American mistrust in the media is growing, but who is responsible?

American mistrust in the media is growing, but who is responsible?
© Greg Nash

A key pillar of our democracy, the free and open media, is now under threat, not simply from attacks by President TrumpDonald TrumpWhite House denies pausing military aid package to Ukraine Poll: 30 percent of GOP voters believe Trump will 'likely' be reinstated this year Black Secret Service agent told Trump it was offensive to hold rally in Tulsa on Juneteenth: report MORE, certainly not by exaggerated reports of poor editorial standards or sloppy journalism, and not even by a challenging business model. The most significant present threat to the media — and its role in our democracy — is the way polarization, fueled by the power of the internet, has taken over views of the way news is produced and consumed.

This summer, we worked with Gallup to survey the views of 19,000 American adults about how they view the media’s role in our democracy. When asked how important the media is to democracy, consensus prevails: 84 percent say the media is “critical” or “very important.” But fewer than a third say the media is supporting our democracy well, and a majority can’t even name an objective news source.

A key part of the problem is the tribal polarization that seems to be infecting our public culture. Across almost every measure, it is party that determines one’s views of the media. Democrats are more likely to say the media is doing a good job of supporting democracy, while Republicans say it’s doing worse. Republicans are also more likely to see bias in news coverage, and they are less likely to perceive the media as separating fact from fiction.

These sentiments reflect the moment. For the large part, Democrats see the media as a check on a president they don’t like, and Republicans see the media as banding against the president. But that’s precisely the problem. Rather than seeing journalists as neutral, unbiased observers standing outside the partisan competition, they are viewed as wholly within this polarized dynamic.

Fueling these divides is the role of the internet. The positive power of the internet and technology to democratize information and connect people is undeniable, as is its potential to enable communities to be more informed and more engaged. But alongside the vast opportunities the internet opens, are also threats to how we communicate and connect to each other.

The prevalence of information on the internet is not leaving people feeling more informed. A majority say there’s just too much information. In fact, fewer report today that there are enough sources to sort out the facts in the face of potential media bias than they did in the 1980s, when there were only a handful of major networks and many still read the daily newspaper.

We now also have increasing evidence that, while the internet has not created the problem of misinformation, it has accelerated its spread. When asked to assess problems with news coverage today, the spread of inaccurate information online was cited as the most significant by Democrats and Republicans alike.

Where, then, does responsibility rest to address the problem? The answer is unclear. The public is divided evenly on whether the main responsibility for an accurate picture of the news belongs to the media or Americans themselves. But our research did find that that people know they are, at least, part of the problem. Americans were nearly unanimous in acknowledging that choosing only sources that reinforce their views is a problem, as is associating only with likeminded people.

Yet majorities also report that they share content with people who have the same views, and most say they share news because they think the recipient will agree. Similarly, when asked whether there should be rules governing the major players like Google and Facebook about the content they serve to individuals, the public divides right down the middle.

This, then, is perhaps the most significant challenge for our democracy today: To reimagine the contours of responsibility in a world in which the institutions that sustain our democracy, the media included, have changed immeasurably. To shirk from this charge would be to put our democracy — and what it delivers — at great risk.

We know polarization has altered our politics and that technology has changed how we produce, distribute and consume information. What Americans are telling us is that we haven’t figured out how to align those changes with the lasting conviction that a strong democracy is an informed one.

Sam Gill is vice president for communities and impact at the Knight Foundation, an organization that promotes excellence in journalism.