Americans Don't Trust the Media

A Gallup Poll reveals three-in-five Americans have little faith in the Fourth Estate.

In a thoroughly unsurprising revelation, a Gallup Poll released on Friday shows that 60 percent of the American public has "little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly." Gallup further notes that the 20-point gap between negative and positive views represents an all-time high. And while Americans tend to pay more attention to the news during a presidential election year, only 39 percent are following the news closely this year, compared to 43 percent in 2008.

According to Gallup, most of the decline is driven by Republicans and Independents. Only 26 percent of Republicans and 31 percent of Independents express either a great deal, or fair amount of trust in the Fourth Estate. Both number represent record lows and a significant drop from last year. Independents are also far more negative this year than in 2008, implying they are very dissatisfied in their ability to get accurate and unbiased coverage of the election campaign. Overall, Democrats remain most trusting of the media and Republicans the least. Media trust by Independents fell below 50 percent in 2004, and has declined steadily ever since.

The key number here is the one reached by taking the opposite figure of those paying close attention to the news. If only 39 percent of the public is paying close attention, that means more than three-out-of-five Americans remain largely unaware of what is going on around them. As for mainstream media bias, the numbers are not even close. For the 60 percent of Americans who perceive media bias, 47 percent of them say the media are too liberal, while only 13 percent say they are too conservative.

Who's right? No doubt the fallback position for many Americans, especially those who work in media, would be that bias is in the eye of the beholder. Certainly that is true to some extent. Americans' experience with media is anecdotal by nature. No one watches every news show, reads every newspaper, or listens to every radio broadcast disseminated on a daily basis throughout the nation. Furthermore, there is something called the "selective exposure theory," which is the idea that people tend to interact with media sources that reinforce their pre-existing views, and avoid those that conflict with, or challenge, those views.

Yet a 2005 study conducted by Tim Groseclose, a UCLA political scientist, and co-author Jeffrey Milyo, a University of Missouri economist and public policy scholar, reveals that while coverage by public television and radio is conservative, compared to the rest of the mainstream media, almost all major media outlets tilt to the left. "I suspected that many media outlets would tilt to the left because surveys have shown that reporters tend to vote more Democrat than Republican," said Groseclose. "But I was surprised at just how pronounced the distinctions are." Milyo was equally adamant. "Overall, the major media outlets are quite moderate compared to members of Congress, but even so, there is a quantifiable and significant bias in that nearly all of them lean to the left," he said.

The authors used 21 research assistants to examine 10 years of U.S. media coverage. They kept close track of the number of times each media entity referred to various think tanks and/or policy groups, such as the left-leaning NAACP, or the right-leaning Heritage Foundation. Of the 20 major media outlets studied, 18 scored left of center. CBS's "Evening News," The New York Times and the Los Angeles Times ranked the second, third and fourth most liberal media sources, respectively. Number one was the news pages of The Wall Street Journal.  The only two sources on the right side of the equation were Fox News's "Special Report With Brit Hume," and The Washington Times. The most centrist outlets were "NewsHour With Jim Lehrer," CNN's "NewsNight With Aaron Brown" and ABC's "Good Morning America." The study focused on news, omitting op-eds and editorials from the equation -- which is why The Wall Street Journal, whose editorial page is decidedly  conservative, got the top slot on the left side of the equation, the authors explain.

Another study conducted in 2010 by University of Chicago economists Matthew Gentzkow and Jesse Shapiro looked at the different language used by Democrats and Republicans in Congress to describe various issues as a means of determining which way newspapers lean, and why. They concluded that "consumer demand responds strongly to the fit between a newspaper’s slant and the ideology of potential readers, implying an economic incentive for newspapers to tailor their slant to the ideological predispositions of consumers." That would seem to support a mutually-reinforced selective exposure theory. Yet unlike Groseclose and Milyo, they came to no conclusions regarding an overall slant of newspaper coverage.

Neither did David D’Alessio, a communications sciences professor at the University of Connecticut at Stamford, who reviewed 99 studies of campaign news coverage over 60 years. He wrote a book, “Media Bias in Presidential Election Coverage 1948-2008: Evaluation via Formal Measurement," in which he concludes that news reporting is evenly split “because that’s where the people are, and that’s where the [advertising] money is...There’s nuance there, but when you add it all and subtract it down, you end up with nothing."

Nothing is an interesting word. Or more accurately "omission." How does one quantify the stories the major media deliberately choose not to run at all? For example, as outlined in a previous column, in order to maintain the fiction that Republicans are a "racist" political party, MSNBC chose to omit from its coverage all the speeches made by minorities at the Republican convention. CBS News spiked a story about its own reporter Lara Logan being sexually assaulted by a mob of Egyptian men in Tahrir Square, because it would have interfered with the "Arab Spring" narrative that the Obama administration desperately wanted to be true. As for the president himself, the same media that more than willing to dug up a 47-year-old story about Republican Mitt Romney cutting a prep school classmate's hair (implying Romney targeted the classmate because he was supposedly suspected to be gay), remains almost pathologically incurious regarding a president whose past remains a vague, even after nearly four years in office.

Furthermore, how does one measure the intensity of news coverage? For example, how does one compare the mainstream media's virtual obsession with Mitt Romney's tax returns, when measured against their general lack of interest, save for financially-oriented publications, in the Federal Reserve's latest round of Quantitative Easing (QE3)? In reality, Romney's tax returns amount to little more than the stuff of water-cooler conversations. On the other hand, Ben Bernanke's debasement of the dollar affects every American forced to cope with rising gas and food prices as a result. In the bigger scheme of things, the latter story is far more important. Yet there is little doubt the former will receive far more attention.

The Gallup survey notes that Americans' high level of distrust in the media poses a challenge to democracy and to creating a fully engaged citizenry." That might be the understatement of the year. An untrustworthy media may be the single greatest threat this nation is currently facing. If Americans remain generally misinformed about the problems this nation faces, or remain captive to clever sound bytes designed to eliminate critical thinking, freedom itself is at stake. On the bright side, Gallup also notes that the overall malfeasance of the mainstream media provides "an opportunity for others outside the 'mass media' to serve as information sources that Americans do trust."

Without trust there is nothing. As it stands now, those with an interest in what is really going on cannot rely on any single source to give them the truth. In fairness, Americans themselves must also do a better job in making the distinction between genuine, fact-based news coverage, and media that promote an agenda. As for the media establishment itself, there is no excuse for muddying the waters between the two.

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