December 12, 2019

Trusting the News Media in the Trump Era

Partisan dynamics overshadow other factors in Americans’ evaluations of the news media

President Trump answers questions from reporters outside the White House in November 2018. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

It is no secret that, in an information environment characterized by deep tensions between President Donald Trump and national news organizations, Americans are divided in their trust of the news media. A new Pew Research Center exploration of more than 50 different surveys conducted by the Center – combined with an analysis of well over 100 questions measuring possible factors that could drive trust in the news media – confirms that in the Trump era nothing comes close to matching the impact of political party identification. On item after item, Republicans consistently express far greater skepticism of the news media and their motives than Democrats, according to this analysis that focuses on trust in the news media during 2018 and 2019.

A chart showing that Republicans far more likely than Democrats to say journalists lack ethics, but Republicans who strongly approve of Trump stand out even moreEven more telling, the analysis reveals that divides emerge within party – particularly the Republican Party – based on how strongly people approve of Trump’s performance as president. Trump has publicly and repeatedly criticized both news organizations and the journalists who work for them, criticisms that, according to this study, resonate with his most fervent supporters.

The link between the public’s approval of Trump and views of the news media is clear in evaluations of journalists’ ethics. About three-in-ten Republicans and Republican-leaning independents (31%) say journalists have very low ethical standards, roughly six times the 5% of Democrats and Democratic leaners who say this. Trump’s strongest approvers, though, express even greater suspicion: 40% of Republicans who strongly approve of Trump’s job performance say journalists’ ethics are that low. That is true of far fewer Republicans who only somewhat approve of Trump or disapprove of him: 17% and 12%, respectively.1

Overall, this relationship between support for Trump and depressed trust in the news media persists over a range of attitudes. And, taken together, Republicans who are most approving of Trump and Democrats who are least approving of him stand far apart from each other.

A chart showing that highly engaged partisans are extremely polarized in their confidence in journalistsThe extent to which a person is engaged with national politics and the news surrounding it also plays into their evaluation of the news media. Highly engaged partisans are even more polarized in their views than the two parties overall. For example, there is a 46 percentage point gap between all Democrats and Republicans (including those who lean to each party) in whether they have a great deal or fair amount of confidence that journalists will act in the best interests of the public. This jumps to a 75-point gap between the highly politically aware who associate with the two parties (91% of highly politically aware Democrats vs. 16% of highly aware Republicans).

No other factors in this study come close to these partisan dynamics in their relationship to Americans’ views. There are a few that show some connection, however. One of these factors is trust in others more generally, or interpersonal trust: Americans who express greater trust in others tend to give the news media higher marks than those who are less trusting. Additionally, there are some interesting differences across demographic groups, such as those based on age, race and ethnicity, religion, and education. For example, black Americans often exhibit greater support of news organizations and journalists than Hispanic or white Americans. And older Americans are more loyal to their preferred news sources than younger Americans. Other concepts such as life cycle milestones and life satisfaction measures show limited, inconsistent or no relationship with evaluations of the news media.

The overall goal of this study was to integrate a wide range of concepts to develop a comprehensive understanding of the factors that link to the public’s trust in the news media today. Researchers pulled together years of Pew Research Center surveys conducted on the American Trends Panel and examined responses from the panel members across these surveys. Using advanced statistical weighting and multivariate analyses, attitudes toward the news media – including direct measures of trust as well as closely related measures – were set alongside a wide range of other measures to examine what connects to trust in the news media. For more information on the methodology of the study, see the box below and the methodology section.

  1. There is a strong overlap between approval of the way Trump is handling his job as president and political party identification, but not a complete overlap. For instance, while most Republicans and Republican leaners strongly approve of Trump, the remaining Republicans are almost evenly split between somewhat approving of Trump or disapproving.