Americans are losing faith in an objective media. A new Gallup/Knight study explores why.

Journalism / Article

Americans have high aspirations for the news media to be a trusted, independent watchdog that holds the powerful to account. But in a new Gallup/Knight study, we’ve found the gap is growing between what Americans expect from the news and what they think they are getting. Perceptions of bias are increasing too, which further erodes the media’s ability to deliver on its promise to our democracy.

The landmark poll of 20,000 people found that Americans’ hope for an objective media is all but lost. Instead, they see an increasing partisan slant in the news, and a media eager to push an agenda. As a result, the media’s ability to hold leaders accountable is diminished in the public’s eye.

The study also explores the connections between political affiliation and attitudes toward the media, as well the public’s view on diversity in newsrooms and the connection between local news consumption, civic engagement and community attachment.

A hallmark of Knight Foundation’s Trust, Media and Democracy initiative, “American Views 2020: Trust, Media and Democracy” is a biennial report based on a poll that took place over last winter. It is one of the most comprehensive surveys of public opinion on the media, and holds important implications for the future of journalism and our democracy. You can read more below, or join a discussion of the findings in partnership with the Paley Center at 2 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 6. 

Here are 10 findings that stood out to us:

1) Americans see increasing bias in the news media: One of the primary reasons Americans don’t think the media works for them is because of the bias they perceive in coverage. Many feel the media’s traditional roles, such as holding leaders accountable, is compromised by bias, with nearly three-quarters (73%) of Americans who say they see too much bias in the reporting of news that is supposed to be objective as “a major problem,” up from 65% in the  2017 Knight/Gallup study. They see it in their own news sources (56%), and 7 in 10 are concerned about bias in the news other people are getting, the survey finds. Some 3 in 4 Americans worry that owners of media companies are influencing coverage

2)  Americans think the media is pushing an agenda. More than 8 in 10 Americans say that when they suspect an inaccuracy in a story, they worry it was intentional – because the reporter was misrepresenting the facts (54%) or making them up (28%). Only 16% said they thought the inaccuracies were innocent mistakes. And when it comes to news sources they distrust, nearly 8 in 10 Americans (or 79%) say those outlets are trying to persuade people to adopt a certain opinion. 

3) Distrust in the media cuts along partisan lines: Views on the media vary widely by party, though overall Americans view the media more negatively than positively. The breakdown: 7 in 10 Republicans (71%) have a very or somewhat unfavorable opinion of the news media, versus less than a quarter of Democrats (22%) and about half of independents (52%). 

4) A majority of Americans say the media are under political attack – but are divided by party on whether it’s warranted: While people from all political persuasions agree that the media is being politically attacked, 70% of Democrats say those attacks are not justified, while 61% of Republicans say they are.

5) Opinions on the media also vary widely by age. Young Americans, for example, tend to have more negative views on the media. About 1 in 5 American adults under 30 (19%) say they have a “very” or “somewhat” favorable opinion of the news media, versus almost half of those aged 65 and older (44%).

6) Americans blame the media for political divisions, but they also see the potential for the media to heal these divides. Forty-eight percent (48%) of Americans say the media bears “a great deal” of blame for political division in this country, and thirty-six percent (36%) say they bear “a moderate amount.” At the same time, 8 in 10 Americans believe the media can bring people together, and heal the nation’s political divides. 

7) Americans want more newsroom diversity. But they differ on what kind.. This breakdown is along party and racial lines. Democrats (49%) and blacks (60%) prioritize racial/ethnic diversity in hiring, while Republicans (51%) and whites (35%) prioritize ideological diversity in journalists’ political views.

8) Americans feel overwhelmed by the volume and speed of news, and the internet is making it worse. The most cited reason for information overload? The mix of news interspersed with non-news on the web, including social media (72%). How Americans cope varies. Some people (41%) turn to one or two trusted news sources, others (31%) consult a variety, and 17% stop paying attention all together. 

9) Local news is closely linked to civic engagement. Here’s one of the reasons why the future of journalism matters to our democracy. People who read and watch local news are more likely to take part in important community issues, and 81% are more likely to participate in local elections. 

10) Despite the findings, Americans think the media is vital for democracy. The vast majority of Americans (84%) say that the news media is “critical” (49%) or “very important” (35%) to provide accurate information and hold the powerful accountable.

Read the full report at kf.org/usviews20.

John Sands is director for learning and impact at Knight Foundation. Follow him on Twitter at @iohnsands.