“Americans of all political persuasions agree that the news media is fundamentally untrustworthy”

From a post on cjr.org by Jacob L. Nelson and Seth C. Lewis headlined “‘I’m always skeptical’: Sixty news consumers discuss their mistrust in the news”:

Imagine dozens of Americans of different political and socioeconomic backgrounds in a room, looking for common ground. A safe place to start would be distrust in the news media.

We conducted sixty Zoom-based interviews with a diverse sample of adults in the United States to understand the relationship between the sources that people turn to for their news, the stories that they tell themselves about the news, and the steps they take to distinguish fact from fiction.

We found that Americans of all political persuasions agree that the news media is fundamentally untrustworthy, even as they tend to tune into the same channels and spend similar amounts of time engaging with the news. Many said they got their news from television, including cable news, major networks, and local affiliate stations….

Many of our respondents were more glued to the news than usual when we spoke to them in spring 2020. They explained it was related to the pandemic: more time at home due to layoffs or transitions to remote work, as well as the demands of social distancing and their own personal investment in updates about the virus….

Despite higher engagement, interviewees also expressed deep skepticism about the news. Many said it was impossible to fully trust any particular news source, because they felt that all journalists were biased, and the news they produced was reported—either deliberately or unintentionally—in ways that would best serve their political agendas….

Participants’ sense that the news media is biased was a strike against all news outlets, including those they felt were biased in the same direction as their own political beliefs….

If news consumers do not feel they can wholly trust any particular news outlet, we wondered, then how do they determine the truth about what’s going on in the world? The answers we heard were consistent: interviewees pointed to their own thoughtfulness, critical thinking skills, and independent-mindedness as evidence that they were qualified to vet the news….

“I’m always skeptical,” one person said. “If the journalists are asking for the right facts, then I’m okay. If the journalists aren’t asking for the right facts, I wonder why they’re not asking for the right facts.”

Our respondents viewed themselves as capable of piecing together ideologically slanted half-truths they noticed in the news. They also felt compelled to corroborate news reports themselves. “You shouldn’t take the article as gospel,” one interviewee said. “You should still do some research and determine if what they’re saying is correct.”…

In other words, our respondents saw a need––and had faith in their own ability––to do journalists’ jobs for them….

Even when our interviewees’ fact-checking missions did corroborate the original news source, it failed to alleviate their distrust in journalism. We found that, regardless of the outcomes of their research, people’s assumptions about the news tend to be rigid.

Taken together, our findings offer a counter-narrative to the conventional wisdom surrounding the mechanisms by which news consumption unfolds. Many tend to assume that people seek out news that will confirm their political viewpoints. In reality, people see the news as inherently untrustworthy and feel obligated to do journalists’ work for them.

Our interviewees consistently described themselves as being the kinds of news consumers who interact with the news in a discerning way. The phrase “I take it all with a grain of salt” came up time and time again, as did the claim that our interviewees were not “sheep” who would mindlessly accept whatever a news source told them was true. For many of the people we spoke with, the news serves as an intellectual foil—something they can push against and knock over.

Distrusting the news, in a sense, is presented as a badge of honor.

Jacob L. Nelson and Seth C. Lewis are the authors. Jacob L. Nelson is an assistant professor at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, and a fellow with the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University. He is the author of Imagined Audiences: How Journalists Perceive and Pursue the Public (Oxford University Press, 2021). Seth C. Lewis is the Shirley Papé Chair in Emerging Media in the School of Journalism and Communication at the University of Oregon, and is chair of the International Communication Association’s Journalism Studies Division, the largest global collective of journalism researchers. He is co-author of the book News After Trump: Journalism’s Crisis of Relevance in a Changed Media Culture (Oxford University Press, 2021).

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