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25 June 2019updated 08 Sep 2021 3:07pm

Media trust is at an all-time low among US conservatives. Liberals are a different story

By Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, Antonis Kalogeropoulos and Richard Fletcher

Since the election of Donald Trump, the news media has been at the forefront of the political discussion the United States. This is reflected in what people in the US think about the news media. Using data from the Digital News Report, an annual online representative survey conducted by YouGov for the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, we can examine differences in their attitudes towards news.

The trust divide between liberal (self-identifying as left-wing) and conservative (self-identifying as right-wing) Americans has grown sharply since 2016. Donald Trump’s hostile campaign against the news media built on a small trust gap between liberal and conservative Americans that already existed in 2015. Back then, 35 per cent of Americans who self-identify as left-wing said that they trust most news most of the time, compared to 25 per cent of those on the right.

But since then, trust among those on the left has risen 18 points, while trust in news among right-wing Americans has decreased from the already low point of 25 per cent to just 9 per cent.

This means that if liberal America was a separate country, it would have one of the highest trust scores in the world. Among the 38 countries included in the same survey, it would rank alongside the Netherlands – a country with high trust in politics and other institutions. On the other hand, if conservative America were a separate country, it would have by far the least widespread trust – even lower than South Korea or Greece, two countries with traditional scepticism towards media institutions.

When it comes to trust in the news media, the US stands alone in its level of political polarisation.

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Apart from broader trust in news, the divergence between left- and right-wing individuals in the US is further evident in their evaluations of the news media. Liberal Americans are more likely to agree that the news media does a good job in monitoring powerful people, picking relevant subjects, using the right tone, keeping them up to date, and helping them understand the news.

For some of these attributes, like helping people understand the news, the difference is very large – around 40 points.

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Apart from the differences in how they think about the news media, liberals and conservatives show differences in how they use news. The figures show that liberals are much more likely to rely on online sources for their news compared to conservative Americans. On the other hand, conservatives are much more likely to prefer TV.

This does not mean that TV news is causing low trust among conservative Americans. It may be, for example, that these differences are more to do with age, as younger people in the US are more likely to hold liberal views and to access news online.

Overall, these findings suggest that three years after the election of Donald Trump, the gap between liberal and conservative attitudes towards news is growing larger. Interestingly, conservatives who are more sceptical about news are more likely to rely on traditional TV for their news, and liberals who are more and more positive about it are relying primarily on online news sources.

This divergence is further partly explaining why some of the most successful digital subscriptions online have been for outlets with primarily liberal audiences.

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen is the director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, University of Oxford. Antonis Kalogeropoulos and Richard Fletcher are research fellows at the Reuters Institute.