Do Americans Trust the Media?

08/15/2017 03:49 pm ET
DigitalVision/Getty Images
DigitalVision/Getty Images

How do American citizens view the mainstream media? Do they do an honest and decent job? originally appeared on Quora - the place to gain and share knowledge, empowering people to learn from others and better understand the world.

Answer by Jim Moore, Speechwriter, journalist, on Quora:

There is a long-held axiom within the political polling world: “Americans hate the Congress, but love their own Congressional representatives.” The follow-on axiom, “All politics is local,” has withstood the test of time.

So, too, does it seem to be with Americans’ perceptions of the media. If you ask most news consumers—not just people who get a snippet of a story online every now and then, but consumers who actually pay attention to newspapers, radio, and television news—the picture for the news industry runs cold and hot (well, lukewarm, to be fair).

According to the Media Insight Projects May, 2017, report on public attitudes toward the media,

“…on many fronts, Americans are skeptical of “the news media” in the abstract, but generally trust the news they themselves rely on. And most people mention traditional or mainstream news sources as the ones they turn to. As an example, only 24 percent of Americans say they believe the news media in general are “moral.” But that number more than doubles, to a majority of 53 percent, when people are asked about the news media they use most often. Just 17 percent of Americans give the news media high marks for being “very accurate.” But twice as many (34 percent) say that about the news media they use.”

The results appear typical of self-selection bias—you like what you want to like, you don’t like what you don’t want to like. But I think it goes a bit deeper than that. It seems to me, more and more, people are being influenced to upvote a news source because of what people they like, like, and turn away from a news source people they don’t like, like.

That is, if someone you know and trust likes a conservative commentator, then it’s possible that influence will bring you over to the conservative media camp; if you see that someone you don’t know, and have built no trust in, favors a liberal news source, you may shield yourself from any favorable view of liberal news outlets. The decision to like or dislike a news source is no longer made in isolation—through one’s own contrast and compare abilities—but is influenced by groupthink. I think that is becoming the default mode of many news consumers.

The common argument against my position is that people are always going to be influenced, to a lesser or greater degree, by others in whom they have trust—a parent, spouse, teacher, colleague, even a national leader.

I got in the habit of reading The Washington Star (once Washington’s evening paper) instead of The Washington Post, because my father, whom I revered and respected for his worldview, thought the Post was too far left a publication for his tastes. I was too young to have formed my own opinion, so I went with my dad’s POV until I began to read the Post as part of my high school government class—taught by a relatively liberal teacher who I liked and respected. My point of view began to shift, drifting toward a middle ground because I could see merits to both publications’ editorial views. But even with his own bias clearly stated, my dad still encouraged me to “question everything”.

Here’s the difference between blindly following groupthink and choosing to respect the middle ground: A percentage of the American population—I don’t pretend to know the number, though I think it’s high—has never learned (or does not care to learn) the merits of objectively contrasting and comparing anything of intellectual, educational, or political importance. If they once knew to do it, they seem to have given up.

For them, if the group to which they have attached themselves abjures a common sense explanation for an event, they will go along, hard evidence to the contrary be damned. And the polls will reflect the effects of such groupthink even when polling individuals because individuality and groupthink have conflated into a one-opinion mass. For politicians, this can either be a heaven or a hell.

For the politician who benefits from groupthink and a gerrymandered district, the power of incumbency is twice-blessed as long as he or she does not waver from the approved ideological path. For the politician who finds himself or herself at odds with the groupthinkers—perhaps because he or she has taken an unpopular position on health care (to choose a random example)—their appearance at a townhall meeting is apt to be contentious and unproductive.

Coming back around to the original question: “How do American citizens view the mainstream media? Do they do an honest and decent job?” the answer no longer relies on the views of individual Americans; they have become too wedded (welded might be more apt) to the communal views of groupthink to have their own opinions. And this is nowhere more born out than in the groupthink of political parties.

There is clearly a divide between—and among divisions—over the public’s perception of the the role of mainstream media in politics in the 21st century.

Taking a look at a May 10, 2017, Pew Research Center poll, 34% of Democrats and 11% of Republicans believe information from national news organizations is trustworthy—a 23-point gap. When it comes to relying on the national news media to keep them informed, the gap tightens up a bit, to 15 points, with Democrats agreeing only 33% of the time, and Republicans agreeing 18% of the time.

According to a May Harvard-Harris poll published by The Hill, 65% of voters believe there is an abundance of “fake news,” streaming from the national media:

“…data from the latest Harvard-Harris poll, which was provided exclusively to The Hill, 65 percent of voters believe there is a lot of fake news in the mainstream media. That number includes 80 percent of Republicans, 60 percent of independents and 53 percent of Democrats. Eighty-four percent of voters said it is hard to know what news to believe online. “Much of the media is now just another part of the partisan divide in the country with Republicans not trusting the ‘mainstream’ media and Democrats seeing them as reflecting their beliefs,” said Harvard-Harris co-director Mark Penn. “Every major institution from the presidency to the courts is now seen as operating in a partisan fashion in one direction or the other.”

Where is the individuality in these numbers? Who is to know what any one American thinks about anything anymore when the evidence of partisan groupthink is so clear, so ineluctable… and so destructive to the process of individual thought critical to grappling with a complex future?

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