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(Credit: Terry Johnston/Wikipedia)

A Gallup poll story earlier this month had the headline, “Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low.” The reported trend showed that today only a third of Americans (32%) have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the mass media “when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately, and fairly.”

Three decades ago, in the mid-1970s, Gallup found more than twice as many Americans with high trust in the mass media (72% in 1976). In the late 1990s and early 2000s, just over half of Americans expressed that level of trust. So, today’s figures are abysmal by comparison.

A very different picture of media trust, however, is presented by the Pew Research Center. Its latest poll on the media habits of Americans, conducted last January/February, finds 77% who say they have “a lot” or “some” trust in the information they get from “national news organizations,” and 82% with that level of trust in “local news organizations.”

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To understand the difference in results, it’s useful to look at the exact question wording used by each organization.

Gallup: “In general, how much trust and confidence do you have in the mass media – such as newspapers, TV and radio – when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately, and fairly – a great deal, a fair amount, not very much, or none at all?”

Pew: “How much, if at all, do you trust the information you get from – a. national news organizations; b. local news organizations – a lot, some, not too much, or none at all?”

Both questions employed a 4-point scale, though Gallup’s top two points (a great deal, fair amount) differ from Pew’s (a lot, some). The lowest two categories are virtually the same. It’s unlikely, however, that the scales caused the large difference in measured trust between the two polls.

Another difference is that Gallup asked how much trust respondents had in the mass media to report the news “fully, accurately, and fairly,” while Pew’s question was simpler: how much respondents trusted “the information” they got from national and local news organizations.

Still, my sense (without corroborating evidence!) is that the key wording difference has to do with the source of the news – “mass media” vs. “national” and “local news organizations.”

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What does the term “mass media” mean to most people?

The problem with using the word “media” or the term “mass media” is highlighted by a recent article from Washington Post reporter Paul Farhi: “Dear readers: Please stop calling us ‘the media.’ There is no such thing.”

He goes on to write: “Consider: There are hundreds of broadcast and cable TV networks, a thousand or so local TV stations, a few thousand magazines and newspapers, several thousand radio stations and roughly a gazillion websites, blogs, newsletters and podcasts. There’s also Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and who knows what new digital thing. All of these, collectively, now constitute the media.”

When Gallup first asked Americans how much trust and confidence they had in the mass media in 1972, there were only three major TV networks, three major weekly newsmagazines (Time, Newsweek, and U.S. News & World Reports), and, arguably, two major news services (Associated Press and United Press International). It’s quite likely that forty years ago, the Gallup question elicited ratings mostly of these news sources, especially the three TV evening news programs.

Today, as Paul Farhi, notes, the term media “is so imprecise and generic that it has lost any meaning… ‘the media’ is essentially shorthand for anything you read, saw or heard today that you disagreed with or didn’t like.”

When Pew refines the concept (somewhat) by referring to “national news organizations” and, separately, “local news organizations,” respondents express a much more positive view than when they are thinking about the “mass media” more generally.

That’s important to remember every year, when Gallup produces its yearly rating of the “mass media.” It’s not so much that trust in the news organizations has declined. It’s more that “mass media” has devolved over the years into a more negative term.

Whether rightly or wrongly, most people, it appears, still trust the news they receive.

 

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