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Trust in Media

by Darren K. Carlson

The average American is exposed to hundreds if not thousands of mass media messages every day. Many of those messages come in the form of news, whether it is the morning newspaper, a favorite talk radio station or television. The 1980s and '90s ushered a new era of 24-hour news that some observers would say borders on overexposure to news events. It was evident last week that Americans have even come to anticipate this exposure -- educators and psychologists offered strategies to help parents and others cope with the intense news coverage of the one-year anniversary of Sept. 11. Has this increased volume of information affected Americans' trust in the media's ability to report it? A recently updated Gallup Poll trend indicates that, whatever the cause, the American public is more skeptical of the media's ability to report news fully, accurately, and fairly than it was in the 1970s.

A Gallup Poll conducted Sept. 5-8* shows that 10% of Americans say they have a great deal of confidence in the mass media to report news fully, accurately and fairly. Another 44% say they have a fair amount of confidence. On the negative side, more than a third (35%) say they do not have very much confidence in the mass media, and 11% have no confidence at all. These results are consistent with the trend dating back to 1997, but they are quite different from the results obtained when Gallup began asking this question 30 years ago.

The erosion of public trust in the media is most evident when the findings are grouped into two categories -- the surveys conducted in the 1970s and the surveys conducted from 1997 to present. (Gallup did not ask the question from 1977 to 1996.) In the 1970s, an average of 19% of Americans said they had a great deal of trust in the media, compared to an average of 11% for the more recent surveys. Similarly, 51% said they had a fair amount of trust in the media in the 1970s, compared to just 43% who said so from 1997 to 2002. Not surprisingly, the percentage saying it did not have very much trust in the media increased from 22% to 34% between these two eras, and the percentage saying it had no trust at all doubled from 6% to 12%.

Ideology Drives Opinion of the Media

Trust in the media to accurately report the news is highly related to a person's political ideology. The September 2002 survey shows that Americans who claim to have a liberal political ideology are more likely than conservatives to say they trust the media. Specifically, 62% of liberals say they have a "great deal" or "fair amount" of trust in the media, while just 49% of political conservatives offer one of those responses. Along the same lines, 38% of liberals say they have "not very much" confidence in the media or "none at all," compared to 51% of conservatives who feel this way.

Key Points

In the 1970s, the average American might have read the morning newspaper and watched an hour of television news in the evening. Today, we have not only newspapers and the evening news, but also 24-hour cable news channels and countless radio stations. While public trust and confidence in the media's reporting of the news has been stable since 1997, comparing current opinions to those from the 1970s indicates that over the long run, public trust in the media has eroded significantly.

*Results based on telephone interviews with 1,004 adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 5-8, 2002. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the maximum margin of sampling error is ±3%.

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