Public confidence in news media has steadily declined in recent years. In fact, according to a poll conducted by communications marketing firm Edelman, it’s hit an all-time low in 17 countries.
The media is not the only institution dealing with trust issues. The Edelman firm has dubbed 2017 the year of “Trust in Crisis,” as faith in business, government, and NGOs has also plummeted.
Trust in media
Survey findings show that the media is distrusted in 82% of the 28 countries polled. The study, conducted in the last quarter of 2016, surveyed more than 33,000 respondents.
In most countries, trust levels decreased from the previous year, with particularly dramatic drops in the United Arab Emirates, Argentina, and Mexico. Trust levels in other countries also fell significantly, with decreases of 10% in Canada, Australia, Ireland, and Colombia.
The country that fared the worst was Turkey, where trust levels came in at a dismal 25%. Russia didn’t do much better, falling to 31%, but nor did the UK at 32%. For comparison, the US sat at 47%, unchanged from the previous year, while news outlets in China, India, and Indonesia maintained high levels of public confidence, despite an 8% drop for China.
Trust levels also varied by media source. People expressed more confidence in search engines and traditional media than in owned media or social media. In fact, 64% reported high trust levels in search engines. Since 2012, confidence in search engines has increased, while faith in both traditional media and social media has gradually declined.
The Edelman report identifies a more general fear that the system is failing as part of growing skepticism toward the media. Media echo chambers, which reinforce rather than challenge existing fears and opinions, exacerbate this distrust.
The paradox of social media
When we look at other polls, the picture becomes even more complex.
A lot has changed over the last decade, including the media landscape itself. One of the most obvious changes is how people access news. According to Pew Research Center, about nine out of ten Americans get some of their news online, most with mobile devices. This is a significant increase since 2007 when only two-thirds of respondents reported accessing online news.
As the Reuters Institute Digital News Report 2017 shows, this is a global trend. The report highlights findings from a YouGov survey of more than 70,000 people across 36 countries. Results show that among 18- to 24-year-olds, 64% use online media as their main source of news. Older groups are less likely to do so, but numbers hover around the 50% mark for audiences between ages 25 and 44.
Another dramatic shakeup stems from the diversification of news sources. The Digital News Report also revealed that a third of those in 18 to 24 age bracket now rely on social media as their main news source, and 21% of those aged 25 to 34.
But although people are increasingly dependent on social media for news, they’re also extremely wary. The survey found that just one-quarter of respondents thought social media did a good job of separating fact from fiction. That’s even worse than trust rates in news media, polled at 40%.
This is what we might call the paradox of social media. It makes news pervasive and people depend on it more, but they also have low confidence in it. This is a curious fact. Shouldn’t traditional media look better in comparison and earn a higher trust level as a result? As the Digital News Report speculates, skepticism toward online sources may have spilled over into the public’s confidence in traditional media outlets.
If true, the news isn’t all bad. It means there’s hope for media outlets that promote a clear distinction between the jumble of real and fake news that appears on social media and traditional professional publications.
The Digital News Report also revealed a correlation between distrust and political polarization. Its findings differed from Edelman’s, showing South Korea rather than Turkey at the bottom of the confidence scale, with only 23% of respondents expressing trust in the media. The US also did worse, hitting only 38%, while Turkey received a marginally higher trust level at 40%.
But at the same time, over half of respondents in the US expressed trust in the sources they relied on for news. In other words, they had low confidence in the media in general, but relatively high trust in their preferred news sources.
This points to an interesting trend in the data. In countries with news outlets distributed across a broader, more extreme political spectrum, public confidence in the media is low. It’s higher in countries like Germany, where most news outlets huddle around the middle of the spectrum.
In polarized political climates, the media tends to become polarized as well, reinforcing the views of their main readership while pushing others to the margins. This can be exacerbated by media consolidation and worsened by the echo chamber of news on social media, which tends to show users news that confirms their existing opinions.
The only way to break this echo chamber is by including diverse political viewpoints and considering counterarguments in fair and accurate ways.
The good news
Is there hope that the relationship between the public and the media can be restored?
The good news is that there are bumps in the downward spiral of public confidence in news media. Although the general trend is negative, trust levels have sometimes shown marginal improvement year to year—indicating the situation can be turned around.
Without public trust, there is no news, just private opinions and political propaganda. In the babble of voices online, it’s difficult to walk the line between conforming to new trends and maintaining a distinct and professional identity. But now more than ever, in this extremely politically charged climate, it’s vital that media outlets improve how the public perceives them, and regain public confidence in the news.