The last time CivicScience checked up on Americans’ news consumption habits, we pegged the November election as a major turning point on the horizon. This wound up being correct, if no one could have foreseen exactly how political factions would splinter off and entrench further into their own beliefs. After a year that saw Americans’ trust in media outlets to deliver unbiased news reach its highest point in four years, distrust has rebounded back to pre-pandemic levels.
Whether you attribute this to the 2020 election and subsequent challenges, the changing administrations, or fracturing of conservative media, it’s been a significant shift; the percentage of Americans who don’t trust any news sources has increased by 9% since the fourth quarter of 2020. Perhaps it’s a sign that things are just trending back to normal in 2021.
News Habits Predict Pandemic Comfort
The pandemic, generational crisis that it is, has illustrated the vast gulf between Americans who trust a media news source and those who do not trust any. Nearly half of all Americans who don’t trust any news sources – which amounts to nearly a quarter of the population – are not at all concerned about being in public spaces right now. You’d be hard pressed to find much agreement across the political spectrum about which pandemic mitigation tactics are effective or ethical, let alone if the pandemic should be taken seriously at all. The difference between people who trust in news and those who do not would seem to bear this out.
Local News Sees an Uptick in Trust
Although broadcast and cable news remain the most-trusted sources of information for more than one-quarter of Americans, local news is the only source to see its trust increase since last quarter. In just a slight uptick, 12% of Americans consider local TV news their most-trusted source, with nearly one-third claiming they watch local news every night. One-quarter of Americans turn to local news as their preferred source for breaking news, outpacing any other television or online news source.
By and large, these are older Americans, who overwhelmingly favor television news. Young news consumers largely aren’t placing their trust in alternatives to TV news at a rate that outpaces their elders, which might compound concerns for the sustained success of digital and print media outlets. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that generations which grew up with the internet are most likely to not trust any news source to deliver unbiased news.
Misinformation Remains Top of Mind
NBC News anchor Lester Holt caused a minor dustup last week while accepting the Edward R. Murrow award. The soundbite was his claim that “fairness is overrated,” but Holt went further in condemning news outlets that air unchecked misinformation from political actors. “Providing an open platform for misinformation, for anyone to come say whatever they want, especially when issues of public health and safety are at stake, can be quite dangerous,” he said.
Despite the light backlash, Holt was speaking to concerns shared by a majority of Americans. Nearly 60% of adults surveyed by CivicScience claimed to be “very concerned” by misinformation in U.S. news media. Conservatives are significantly more likely than liberals and moderates to be very concerned by misinformation in U.S. news media.
Much like the multiple contorted meanings of “fake news” – spanning everything from websites disseminating information that’s intended to mislead, to former President Trump’s signature label for mainstream press outlets – it can be a challenge to define “misinformation.” Perhaps some respondents consider this to be false information from a political figure, which news outlets then must determine how to present to their audience, or conversely when an outlet misrepresents a politician’s speech. Like so much of what divides America – the easy part is finding an issue that the majority of the country agrees is a problem, and the hard part remains figuring out exactly how Americans perceive the problem.