Skeptics or cynics? Age determines how Americans view the news media – Knight Foundation

Skeptics or cynics? Age determines how Americans view the news media

A new analysis of Gallup/Knight Foundation survey data reveals that age is an important differentiator in understanding the complexities of Americans’ trust in and perceptions of the news media.

  • Differences in citizens’ trust in the national media and attitudes about the media’s role in democracy vary not just by political partisanship but age as well.
  • Young adults (18-34) today are more distrusting of the media than older adults and report less trust in media than adults their age 20 years ago. 
  • That said, more than two-thirds of young Americans say the news media is “critical” to democracy, and they are more optimistic than older Americans about the media’s role in healing division in the country. 
  • Older adults are more likely to turn to one or two sources for news and care more about a news organization’s reputation and political slant in evaluating its trustworthiness, while younger adults are more likely to turn to a variety of sources and care more about an outlet’s transparency in facts, research and process.

For the past few years, Gallup and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation have kept a pulse on the American public’s trust in the media. Recent polling shows that distrust is growing — but not to the same degree for all Americans. Trust in media has generally been increasing over the past few years for Democrats, while trust continues to erode among Republicans.[1] However, new analysis of Gallup/Knight surveys collected in 2019 and 2020 shows that variation in trust is not just between partisans. There are also clear differences by age.

Young adults (aged 18-34) are more skeptical of national news organizations than older adults. Just 29% of young adults say they trust national news organizations “a great deal” or “quite a lot,” compared to 41% of adults over the age of 55. Adults aged 35-54 are even more distrusting, with about 44% reporting they trust national news organizations “none” or“very little.” Only about 26% say they trust news organizations a great deal or quite a lot.

[1] Brenan, M. (2020, September 30). Americans remain distrustful of mass media.

These findings fall in line with emerging long-term trends. Data from the Gallup Poll Social Series show that growing distrust of media is more pronounced for younger adults, especially within the past 10 years. Furthermore, young adults within the past five years have conveyed less trust in the media compared to adults at their age 20 years ago (2001). 

The growing differences in trust in news across younger and older Americans are significant. From 2001 to 2020, trust in news among those 55+ decreased only by about six percentage points. In contrast, trust among 35-54-year-olds fell by about 17 percentage points, and for the youngest adults, trust decreased by about 18 percentage points. 

It is important to note that the media environment of 2001 was significantly different than what we have today. The internet took off as a medium for information at the turn of the 21st century, and the media landscape has continuously evolved since that time. Technology has made access to information, the ability to publish content and social information exchange easier and has even changed the format of content (think of shorter, 280-character maximum posts on social media). The number of producers of news has also grown exponentially. 

Although we cannot determine which contextual factors may have contributed to why the contrast between younger and older Americans exists, examining what younger and older citizens consider important when evaluating trust of news outlets can help further contextualize the trend.

When assessing the trustworthiness of a news outlet, a majority of young adults believe how an outlet sources information and its degree of transparency in reporting are “very important.” Seventy-seven percent of young adults say that an outlet’s commitment to transparency — including how it is funded and how it makes decisions on what to report — is very important, compared to 68% of adults aged 55+. It is also very important to young adults for news organizations to provide links to research and facts (83%, vs. 65% of those 55+) and to provide fact-checking when evaluating the trustworthiness of a news outlet. 

Older adults are more likely to consider factors related to outlet reputation when evaluating its trustworthiness. About 25% of adults aged 55+ say that the specific reporters, anchors or commentators who work for the organization are very important when evaluating trust (compared to 15% of young adults aged 18-34). Forty percent of older adults also regard knowing and respecting the news organization’s brand as very important, compared to 32% of young adults. Additionally, more older adults report that having no political slant in its coverage is very important (63%, vs. 53% of young adults). About 62% of adults 55+ say how often the organization makes mistakes is very important, compared to 46% of young adults.  

There are some factors in evaluating the trustworthiness of a news outlet that Americans young and old agree on as important. These aspects include the type of stories the outlet focuses on, the outlet’s commitment to fairness (reporting all sides of an issue) and accuracy, and proper labeling of content “type” (paid, op-ed, etc.). 

These differences between younger and older Americans seem to indicate a shift away from a foundation of “trusting the brand” or the reputation of a particular journalist toward transparency and fact-checking. Thus, evaluations of trust of news by younger Americans may not be simply cynicism, but rather skepticism of where information comes from and how it is vetted.

Older Americans’ tendency to lean toward brand loyalty when evaluating news is also evident in their consumption patterns. Adults aged 55+ are more likely to turn to one or two “go-to” news sources (44%) — about 18% of older adults turn to Fox News exclusively, and an additional 17% turn to local news. Conversely, young adults (18-34) are about as likely to consult a variety of sources (32%) as they are to rely on one or two go-to news outlets for information (31%). Adults 18-54 turn to Fox News (9%) and CNN (8%) about equally, and 12% turn to local news. 

Young Americans also report seeking out more sources when they feel uncertain about facts in news stories. Adults aged 18-34 are more likely to conduct their own web search, pursue independent fact-checking sites or turn to family or friendsthan any older adults. Older adults (aged 55+) keep to their usual way of doing things when feeling uncertain, and frequently turn to the sources they use most often to verify information.

It is important to note that younger and older Americans consume information on different mediums. About 75% of young adults get their news online (compared to 25% of those 55+). Middle-aged adults (aged 35-54) get their news from a mix of internet (55%) and TV (31%), and older adults mostly consume news via television (56%, compared to 14% of young adults). 

Young adults often consume the bulk of their information online, where transparency and clear verification of facts may be hard to come by. Their lean toward distrust of news, fueled by evaluations of transparency in process and sourcing of information, one could argue, is fitting to this pattern of consumption. On the one hand, the data could indicate that young Americans are responding to the unknowns of information on the internet by developing sharper media literacy skills — i.e., a healthy skepticism. On the other hand, if young Americans are less trusting of traditional journalists or news outlets, where there is more of a structured process for verifying information, that could be of concern. 

The News Media and Democracy

Gallup/Knight survey data from 2020 reveal that adults aged 35-54 are most likely to say the news media is supporting democracy “poorly” or “very poorly” (56%). Older adults (55+) have a slightly more positive view, with 35% reporting the news media supports democracy “well” or “very well,” compared to only 26% of the youngest adults.

Notably, younger Americans’ criticism of the news media’s role in democracy does not mean they disregard the importance of its function in society. In fact, 68% of adults aged 18-34 say the news media is “critical” to democracy, compared to 56% of adults aged 35-54 and 51% of adults 55+. 

Across age groups, Americans agree that ensuring reporters cover people who have different views from their own with respect and understanding would be “very effective” in healing political division in the U.S. (50%+ across all three age categories). They also agree that covering fewer stories about controversial or divisive issues would be “very” or “somewhat” effective. 

Even though younger adults report high levels of skepticism of how well the media is supporting democracy, they are also more optimistic about how the news media can help heal division in America. More than older Americans (55+), young adults believe the following actions by news media organizations would be very effective in healing division:

  • Host forums that bring people from different backgrounds together to discuss their experiences.
  • Cover more stories about people trying to engage in civil discourse on issues.
  • Hire reporters who come from a variety of different backgrounds.

Looking at the trend of young Americans’ growing distrust of news at the surface level could easily tell a story of cynicism — that young adults have simply lost faith. But by taking a deeper look at how young adults evaluate and respond to their information environment, there is more cause for hope. The patterns of attitudes and behaviors found in Gallup/Knight data from 2020 seem to indicate youth skepticism, where distrust manifests as having high standards for transparency and leaning toward self-directed research from a wider variety of sources. Vraga and Tully (2019) find that adults who are more news literate and report valuing news literacy are more skeptical of information quality online[2]. It is hard to say whether this is healthy or harmful behavior, though; it may be a little bit of both depending on the nature of the self-directed searching. That said, the data suggest that young Americans are responding to the changes in today’s media environment with efforts to be more discerning news consumers. And although their trust in national news is at the lowest level across generations, they are also more optimistic and deeply value the media’s role in Democracy. 

[2] Vraga, E. K., & Tully, M. (2019). News literacy, social media behaviors, and skepticism toward information on social media. Information, Communication & Society, 24(2), 150-166. 


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