News diet, election to blame for Americans’ media distrust, UWRF experts say

Posted September 25, 2016

For the third year in a row, Americans’ trust in the mass media is at historically low levels, but two experts at UW-River Falls say it reflects a shift in the way the news is consumed.

According to research organization Gallup, only 32 percent of Americans have expressed a great or fair amount of trust in mass media outlets. The new data show a sharp 8 percentage point drop from 2015, another notably rough year for the trustworthiness of the nation’s major media sources.

Low approval ratings are common for news organization during elections, but this year’s drastic numbers reflect a new trend for Americans as more are utilizing online platforms to receive news. In a study by the Pew Research Center, 50 percent of Americans under 30 years old received almost all of their news online. Experts point to the change in how news has been distributed over the last 20 years, in addition to the heated election, as reasons why Americans have questioned media.

“The American public is starting to choose, more and more, only what they wanted to hear, not what may contradict their beliefs. And then once the internet came along, that made it real easy to limit your exposure to one set of information,” said Sandy Ellis, chair of the UW-River Falls Communication and Media Studies Department. “Our politics have gotten more and more contentious and this year more than any other. So what happens is people don’t trust media because they think somebody is pulling the fast one.”

According to Gallup, only 26 percent of Americans 18-49 years old have a great or fair amount of trust in the mass media. Some younger Americans think the mass media are more biased than smaller online organizations.

“There is bias on the internet, too, but there are more credible sources with little to no bias on the internet if you look for them,” Nick Brost, a UW-River Falls student, said.

Gallup’s poll shows the mass media approval rating from Republican voters has also slipped, going from 32 percent last year to only 14 percent this year. Political scientists believe the rise of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump has caused more media backlash.

“The Republicans have been a lot more explicit about sort of beating up on the press — really since Richard Nixon, I think it goes back to — so it’s kind of the culmination of many decades I think of doing that,” said Neil Kraus, chair of the UWRF Falls Political Science Department. “And it’s also the current campaign. Trump is beating up on the press pretty much every day so, stands to reason, that’s going to have an impact.”

While Republican voters lost faith in the mass media, the poll shows Democratic and independent voters generally still support the mainstream media. However, Kraus said extensive media time for Trump has led to disappointment among Trump opponents.

“You get this criticism from very different people. There are a lot of folks who are very upset with how the press is covering Trump who are not Trump supporters, who are very much opposed to Trump,” Kraus said.

Ellis said if Americans shift back to well-rounded news consumers, trust in mass media will turn around.

“If you only get the news that you tell your browser to receive, you’re really not being exposed to stuff. I don’t think people are thinking hard enough about it. But I don’t know what the answer is, you can’t make people do stuff like that,” Ellis said.

Ellis said Americans trust in mass media will get better but it will take time.

Gallup’s poll was compiled Sept. 7-11 by telephone interviews with a random sample of 1,020 adults.