This is a guest feature from Jonathan Maloney of Intelligent Speculation, an organization dedicated to fostering critical thinking and better decision making. 

Over the last two decades, Americans have become more distrustful of traditional media sources. Pejorative terms like “fake news” and “mainstream media” have become particularly common among Americans in the last few years as a way to express frustration with how traditional institutions are reporting the news. Still, two out of three Americans say that the news is very important in holding political leaders accountable. What’s behind the drop in trust and what can be done to turn it around so that the news delivers the value that Americans want?

The Rise of Distrust

Gallup has been asking Americans how they feel about the media every year since 1997 and finds that “Americans’ confidence in the media to report the news fairly, accurately and fully has been persistently low for over a decade and shows no signs of improving.” In a sample of around 1,000 U.S. adults, Gallup found that roughly 60% of respondents had a negative view of the media.

This wasn’t always the case. Trust in the media ranged between 68% and 72% in the 1970s. It then declined in the 1990s and remained above 50% until 2004, when it fell to 44%. It is clear from the data that Americans’ growing distrust of the media is a recent phenomenon. 

While trust in the media is currently low and has been on a downward trend for the past couple of decades for Americans in general, there is a stark difference when it comes to political orientation. As can be seen from the above graph, the trust of all Americans, regardless of political orientation, had been declining from around 2004-2005 until 2016, when there was a drastic departure from this trend. Republicans’ trust dropped precipitously but increased for both Independents and Democrats. The level of trust for Democrats is now the highest among any party that Gallup has measured over the past two decades. Moreover, there is now a record 63 percentage-point difference between the Democrats and Republicans, which reflects the political polarization that currently envelops the country.

Why has media distrust increased?

While we can’t say definitively what is driving distrust in the media, there are a number of potential factors that may be responsible for this trend: 

  1. The media is to blame.

The marketplace for information is highly competitive, courtesy of market forces. Unlike other sectors of the economy that provide a service or physical goods that stay competitive through innovation, information doesn’t change, but it is constantly created as events unfold and knowledge is acquired. What does change is the technological platforms through which this information can be communicated. As society moves online and social media plays an ever-larger role in information consumption, traditional media sources have really felt the squeeze. This hypercompetitive environment fomented by the internet has led to a race to the bottom when it comes to grabbing the attention of the consumer. 

Outrage, click-bait headlines, and FUD (i.e., fear, uncertainty, and doubt), to name a few, are all tactics implemented regularly by the media in order to capture readers’ attention. Such tactics have always factored in to a degree, but have been exacerbated by the internet. Moreover, finger-pointing and name-calling increasingly appear as the mediums for engagement instead of addressing actual policies and political platforms. Americans may be becoming increasingly embittered by facile news coverage and cheap parlor tricks. 

  1. Political Polarization

The country is more polarized than it has been in the past two decades. According to a Gallup poll tracking presidential approval ratings between Democrats and Republicans since 1945, President Trump’s last year in office had an 89% approval rating from Republicans and only a 7% approval rating from Democrats. This is a record 82% gap between the two parties, which is considered a reliable measure for polarization.

Political polarization and distrust in the media are correlated. The past two decades of data suggest that as political polarization has increased, distrust in the media has increased as well, particularly for Republican Americans. However, causation is difficult to show — we can’t be sure if distrust in the media is causing political polarization, if polarization is leading to greater distrust, or if there’s some combination of both. Plus, the formation of belief systems is complex, further complicating our understanding of causation. 

  1. Confirmation bias coupled with social media.

Confirmation bias is an omnipresent cognitive influencer that nudges us all to confirm our pre-existing beliefs when sifting through new information. On further inspection, this bias becomes self-evident because our default mode of operation is to protect our core beliefs (i.e., our identity) at all costs, which has deep evolutionary roots in group dynamics. In other words, the need to fit in with a group has serious consequences when it comes to survival and procreation in society. 

Social media, a recent phenomenon in the span of modern humans, is specifically designed to take full advantage of this bias. Media outlets are competing for your attention and want to do whatever they can to keep your eyes glued to the screen for as long as possible, which is a direct consequence of the ad-driven business model. That is, the longer a media outlet can capture your attention, the more likely it is that you will make a purchase. Part of this strategy is the outrage, clickbait headlines, and FUD, but in addition to these strategies, social media has finely-tuned algorithms trying to keep you in an information bubble.

Not only will these bubbles increase the chances of your engagement with the platform as you endlessly scroll through posts that appeal to you, but this material that is friendly to your belief system lulls you into a headspace where you are more likely to purchase. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of these bubbles is that you are exposed to political news that confirms your previously held beliefs and creates an echo chamber that exacerbates political polarization.

What Can Be Done?

The most immediate answer is that the public needs to start demanding that existing media sources take steps to remove bias. This will take time but it can be done if the public demands it through market choices, that is, showing their preference for unbiased news. Since part of the problem is an advertising-driven business model that encourages sensationalism the solution likely requires consumers to pay for news directly – something that was more popular until the internet era. 

Another solution is for new media sources to rise to the challenge and fill the void. The Factual is one such media contender that was founded to meet the growing demand for unbiased news and help bridge the polarization gap. Through a machine learning algorithm that grades an article’s credibility, daily news is delivered right to your inbox from across the political spectrum. Subscribers can get their news in many formats – an email newsletter, app, website, or a Chrome browser extension that rates articles instantly as they appear in people’s social media feeds.

Finally, whatever improvements news sources make the onus remains on consumers to exercise greater critical thinking. This is a set of metacognitive skills that allow the reader to realize that while a source may be biased, there are still valuable facts presented. Moreover, this skill set encourages you to recognize the limits of your own knowledge as well as seek out information that challenges your current beliefs. These are valuable skills that will help minimize bias and improve your ability to establish the credibility of information.   

One of the cornerstones of critical thinking is argument analysis. Arguments are something everyone encounters daily and knowing how to distinguish arguments made in good faith from those made in bad faith is crucial. Critical thinking skills can be moved laterally to many different aspects of one’s life. Decisions, which we all make daily, are preceded by arguments that we tell ourselves. The better the arguments, the better the decisions made, which translates to better life outcomes.

Header Photo by Morgan Housel on Unsplash


Published by Jonathan Maloney

Jonathan Maloney is a PhD candidate at Northern Illinois University, and Founder of Intelligent Speculation, an organization aimed at fostering critical thinking and better decision making.