Who Do You Trust Less?

The guys in the debate or the ones holding the microphone? Election season is on, and sometimes it seems that the only ones more subject to suspicion than the candidates themselves are the media following their every move from primaries to polls. Recently I spoke to Jonathan Ladd, author of Why Americans Hate the Media and How it Matters to get his take on this phenomenon, and how he thinks it impacts our engagement with politics. Check out the interview here:


How did you get interested in the phenomenon of  distrust in the media?

My main area of study in graduate school was U.S. public opinion, and especially its interaction with the news media. Then I read some conference papers by two political scientists named Tim Cook and Paul Gronke, which documented the extent that trust in the news media had declined since the early 1970s. I suspected that this lower level of media trust would have consequences for how people learned political facts and were persuaded by media coverage. I looked around a little and found that there wasn’t much existing research on this topic. A few political scientists, including James Druckman of Northwestern and Skip Lupia of Michigan, had done studies of the effect of attitudes toward a specific media source on persuasion from that source. But no one had studied the consequences the broader phenomenon of lower trust in the media as a social institution. That is what I set out to do when I started this project.

Is widespread distrust of the media a new issue in American history?

No. We only have modern opinion polling from the 1930s onward (and even polls in the 1930s and 1940s have methodological flaws), but the available evidence suggests that it was the 1950s, 1960s, and early 1970s that were the historical anomalies. There is not any other period in American history where a news media establishment existed that was widely respected by the public. For instance, in 1938 a Roper poll found that only 40% of the public believed that newspapers produced fair news.

Earlier than that, we don’t have polls but all available evidence suggests that journalists were held in low esteem. Journalism in the 1800s was largely considered a blue collar profession. It was not uncommon for people to work their way up from operating the printer to eventually writing for the newspaper. Writers for the famous “yellow journalism” newspapers owned by Joseph Pulitzer and William Randolph Hearst were certainly not widely respected.  And earlier than that, in the late 1700s and early 1800s, most newspapers were closely affiliated with a political party or faction. No newspapers were widely trusted as sources of accurate unbiased news.

What do people mean when they say that they distrust the media? What types of sources are they thinking about?

This is an important question. Given the diversity of modern news outlets, I wondered whether people still had meaningful opinions about the news media as a collective institution. I found that they did. In fact, opinions about the institutional media in general are unusually strongly held political opinions. As evidence of this, I found that the percentage of people who say “don’t know” or refuse to answer at all, when asked about the news media as an institution is unusually small—often less than half of one percent. In addition, when I gave people the chance to provide their opinions on this topic in an open-ended format, they had a lot to say. Essentially no one said they didn’t have any opinion on this topic and very few expressed any confusion about what the institutional media were. Based on these open-ended responses, most people considered the institutional media to be the major television networks and large newspapers.

It actually makes sense that opinions about the institutional media would be so strongly held in the current environment. In the 1950s and 1960s, people had a much smaller and less diverse selection of news sources to choose from. Most of the sources available in that era reported in a style that we would associate with the institutional media. But now, we live in a world where people must constantly chose whether to get information from sources employing the more conventional style or those that employ more partisan or sensational styles. In making that choice people draw on their views of whether the media establishment can be trusted. And because this is such a consequential decision, politicians, political activists, and opinion journalists at partisan outlets constantly try to influence people’s attitudes toward the institutional media.

Do people learn about politics differently when they distrust the media?

Yes. I find that one’s level of trust in the institutional news media has important consequences for how one learns politically-relevant information. In contrast to those who trust the institutional media, those who distrust the media are more likely to augment their use of conventional news outlets with partisan sources that reinforce their existing political views. They are also more likely to resist new information that is attributed to the institutional news media. As a result of all this, those who distrust the media are resistant to new information about the political world. Rather than accept new information, they are more likely to either rely on their past beliefs about the world or use their partisanship to form their beliefs.

Let me illustrate with two examples. The first is the reaction to the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. After those attacks, on average, the American public became much more concerned about the threat of war. However, those who distrusted the media increased their level of worry about war less than everyone else did. They were more distrustful of all the media messages about terrorism and war and as a result were less affected. The second example is partisan beliefs about various national conditions. There is a tendency for Democrats to think that the country’s economy, inflation, deficit, national security, are all relatively better than Republicans think they are when a Democrat is president and relatively worse than Republicans think they are when a Republican is president. In other words, partisans have biased perceptions of national conditions that reflect their presidential loyalty. But this phenomenon is more extreme among those who distrust the institutional news media because they distrust many of the informative messages they encounter and must rely more on their partisan instincts and news from partisan news outlets, which they tend to consume at higher rates.

What are the consequences of this for the broader political system?

As I mentioned, those who distrust the news media are less likely to accept new information about the world around them. They are more likely to have inaccurate beliefs about national conditions that usually correspond with their partisan predispositions. I find that this increases the correlation between party identification and voting. This helps to increase the proportion of the public that will vote for their own party regardless of the state of the economy or whether the U.S. is bogged down in a costly foreign war.

Rewarding and punishing the president’s party based on the state of the country is one of the primary ways that political scientists think that the public controls national elected officeholders. There is still a lot of their retrospective voting that occurs. But, by contributing to more polarized voting patterns and reducing accountability at the ballot box, media distrust should be an ongoing concern of political scientists and others who care about the health of American democracy.

Jonathan M. Ladd is assistant professor of government and public policy at Georgetown University. He received his PhD in politics from Princeton University.