Trust the Media? Don’t Believe the Latest Poll
A new survey tries — and fails — to gauge the trustworthiness of different outlets.
The research and analytics company YouGov published a new poll Monday designed to goose the commentariat into re-debating the whole “trust in media” question. YouGov asked respondents to rate the trustworthiness of 56 different print, broadcast, digital and social media outlets from “very trustworthy” down the scale to “very untrustworthy.”
The poll produced a mountain of data, but whatever you do, don’t trust it to tell you anything meaningful about trust in media.
That doesn’t mean you should ignore everything YouGov collected. For instance, when the poll states that respondents placed their greatest trustworthiness figure on the Weather Channel and the lowest trustworthiness on Infowars, you can be confident that the survey has honestly reported its raw findings.
What’s lacking here is any assurance that those being surveyed are familiar enough to accurately rate the outlets they’ve been asked to judge. Almost nobody — not even press critics — keeps a close enough tab on 56 outlets, at least a dozen of which are paywalled or require a cable subscription, to render a fair appraisal of all of them. We all consume media in our own bubbles. And even though the survey, to its credit, has removed from its calculations responses who say an outlet is neither trustworthy nor untrustworthy, or answer that they don’t know, we have no way of knowing how many of the 1,500 respondents took wild, uninformed stabs at rating the outlets.
In times like these, there’s value in measuring trust, but this poll, which is destined to become the talk of cable news and op-ed pages, does a poor job of putting a yardstick to how outlets are perceived. Allowing respondents to judge the trustworthiness of outlets without determining how often they consume them is like asking a kid to rate the flavors from the Baskin-Robbins library he’s never tasted.
For instance, PBS and the BBC rank at the top of the trust chart, just under the Weather Channel. But the survey gives us no way of knowing whether the poll respondents ever watch PBS news or sip from the BBC faucet. Maybe they’ve expressed “trust” in the BBC because its prestige hangs like vapor in the cultural air we all breathe, and they reflexively say they trust the BBC even though they rarely read BBC News or tune their TVs to it.
Scrolling down the chart, another flaw emerges: Legacy outlets like Forbes, Time, the New York Times, the three broadcast networks and Reuters collected higher ratings than relative newcomers like the Hill, Axios, Slate, Yahoo News and the Washington Examiner. It’s fair to ask, as with the BBC example, what question respondents are answering.
Are low-sophistication news consumers merely expressing name recognition, not an assessment of trustworthiness? A perfect example of this would be Newsweek’s rating, which is higher than that of Bloomberg News. Newsweek was a storied news brand when owned by the Graham family, but its reputation has rightly suffered under its new owners. (See Daniel Tovrov’s piece in the Columbia Journalism Review and Alex Shepard’s in the New Republic.) No impartial, informed judge of news would ever rank today’s Newsweek over the data-rich pages of Bloomberg News. But there it is.
How much trust is locked up in how the outlets’ names sound? The Economist calls to mind a place where business experts working in an ivory tower measure supply-demand curves with a micrometer. POLITICO, which rates lower than the Economist, might have gotten docked a couple of points because it sounds to the naïve ear like a trade association magazine for invidious politicians (which it isn’t, trust me!). A different impression would surely result if a new reader were exposed to several months’ worth of each.
The survey does produce some results that seem self-evident. Democrats trust MSNBC more than Republicans, and Republicans trust Fox News more than Democrats. But does it make sense that Democrats trust Infowars more than Republicans do CNN? What exactly is being measured here? Please send an explanation to the email address below.
Another unsurprising result is that, in general, Democrats appear to trust news media more than do Republicans. This might reflect the fact that so many of the 56 outlets under examination are liberal or relatively centrist in their orientation.
But then there are weird outliers, such as Democrats giving the conservative Daily Caller a higher trust score than their Republican kin do. Likewise, what does it mean that Democrats give trust scores to conservative outlets like the Federalist, Infowars, the National Review and the New York Post that are within shouting distance of Republican scores? Maybe it’s a function of Fox News’ decades-long coaching of its audience not to “trust the media,” and therefore that outside of the established TV brands of Fox News, Newsmax and OAN, Republicans refuse to automatically bestow trust on any media, even outlets that appeal to their prejudices.
As this column has expressed before, the general decline of trust in media is somewhat paradoxical. News reporting has never been more precise, easier to check and criticize, or more timely. What has changed since the early 1960s, when trust peaked in the polls, is that the press covers many topics today that went left unassigned back then: stories about race, gender, sex, equity, foreign intervention and religion, just to give a few examples.
To be sure, recent decades are chockablock with media misfires that actively damaged trust, as scholar Michael Socolow recently wrote. “Measured skepticism can be healthy and media criticism comprises an essential component of media literacy — and a vibrant democracy,” is how he puts it. So some of this distrust is well-deserved. But in other cases, expressions of “distrust” in media polls are just another way for people to say the contemporary subject matter in the news makes them uncomfortable.
That the Weather Channel rarely broadcasts anything more controversial than flood, blizzard, hurricane, fire and tornado coverage and forecasts goes a long way in explaining its high trust quotient. But as the channel’s bosses deliver on their promise to produce more climate change coverage, expect the usual dark clouds of distrust to gather there, too.
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