If there’s one trend that seems to be in a perpetual state of flux, it’s how much people trust the news media to deliver accurate and unbiased information.

Americans have a rocky, volatile relationship with the press, which has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. CivicScience tracking shows that trust in news media (including social media) hit a high point during the time of the 2020 November election, but then began to nosedive shortly thereafter. By March of this year, just 50% of Americans reported trusting any news source at all.

Today, trust in news media has rebounded, with 59% of U.S. adults who say they trust at least one news source for unbiased information, while 41% don’t trust any news sources. 

Types of News Media

‘Trust’ in the chart above is measured as an average among seven types of media outlets: broadcast networks, cable networks, local TV news, digital-only news websites, national newspapers, regional and local newspapers, and social media posts.

Currently, broadcast networks (NBC, CBS, etc.) remain the most trusted to deliver unbiased news, accounting for nearly one-quarter of ‘trusters’ (excluding those who do not trust any sources). 

That’s followed by local TV news at 22% – a growing trend that we’ve been tracking since March. Today, trust in local TV news remains strong and surpasses trust in cable network news (CNN, Fox, etc.) and national newspapers (New York Times, etc.).

While less than 10% trust social media for news, it is trusted as much as regional/local newspapers and more than digital-only news websites, such as Huffington Post.

Differences in Demographics

The survey reveals significant differences in trust levels between political identities. Just 41% of conservatives trust a news media source for unbiased info, compared to 64% of moderates and 76% of liberals. Conservatives are more than twice as likely to distrust the news media than liberals.

Changes in News Consumption 

At a high level, the survey suggests a correlation between news consumption and trust in news media. TV news-watching declined in Q2 2021 around the same time that trust fell. Today, TV news-watching rates have bounced back to levels seen during the 2020 election, with 79% of people watching one or more hours of TV news on a weekly basis.

Further analysis supports that trust in media is related to news consumption. People who do not trust news media are less likely to watch TV news (as you might expect). However, it’s worth pointing out that 2 out of 3 non-trusters currently watch TV news every week. In other words, the majority of those who don’t trust news media today still consume a considerable amount of news, despite not trusting the source.

Media Literacy Education – Yay or Nay?

With the majority of the Gen Pop concerned over COVID-19 misinformation, there is pressure on educators to help students develop critical thinking skills in relation to media, including news and social media. CivicScience asked more than 2,600 U.S. adults about their opinions on media literacy education, just in time for Media Literacy Week (October 25-29) – a national awareness campaign created to combat the spread of misinformation.

Results show that 66% are in favor of teaching media literacy education in K-12 schools, while 18% disagree. 

Interestingly, opinions vary among those who trust a news media source and those who do not. Non-trusters are much more likely to strongly disagree with teaching media literacy education, which on the surface, seems completely counterintuitive. However, a considerable number (59%) of non-trusters support media literacy education to some extent.

While trust levels have improved from earlier this year, at the end of the day, more than 40% of Americans don’t feel they can trust any news media sources for reliable, unbiased information. And as the study shows, political identity plays an important role there and news consumption may correlate with feelings of trust.

While broadcast network news and local news are the most trusted, social media is of course a source to watch. As the data suggest, all of these trends likely have far-reaching implications, including in public health and education policy.