Insights, tools and research to advance journalism

Levels of trust and how Americans feel about the fairness and accuracy of the press

Trust in the media overall has declined in the last year, but people’s trust in their favorite news outlet has grown.

If we look at trust in the most general way, just under half (44 percent of adults) say their trust in the news has decreased in the last year. Fully 19 percent say it has decreased a lot, and 25 percent say a little. Almost as many, 4 in 10, say their level of trust has neither increased nor decreased. Both of these numbers are more than double the proportion of adults (17 percent) who say their trust has increased in the last year.

But these overall numbers can also be misleading in some ways. In a fragmented media landscape, the notion of a mass media that everyone consumes together — as in the era of the three nightly newscasts nationally or a singular newspaper in every city — no longer captures the reality of how news is consumed. The questions about media trust inevitably are asking people to describe an attitude toward publications they do not use.

To avoid that problem, the survey asked people to name a publication or outlet they rely on heavily. When we look at the data this way, we get a quite different picture. Indeed, in terms of Americans’ level of trust in their preferred news source, more say it has increased (32 percent) rather than decreased (13 percent) in the last year. For most adults (54 percent), their level of trust in their favorite news source has stayed the same.

In many ways, we think this view of trust is as valuable as anything else because it captures their attitude toward the media they are really using.

This nuanced picture suggests that while people are alarmed about the state of media, they are able to find publications and sources that they not only trust but that they think are improving.

Decreased Stayed the same Increased
The news media in general 44% 39% 17%
My own preferred news source 13% 54% 32%

Data Source: Question: “In the last year, has your level of trust in the news media in general…” Question: “In the last year, has your level of trust in [OWN PREFERRED NEWS SOURCE]…”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

How do journalists feel about the public and trust? The answer is mixed. On the one hand, they imagine that in the last year, the public’s trust of the news media has decreased more than it actually has. On the other hand, journalists view themselves as far more trustworthy in general than does the public.

Overall, about 3 in 4 journalists imagine the public’s level of trust of the news media has decreased in the last year, nearly twice the number the public actually reports. Just 12 percent of journalists think it has increased, and 11 percent think the public’s level of trust has stayed the same.

As mentioned above, 44 percent of adults say that their level of trust in the news media has decreased in the last year, 17 percent say it has increased, and 39 percent report that it has stayed the same.

That sense of alarm among journalists — an overestimation of how much the public’s level of trust has declined — is even more complex because journalists themselves have a higher opinion of their own work.

More than 7 in 10 journalists (72 percent) themselves think the news media are very (16 percent) or somewhat (56 percent) trustworthy, while 16 percent say it is somewhat or very untrustworthy. In reality, 44 of the public calls the news media very or somewhat trustworthy, 36 percent think it is untrustworthy, and 20 percent say it is neither.1

We also dove more deeply into the question of how accurate both the public and journalists think the media are by asking about coverage of different controversial issues, including those around ethnicity and race and religion.

The public actually gave the press slightly higher marks on those issues than the press gave itself, though the marks weren’t particularly high from either group. Just nearly a quarter of the public says the press is very or completely accurate in its coverage of race and ethnicity, versus just 14 percent of journalists.

The same, though less starkly so, is true when it comes to religion — 18 percent of public respondents give the press high marks for accuracy versus 13 percent of journalists.

Slightly/not at all accurately Moderately accurately Completely/very accurately
PUBLIC
Issues around race and ethnicity 33% 43% 23%
Issues around religion 37% 45% 18%
JOURNALISTS
Issues around race and ethnicity 34% 52% 14%
Issues around religion 34% 53% 13%

Data Source: Question: “Thinking about news coverage in general, how accurately do you think news organizations portray each of the following topics?”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

We also evaluated these opinions about accuracy by relevant demographic groups. Answers varied very little. Both white Americans and people of color hold similar views on the accuracy (or lack thereof) of race and ethnicity in media coverage. Twenty‑eight percent of blacks, 25 percent of Hispanics, and 22 percent of whites say news coverage on this topic is completely or very accurate, and about a third across groups say it is slightly or not at all accurate.

Religious Americans and non‑religious Americans also look similar on their views toward the media’s coverage of issues around religion. Eighteen percent of those with a religious affiliation and 17 percent of those with no religion consider the media’s coverage accurate on this topic, and over a third of each group (37 percent with religious affiliation, 35 percent with no affiliation) think it is slightly or not at all accurate.2

But while the survey shows that there are no differences between whites and non‑whites on issues of race and ethnicity, or between religious groups and non‑religious Americans on issues around religion, partisan differences do emerge. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say issues of race and ethnicity (42 percent vs. 24 percent) and religion (47 percent vs. 28 percent) are portrayed inaccurately.

We also asked both journalists and the public about coverage of different groups to get a more specific read on accuracy. In almost every case, once again, the press is harder on itself than the public is.

For instance, 38 percent of the public gives the press high marks for accuracy in covering the wealthy versus only 21 percent of journalists. Americans are also almost twice as likely as journalists to say the press accurately covers lower‑income people, though notably those percentages are particularly small (15 percent vs. 8 percent). Almost half of the public (49 percent), and even more journalists (57 percent), think the press does not cover the poor accurately.

Slightly/not at all accurately Moderately accurately Completely/very accurately
PUBLIC
Wealthy people 27% 34% 38%
The middle class 32% 50% 17%
Lower-income people 49% 36% 15%
JOURNALISTS
Wealthy people 36% 42% 21%
The middle class 36% 46% 18%
Lower-income people 57% 35% 8%

Data Source: Question: “Thinking about news coverage in general, how accurately do you think news organizations portray each of the following?”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

One of the few areas where the press and the public align: They are equally likely to say men are accurately covered (about 3 in 10 each gives high marks). By comparison, a quarter of the public (25 percent) and 16 percent of journalists say the media accurately portray women.

Slightly/not at all accurately Moderately accurately Completely/very accurately
PUBLIC
Men 24% 47% 29%
Women 26% 48% 25%
JOURNALISTS
Men 20% 52% 28%
Women 28% 55% 16%

Data Source: Question: “Thinking about news coverage in general, how accurately do you think news organizations portray each of the following?”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

What group do both journalists and the public think the press is least likely to cover accurately? People in rural America. Only 12 percent of the public and 8 percent of journalists think they accurately cover that population group.

Slightly/not at all accurately Moderately accurately Completely/very accurately
PUBLIC
People in urban areas 27% 45% 26%
People in rural areas 45% 42% 12%
The political establishment 30% 38% 31%
Grass-roots political movements 38% 45% 15%
JOURNALISTS
People in urban areas 30% 50% 20%
People in rural areas 59% 33% 8%
The political establishment 35% 41% 24%
Grass-roots political movements 45% 44% 11%

Data Source: Question: “Thinking about news coverage in general, how accurately do you think news organizations portray each of the following?”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

When it comes to political groups, journalists’ and the public’s views on accuracy are broadly similar. In general, journalists view the coverage of political groups as less accurate than the public. At the same time, each group offers the lowest ratings for how accurately political independents are covered.

Slightly/not at all accurately Moderately accurately Completely/very accurately
PUBLIC
Liberals 28% 46% 25%
Conservatives 33% 45% 21%
Democrats 24% 43% 31%
Republicans 31% 41% 26%
Political independents 39% 44% 17%
JOURNALISTS
Liberals 36% 48% 16%
Conservatives 41% 42% 16%
Democrats 29% 50% 21%
Republicans 35% 45% 20%
Political independents 41% 47% 11%

Data Source: Question: “Thinking about news coverage in general, how accurately do you think news organizations portray each of the following?”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

How Republicans and Democrats view press accuracy

As we explored the notion of press accuracy and different groups of people, we also were able to see how different political groups view the press.

Importantly, there are some partisan differences on perceptions of accuracy that also may offer some sense of how the press can begin to try to bridge this critical communication gap.

In general, Republicans are more negative about the accuracy of news organizations’ coverage of groups than are Democrats and independents. For example, Republicans are much more likely than others to think the press inaccurately covers men (34 percent vs. 16 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of independents). Republicans (29 percent) are also somewhat more likely than Democrats (22 percent) to say news coverage of women is slightly or not at all accurate. Further, Republicans are more likely than Democrats to say the coverage of the wealthy is inaccurate.

Republicans are also much more likely to say the press does not accurately cover Republicans and conservatives. Majorities of Republicans say conservatives (53 percent) and their own party (51 percent) are portrayed inaccurately. Republicans are also the most likely to say that Democrats are not accurately portrayed — over a third (35 percent) say the media covers this group inaccurately — more than twice the proportion of Democrats who say so (15 percent). These opinions among Republicans warrant further assessment to reconnect with this audience.

Interestingly, partisanship does not affect opinions about coverage of some other groups. For instance, there are no partisan differences when it comes to perceptions of the poor. Nearly half of both Republicans (48 percent) and Democrats (47 percent) consider coverage of lower‑income people slightly or not at all accurate. And while there are differences in how partisans’ perceive coverage of rural Americans and grassroots political movements, those gaps are statistically driven by demographics and other variables more than partisanship.

For some of these, support of President Trump is a dividing line. Americans who approve of Trump are more than twice as likely as those who disapprove to say the media’s portrayal of Republicans is inaccurate. Fully 47 percent of Trump supporters think the GOP is inaccurately portrayed, while the number is 22 percent among those who don’t support Trump.

Where do Americans think the news industry is going?

What do Americans think about the direction of the news industry? A majority, 56 percent, say it is headed in the wrong direction; 42 percent say the right direction.

Views about the direction of the media correspond with trust. While 73 percent of those who trust the news media generally say the media is headed in the right direction, 92 percent of those who say it is untrustworthy think the media is headed in the wrong direction.

Journalists also view the media’s direction more negatively than positively. Sixty‑one percent say that the news industry is headed in the wrong direction.

The public is divided on whether the media protects or hurts democracy

Do Americans think the news media protects or hurts democracy? While a plurality (41 percent) say neither statement applies, adults are divided over whether the media protects (28 percent) or hurts (30 percent) democracy. In a March 2017 survey conducted by the Media Insight Project, 34 percent of Americans said the news media protects democracy, 30 percent said it hurts democracy, and 35 percent said neither statement applies. The slight shift in opinion since last year is associated with a 6 percentage point drop in the proportion saying the media protects democracy, and a 6 percentage point increase in the proportion saying it neither protects nor hurts.

Year Media hurts democracy Neither Media protects democracy
2018 30 41 28
2017 30 35 34

Data Source: Question: “Here is a pair of opposite phrases. Which phrase do you feel better describes the news media in general. Would you say the news media in general…”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

One of the largest differences in opinion between the public and journalists relates to the question of the media’s role in American democracy. Here, journalists are much more positive than the public. Fully 7 in 10 journalists think the news media protects democracy, while only 1 in 10 think it hurts democracy and nearly 2 in 10 say it does neither.

Media hurts democracy Neither Media protects democracy
Public 30% 41% 28%
Journalists 12% 17% 71%

Data Source: Question: “Here is a pair of opposite phrases. Which phrase do you feel better describes the news media in general. Would you say the news media in general…”
Study: "Americans and the News Media," 2018.

Media Insight Project

A majority of the public (53 percent) thinks the news media is too ideological — either too liberal (37 percent) or too conservative (16 percent). Forty‑six percent believe it is just about right. These findings are similar to results from a Media Insight Project survey conducted in March 2017. In that poll, 36 percent thought the news media was too liberal, 13 percent said too conservative, and 49 percent thought it was just about right.

Ideologically, a majority of journalists (54 percent) think the news media is just about right, whereas fewer think it is too ideological, either too liberal (30 percent) or too conservative (16 percent).

  1. A recent survey by The Poynter Institute for Media Studies asked whether there was trust and confidence in the mass media. Using different question wording than the current study, the research finds that 49 percent of the public say they have a great deal or fair amount of trust and confidence, and 52 percent report not very much or none at all. In the report, it is indicated that the results are more positive toward the press than other recent surveys (pg. 1). The questions asked in this current study use different wording, probe how trust has changed in the last year, and ask about levels of trust in one’s most preferred source. The results here show a nuanced picture: fewer express trust in the news media, but fewer also express distrust. In addition, trust was more likely to stay the same or increase in the last year, and was more likely to increase when respondents were asked about their own preferred news source.
  2. Looking within the group with religious affiliations — Protestants, Catholics, and other Christians — there were only slight differences in perceptions of accuracy. While similar proportions of other Christians (15 percent), Protestants (17 percent), and Catholics (23 percent) view news coverage around religious issues to be accurate, Catholics (30 percent) are somewhat less likely than Protestants (39 percent) and other Christians (43 percent) to call such coverage slightly or not at all accurate.
    Note that non‑Christians are also included in the definition of religiously affiliated, though there were not enough respondents for a separate subgroup analysis.

Need to Know newsletter

The smart way to start your day

Each morning we scour the web for fresh useful insights in our Need to Know newsletter. Sign up below.

The American Press Institute

Our mission

We help transform news organizations for an audience-centered future.

Our programs for publishers focus on four things:

  • 1. Understand your audience
  • 2. Get your audience to pay
  • 3. Transform your culture
  • 4. Do your best journalism
  • Find out more about API »

API solutions for publishers

What we can do for you

API offers a suite of original tools and services for solving the biggest challenges in news:

  • Decide what beats to cover and how
  • Identify and develop the skills you need
  • Assess and improve your culture
  • Drive more reader revenue
  • Drive loyalty through accountability journalism
  • Make analytics work for you
  • Contact us to find out how »