentially damage your organization’s response to an emergency. Don’t become angry and provide the media with a wonderful headline for their coverage. Instead, have a plan.

Release a statement from the organization to the media early in the emergency response. At the same time, or shortly after the release of the initial statement, schedule a press conference. The earlier you can schedule the press conference, the better. You don’t want to allow the media extended time to dig and create faulty storylines. You want to be able to control the message as much as possible. Your press conference will allow you to do that. 

Also, leverage all of your communication platforms as effectively as possible. Your organization should be constantly enhancing the effectiveness and outreach of multiple communication platforms so you have strategic ways to communicate directly to all your various stakeholders. Ideally, they should hear news and updates from you rather than the media. 

Finally, don’t be afraid to publicly call out bad reporting and outright lies perpetuated by the media. Be calm and collected, but leverage your press conference and various communication platforms to correct misinformation being spread to your stakeholders so they may understand the truth and where to continue to receive the most accurate information.

Download the full Pew Research Study.

Download Gallup’s poll responses and trends document.