One would be ill-advised to extrapolate outward from one interaction, of course. But the sentiment offered was striking: You don’t read anything from any reporter? It’s just a category of information that you reject out of hand, just like that? I’m certainly familiar with people who are skeptical of the media and certainly aware that confidence in the media is low. Before this week, though, I’d never encountered someone who just uniformly rejected members of the profession out of hand.
That interaction came to mind when I was presented with new data from Pew Research Center documenting how people’s preferred sources of information about the coronavirus pandemic overlap with their views of what’s happening. Of those Pew polled, about a quarter said the source of information about the pandemic they relied on the most was the national news media, such as The Washington Post. Another 18 percent said it was public health professionals. Sixteen percent identified Trump and the White House coronavirus task force as the source of information they rely on the most.
Unsurprisingly, there were wide partisan differences among those groups. Two-thirds of those who said they rely most on the national news media identified as Democrats or Democratic-leaning independents — meaning about 17 percent of all respondents were Democrats/leaners who rely most on the national media. More than 9 in 10 of those who rely most on information from Trump and the White House were Republicans or Republican-leaning independents, meaning about 15 percent of all respondents were Republicans/leaners who rely most on the president’s team for information.
The difference between those groups in their responses will probably not that surprise you very much. A bit more than a third of those who rely most on the national news media said the media had at least slightly exaggerated the risks posed by the virus. Among those who rely on Trump for information, nearly three-quarters held that view. Only 5 percent of Democrats (and leaners) who rely most on the national media said the media greatly exaggerated the risks, compared to more than half of Republicans (and leaners) who rely most on the White House.
That pattern holds throughout the results of Pew’s survey. Two-thirds of those who rely most on the national news media say the media’s coverage has been largely accurate — compared to a quarter of those who rely on the White House. About 30 percent of those who rely on the national news media say the coverage has been more negative than it should be. Nearly three-quarters of those who rely on the White House say it has been. Half of that group also say that the outbreak has been made into a bigger deal than it should have been, while only 19 percent of those who rely most on the national media say that’s the case. A third of those who rely most on the national media say the pandemic has been made into a smaller deal than it should have been.
One question that arises, though, is what it actually means to rely most on Trump and the White House team for information. Are the people who identify themselves in that way earnestly saying they seek out and internalize Trump’s tweets and the regular White House briefings as their most reliable sources of information — or, like my friend on Twitter, are they simply expressing a political allegiance with the president by telling a pollster that they give him primacy over other resources? In other words, are these people reflecting their actual sources of information, or, instead, are they reflecting the way in which they feel Trump’s information should be considered?
The line is probably blurry, but, if the latter is a primary motivation, you’d expect to see the skepticism about the national news media that’s reflected in the poll results. On the flip side, if people are sincerely relying primarily on what Trump is saying about the pandemic, you’d expect a broader skepticism about its seriousness. You’d also see results like the answer to the question of whether respondents think that at-home treatments can be effective: Just under half of those who rely on information from the White House say they can be, compared to 29 percent of those who rely most on information from the national news media.
To a large extent, it doesn’t really matter whether this proclaimed reliance on Trump for information is literal or performative: The outcomes are the same. Just as it doesn’t matter that the guy on Twitter retweeted articles from the Daily Caller, the staff of which probably would consider themselves reporters. Maybe that was an aberration and he really does reject reportage out of hand. Maybe he was just making a statement about me and the outlet for which I work. The end result, as with those interviewed by Pew, is the same: There are two groups of Americans who view the same circumstances in sharply different lights — with occasionally severe and significant gulfs emerging between them.
For Trump, though, the takeaway is simpler. His effort to build a base of support loyal to his presentation of reality has borne fruit.