Democracy in America relies on an independent press to inform citizens with accurate information. Yet today, two forces pose significant challenges to this function: the growing struggle of news organizations to maintain financial independence and the growing distrust of news among the public.
In Part 1 of the American Views 2022 report, Gallup and Knight Foundation offer insights into how Americans think about the motivations of news executives and how news is funded. Most believe that the news media put business needs ahead of serving the public. However, those who think news organizations balance civic purpose with corporate needs are more likely to have paid for news in the past and be willing to do so in the future. This finding suggests that the news media’s future financial sustainability ties directly to Americans’ perception that journalism organizations are fulfilling their democratic role in society.
Gallup and Knight have been tracking the decline of trust in the news media since 2017. Gallup’s long-term trend on this measure hit a record low in 2020, when the share of Americans with no confidence in the news media surpassed that of people with at least some confidence for the first time in 40 years.1 Furthermore, findings from the American Views 2020 report showed that Americans were “very concerned” about increasing political bias in news coverage and the perception that news organizations “push an agenda.”
Media trust continues to vary along predictable lines. Democrats express significantly more trust in news organizations than Republicans. Among Republicans, trust in news continues to decline. New data show that more independents today report distrusting news than ever previously reported. Yet, trust in local news organizations remains higher than trust in national news, as Gallup and Knight have consistently shown.2
The past five years of Gallup/Knight studies on this topic have focused mostly on the practices of news organizations linked to trust. For example, many Americans say they care about transparency, objectivity and accuracy. But if many news outlets already have high journalistic standards in place, why does trust continue to diminish overall? The focus of the American Views 2022 Part 2 report is to expand understanding of the emotional factors that drive attitudes about the news.
To be sure, distrust of information or institutions is not necessarily bad. Some skepticism may be beneficial in today’s media environment, where the number of information sources available feels infinite, advanced technology often makes it difficult to identify reliable information and journalists inevitably make mistakes in their reporting. But this study suggests that many Americans are not solely skeptical of news today — they feel distrust on an emotional level, believing news organizations intend to mislead them and are indifferent to the social and political impact of their reporting. Our analysis demonstrates that these indicators of emotional trust in news are, in fact, distinct from the opinion that news organizations are capable of delivering accurate and fair reporting.
Emotional trust is more deeply rooted and is especially important to understand in the context of the news media. This study shows that emotional trust has a strong relationship to perceptions and behaviors that could harm the critical, mutually beneficial relationship between the health of the press and the health of U.S. democracy. The more emotional trust Americans have in news, the more likely they are to say news organizations balance staying in business and serving the public well. The more emotional trust in news, the more empowered Americans feel to navigate a complex information environment. The more emotional trust in news, the more willing Americans are to pay for it. And, emotional trust in news is linked to Americans’ overall assessment of U.S. democracy.
The data presented here make a case for why the journalism industry should double down on efforts to rebuild the public’s trust — and how they can do it more effectively.
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