One of the ironies of writing about attitudes toward the media in The Washington Post is you are almost necessarily creating a paradox for some readers. If I say new data from the national General Social Survey released this week indicates more than two-thirds of Republicans say they have “hardly any” confidence in the media, will those Republicans believe me? And if they do not, does that mean Republican confidence is actually stronger than the data suggest — meaning my analysis is more believable?
For those of you not navigating the rocky waters of distrusting reporting about distrust in reporting, I present to you the remarkable findings of that survey. Indeed, more than two-thirds of Republicans say they have little confidence in the media, a figure that has risen nearly 20 points since 2014.
On the other end of the political spectrum, fewer Democrats express low confidence in the media than at any point in nearly 30 years. The result is a gap of 43 points between members of the two parties, a broad gulf on whether the news media is trustworthy.
While the (low) percentage of Republicans who express having a “great deal” of confidence in the media has not changed much, the percentage of Democrats who have such confidence is the highest it has been since the 1989 General Social Survey. The gap between Democrats who have hardly any confidence in the media and those who have a great deal of confidence is the smallest it has been over the same period.
The General Social Survey is not the only research that shows a gulf in views of the media by party. Gallup’s annual look at trust in mass media showed the second-greatest gap between the two parties in 2018, trailing only 2017. More than three quarters of Democrats said they had at least a fair amount of trust in mass media, compared with 21 percent of Republicans. Amazingly, that 21 percent in 2018 was a 50 percent improvement over the previous year.
One reason the number of Democrats expressing skepticism about the media fell in the General Social Survey is those with some form of post-high-school degree were much less likely to express skepticism than they were in 2016. The percentage of respondents with a college degree who said they had hardly any confidence in the media was about as low as it was in 2006.
Buried in the GSS data is another interesting shift that happened in 2018. There is a pattern to Republican views of the media we have noted before. In presidential election years, with heavy media attention on presidential candidates, Republican frustration with the media spikes. In off-year election cycles, that distrust generally diminishes.
Generally. In 2018, it did not. It kept rising.
That is almost certainly to some degree a function of President Trump’s continued, focused effort to undermine the media, an effort that overlapped with a higher-profile-than-normal midterm election cycle. Trump’s efforts to foster skepticism of the media within his base seems to be working. The percentage of Republicans saying they have hardly any trust in the media jumped from 51 to 69 percent between 2014 and 2018 in the GSS data. In Gallup, confidence in the media dropped from 32 percent in 2015 to 21 percent last year.
But that is according to The Post, and who can trust them?
Scott Clement contributed to this report.