Tuesday, February 7, 2023

Trust me?

 The Columbia Journalism Review recently published a long article by Jeff Gerth on media coverage of Donald Trump.  In the introductory section, Gerth says: "Before the 2016 election, most Americans trusted the traditional media and the trend was positive, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer. ...Today, the US media has the lowest credibility—26 percent—among forty-six nations, according to a 2022 study by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism."  Confidence in the media has been in general decline for decades, according to the data I've seen, so the first sentence surprised me.   I checked the Edelman Trust Barometer and noticed that they have continued to survey trust, so you can look at how trust has changed since 2016.  The following figure shows trust in the media in 2016 and 2023 for nations in which both are available:

Trust in the media fell from 47% to 43% in the United States over the period.  Among all 25 nations in the sample, average trust fell from 49.3% to 46.9%.  So the US was a little below average at both times.  As far as change, the United States had a decline of 4%, which was not unusual--the mean change was a decline of 2.4%.  As far as the "positive trend" in 2016, the report says that trust in the media was higher than it had been in 2015.  The Edelman Trust Barometer apparently goes back to 2001, but there doesn't seem to be a convenient place to look up the data, so I didn't pursue that.  The main point is that it doesn't suggest that the American media suffered a particularly large decline in trust after 2016.  

Now for the Reuters study (the Digital News Report):  the United States did rank lowest, at 26%.  The Reuters data go back to 2016, so they can also be used to measure change.   A figure showing trust in 2016 (or the earliest year available) and 2022:

The United States has fallen in both absolute and relative terms, but the change wasn't that large--a decline of 6, when the average change was a decline of 2.5.  

  The samples are different, but about 20 nations appear in both.  Neither the scores nor the changes in the scores are highly correlated (the correlations are a little less than 0.2).  Perhaps that's because of a difference in the questions:  Edelman asks whether you trust the institution to "do what is right," while Reuters asks if they think you can "trust most news most of the time."  But both give the same conclusion about whether there's been a decline in trust in the American media:  some, but not an unusually large amount.  The comparison in the Gerth article is misleading--it treats the difference between two different questions as a change over time.  

Although the article was mostly an examination of media coverage rather than an analysis of public opinion, the passage I quoted was featured prominently and clearly pointed to a conclusion--that flaws in the coverage of Trump had produced a decline in public trust.  But regardless of what you think about the quality of coverage, it apparently didn't have much overall effect.  That may be because of political polarization--anything that made supporters of Trump feel more negative about the media made opponents feel more positive, and vice-versa.



  1. Comment on both of your charts: the X & Y axes represent the exact same things on each chart. Why are they different lengths? Most ppl just accept whatever x/y lengths the software produces. But imagine if these were two separate bar charts: would you accept different lengths for quantities that mean the exact same thing? I hope not! These graphs should be square, because the axes are equal.

  2. That's a valid point. I just followed the defaults without thinking about it.