The news media has the worst approval rating of all major American institutions grappling with the novel coronavirus — but the public’s opinions on the matter are highly polarized and mirror their complex feelings from before the pandemic.

A Gallup survey released this week found 44 percent of Americans approve of the news media’s handling of the coronavirus crisis. It found 61 percent of Democrats and Democratic-leaning voters approve of the media, compared to 25 percent of Republicans.

Hospitals, schools and state governments had the highest marks; President Trump’s approval rating on this crisis stands at 60 percent, compared to his overall job rating of 49 percent.

For decades, the public’s trust in news media has split along the political spectrum. The election of Trump — who has dubbed journalists the “enemy of the people” — saw Republican trust in media drop to a historic low and Democratic confidence in media spike. That has since evened out, and in September 2019, Gallup found 25 percent of Republicans trusted the media, compared to 69 percent of Democrats.

But the bad marks for “news media” seem partially due to how these questions are phrased. It’s very difficult to know what people have in mind when they are asked about the news media today, said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute.

“It could mean what’s in their Twitter or social media feed, [or] it could be a thing that they see that annoys them on television,” he said. “The average person is a not a press critic, so we really don’t know what they’re reacting to. We do know that when we ask them about the news media they use, in most polls, they’re more approving.”

Indeed, people give much higher marks when asked about “the news media you use most often” vs. the “news media,” a much more abstract term. A 2017 survey from the Media Insight Project found 24 percent of Americans believed the news media is “moral,” a figure that doubled when they were asked about the news media they often use.

And trust in news media isn’t just a partisan division: The September 2019 Gallup survey also found that adults younger than 35 had the least trust in news media among all age groups.

Media approval spiked slightly in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. But that was a singular event with dramatic images that people could find only via news media.

The coronavirus pandemic, on the other hand, is an invisible menace that’s also altering the lives of many more people. It’s also a scientific story.

“It would be better at a moment like this if we were getting largely accurate vetted factual data and that, as a country, we all agreed on what those facts were,” Rosenstiel said. “If some of the population is operating off a different set of facts and thinks it’s okay to behave in a certain way, that could literally infect the other part of the population.”

But while people may not like what they see on TV or read online from news outlets, that doesn’t mean they are dismissing it altogether, he added.

“You can be skeptical of the press and still rely on it,” he said. “You can be disapproving of things you see in the media and still rely on it.”

The latest Gallup findings come from 1,020 adults who were surveyed last week, with the findings having a margin of error of +/- 4 percentage points