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How trust can be broken, and the decline of confidence in the press

Research from others has noted that Americans’ trust in the press has been declining, with occasional interruptions, for roughly two decades.

This study finds that the majority of Americans, however, cannot recall a specific experience with a news source that made them trust it less. In all, only 4 in 10 recall a specific bad experience they had with a news source that they say has caused them to lose trust in an organization.

Of those who could, the most common complaint is they saw something that was inaccurate or they perceived it as bias.

Confidence in the press is low, and the least confident Americans are the most likely to value balance and transparency

Public confidence in the press by many measures is low. In this survey, for instance, 6 percent of people say they have a great deal of confidence in the press, 52 percent say they have only some confidence, and 41 percent say they hardly any confidence. These findings are similar to the results of other recent studies. For example, a September 2015 Gallup survey found 7 percent of Americans have a great deal of trust and confidence in the mass media, 33 percent have a fair amount, and 60 percent have either not very much or none at all.

This survey, however, does not delve deeply into the issue of confidence; nor does it analyze its trends over time. Our goal is to try to understand what makes people trust, rely, and turn to news sources and to understand what concrete steps news organizations can take to increase that trust.

General questions about how much confidence people have in the news media are quite different than probing what it is people like about the news organizations they rely on. In an increasingly diverse media landscape, people may see more media they dislike and also see more that they find useful as well. That paradox can be seen in two divergent trends. By many measures in different surveys people say they are consuming more news than they used to even while the trajectory about trust and confidence in the press in general has been trending downward.

That said, the survey asks about confidence in different institutions so that we can assess the relationship between how important certain trust factors are to people and their confidence in the press in general. At that broad comparative level, Americans’ confidence in the press is low compared with other institutions such as the military, the scientific community, the Supreme Court, organized religion, and banks and financial institutions. Public confidence in the press is similar to confidence in Congress.

A great deal of confidence Only some confidence Hardly any confidence
Military 48% 45% 6%
Scientific community 35% 53% 10%
Supreme Court 26% 59% 14%
Organized religion 20% 56% 24%
Banks and financial institutions 17% 59% 24%
Press 6% 52% 41%
Congress 4% 46% 50%

Data Source: Question: I am going to name some institutions in this country. As far as the people running these institutions are concerned, would you say you have a great deal of confidence, only some confidence, or hardly any confidence at all in them?

Media Insight Project

A lack of general confidence in the press does seem related to a “healthy skepticism” when it comes to what people value in their news coverage.

Americans who express low levels of confidence in the press generally are more likely than those with only some confidence to say that it is very important that a trustworthy source be complete (81 percent vs. 74 percent), accurate (89 percent vs. 84 percent), balanced (71 percent vs. 64 percent), and transparent (72 percent vs. 66 percent).

Similarly, the small group of people who do express a high degree of confidence in the press place a higher value on entertainment and other factors that are not directly related to trust when it comes to why they say they rely on a source.

Nearly half (49 percent) of those who say they have a great deal of confidence in the press say that making the news entertaining is an important reason they rely on their chosen source compared to 39 percent of those who have only some confidence and 35 percent of those who have hardly any confidence. Similarly, 68 percent of people with a great deal of confidence in the press say that having a history with the source is an important reason they rely on it compared to 51 percent of those with only some and 50 percent of those with hardly any confidence.

Perceived bias and inaccuracies have made many Americans wary of some news sources

The survey also asked people about whether they could recall a specific experience that caused them to trust a media organization less than they once had, hoping that we could probe what it was that caused that erosion in confidence.

The majority of Americans cannot cite any specific instance. In all, about 4 in 10 people (38 percent) report that they have had an experience that made them trust a news or information source less.

Of those who could recall such an instance, we asked about the nature of the incident. The two most common problems people cite are incidents that they perceived as evidence of bias or that showed a news source had been inaccurate.

In total, 26 percent of Americans say that they had a bad experience in which they found the source one‑sided or biased; 25 percent report they had a bad experience in which they found that facts were wrong.

Much smaller percentages of the public report experiencing decreases in trust due to being personally offended by content (9 percent), finding advertisements annoying or deceptive (5 percent), not being able to easily access stories (3 percent), or starting to receive unwanted emails, texts, or alerts (2 percent).

What happened Percent of Americans
Found it one-sided or biased 26%
Found facts that were wrong 25%
Found content personally offensive 9%
Found advertisements annoying or deceptive 5%
Could not easily access stories 3%
Started receiving unwanted emails, texts, or alerts 2%

Data Source: Question: What happened that made you trust that news and information source less? Please select all that apply.

Media Insight Project

These bad experiences, however, seem to have made a difference. Those with low confidence in the press overall are much more likely than others to say they have had a negative experience with a news source that has made them trust it less. Fully 45 percent of those with hardly any confidence in the press in general could recall a specific incident that made them lose trust, compared to 28 percent of those with a great deal of confidence and 34 percent of those with only some confidence. Among those who have had such an experience, those with hardly any confidence in the press are more likely than those with more confidence to say they found it to be one‑sided or biased.

The focus group discussions provided important context for understanding how a bad experience can erode confidence. Participants were generally positive about their overall news experiences. However, when probed to really focus on a bad experience with a source, they were able to articulate very emotional and visceral reactions to the situation. Many focus group participants said they feel like they have been personally wronged, taken advantage of, or fooled when they have a bad experience with a news source.

“I’m angry when a news source does something that causes me to lose trust in it,” said Kimberly, a lifestyle news consumer. “[I’m] also a bit scared for what other things they have gotten wrong or only given half‑truths to.”

Several people told us a bad experience with one story could lead to a total loss of trust in a source. For example, a bad experience with one television anchor could lead to a distrust of an entire television network.

“When a news source does something that causes me to lose trust in it, it makes me lose all faith in their integrity, which means how can I trust anything they say, which makes me want to go out and find new sources,” said Robert, a younger, hard news consumer.

“I lose trust in a news source when they are incorrect and they don’t admit or retract it,” said Pat, an older, hard news consumer. “It’s okay to be wrong as long as you admit and fix it if you can.”

Importantly, several focus group participants said they do not expect news sources to be perfect and how a source reacts to errors can actually build trust. Several people said that owning up to mistakes and drawing attention to errors or mistakes can show consumers that a source is accountable and dedicated to getting it right in the long term.

“We all make mistakes,” said Kimberly. “If an outlet is wrong and is transparent about it and they screwed up, if they say I messed up and take ownership that makes me trust you more.”

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