People are aware of America’s infamous political polarization and the seepage of strange partisan and ideological outlooks into every aspect of modern life. Perhaps less well understood, the increase in seemingly irresolvable partisan conflicts also coincides with a total collapse in public trust of objective news reporting among most Americans and a steep increase in the number of Americans checking out from national news altogether.
The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism and YouGov released a fascinating study last year examining news consumption and media habits across the world based on interviews with 93,000 people in 46 markets on 6 continents. This impressive study provides a wealth of comparative data across different national contexts and political environments.
Two findings from the 2000+ sample of citizens in the United States really stand out:
Only 26 percent of Americans express general trust in the news—tied for the lowest level of trust in the world along with the citizens of Slovakia. The survey asked respondents whether they agree or disagree with the following statement: “I think you can trust most news most of the time.” As the report authors note (and as seen in the charts below):
Trust in the news has fallen in almost half the countries in our survey, and risen in just seven, partly reversing the gains made at the height of the Coronavirus pandemic. On average, around four in ten of our total sample (42 percent) say they trust most news most of the time. Finland remains the country with the highest levels of overall trust (69 percent), while news trust in the USA has fallen by a further three percentage points and remains the lowest (26 percent) in our survey.
Likewise, Americans’ trust in the news that people use themselves, rather than more generally, only hits 41 percent—not exactly a ringing endorsement.
More than 4 in 10 Americans say they limit ne consumption or avoid it altogether. The Reuters Institute report authors call this behavior “selective news avoidance” and find that it has more than doubled in politically divided countries such as Brazil and the U.K. since 2017. In America, 42 percent of citizens say they limit or actively avoid consuming any news—a 4-point increase over the same 5 year period.
Notably, as seen in the graphic above, across all markets included in the survey the primary reason given by people for avoidance is that there is too much in the news about politics and COVID-19, cited by 43 percent of news avoiders globally. Other reasons for avoidance include people saying the news has a negative effect on their mood (36 percent) or that they are just plain worn out by the news (29 percent). Around 3 in 10 avoiders globally also refuse to consume the news because they believe it is untrustworthy or biased while just under 1 in 5 say it either leads to arguments they’d rather avoid or that there’s nothing they can do with the information in the news.Combined, these findings show that America is nearly alone in the world in terms of the unwillingness of its citizens to either trust or rely on the news within any kind of consensus framework. Americans simply can’t agree on what is happening in their own country, let alone settle on a few common objective facts for evaluating what’s important and what should be done about pressing economic and national security challenges.
Americans increasingly inhabit their own news bubbles—or don’t take in any news whatsoever—even as more and more people pipe off online and on social media with firm opinions about every development in life. Consequently, citizens know less about what is going on in the country overall and tend to only trust other people—journalists, politicians, or other citizens—who think and believe as they do. People have lots of divergent opinions about matters but no common facts to reference to defend these positions. Citizens also lack a few trustworthy media outlets and civil platforms for political debate to help air and resolve these differences without turning Americans against one another.
This self-selection in news consumption and avoidance of news altogether isn’t a recipe for long-term success for the American project.
Unfortunately, restoring trust in news is probably as difficult as restoring trust in government. But our media and political elites need to take these projects seriously and be far more conscious about what they say, how they say it, and where they say it. They need to be more tolerant of dissenting views, speak to people across media bubbles, and dive deeper into various explanations for what is going on with the economy, public health, or national security.
Trust between citizens, and trust in major media and governmental institutions, can only be rebuilt if everyone first agrees to four conditions: (1) Report and accept basic facts; (2) Be honest with people; (3) Acknowledge personal mistakes and good ideas coming from others; and (4) Stop freaking out over every minor political difference.
This is as surprising as discovering that water is wet. Too much of the news media blindly parrots whatever the government (any level of government) says and fails to be even skeptical of government claims. That became blatantly obvious during COVID, when the lab-leak theory was denigrated as racist (tell the Energy Department that), and the media failed to report that the COVID “vaccines” are really more like flu shots (you may still get COVID but you may not get as sick) than vaccines that prevent anything. According to the government experts anyone who didn’t get the COVID shot should be dead or permanently disabled, and that claim was as seriously evaluated as the side-effects of COVID shots.
Political “coverage,” if that’s what you want to call it, is even worse, with horse-race “reporting” (how is Biden doing today?) instead of, again, any kind of attempt to evaluate whether we’re being told anything close to the truth. (Except where Trump is concerned.)