Study: Americans Think News Media Needed for Democracy, But Untrustworthy

    06 August 2020

    Many Americans describe the news media as "very biased," but they still believe the work of reporters is important to democracy.

    That is the finding of a report from the Knight Foundation, a not-for-profit group, and the research company Gallup.

    Knight and Gallup questioned more than 20,000 American adults between November 8, 2019 and February 16, 2020. That was before the United States began taking steps to fight the novel coronavirus. It was also before protests over the death of George Floyd, a Black man, at the hands of Minneapolis police.

    The study's findings – called "sobering" in the report – suggest that Americans increasingly distrust the news media.

    John Sands is director of learning and impact at the Knight Foundation. He said that when half of Americans have concerns about the news "it's going to be impossible for our democracy to function."

    The study confirmed sharp differences of opinion between supporters of the two major parties in the United States.

    For example, it found that 71 percent of Republican Party members had a "very" or "somewhat" unfavorable opinion of the news media. Fifty-two percent of independent voters and 22 percent of Democratic Party members also had unfavorable opinions.

    However, 54 percent of Democrats had a favorable opinion of the press. Only 13 percent of Republicans felt the same way.

    Sands said this finding is not new and added the differences between the two sides have become deeper over the years.

    "Moving the dial on these attitudes becomes more and more difficult for media organizations," he said.

    The study did not try to identify reasons for the differences in opinion about the news media. U.S. President Donald Trump often calls stories he does not like "fake news."

    Studies show that more than 90 percent of media reports on Trump and his administration are "negative" or appear hostile toward the president.

    FILE - Television news equipment near a hearing room Monday, Dec. 9, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
    FILE - Television news equipment near a hearing room Monday, Dec. 9, 2019, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

    Who is to blame?

    Among those questioned in the study, 48 percent said the news media has a great deal of responsibility for the country's political divisions. Seventy-three percent believe that too much bias in news reporting is a major problem. That represents an increase of eight percent from two years ago.

    In addition, Americans did not believe that reporters make honest mistakes. Instead, 54 percent said they believed reporters misrepresented facts, while 28 percent said reporters made up some of their information.

    Knight and Gallup found that 41 percent of Americans have a great deal of trust in the ability of the media to report the news fairly. However, that is down from 55 percent in a similar study from 1999.

    A big majority of Americans, 84 percent, still believe that, in general, the news media is either "very important" or "critical" to democracy.

    I'm Mario Ritter Jr.

    Here are other findings of the report:

    • 84 percent of Americans said that, in general, the news media is "critical" (49 percent) or "very important" (35 percent) to democracy.
    • A majority of Americans reported seeing "a great deal" (49 percent) or "a fair amount" (37 percent) of political bias in news coverage. The percentage seeing a great deal of bias is up from 45 percent in 2017.
    • Americans consider mistakes in news stories to be put there on purpose — either because the reporter is misrepresenting the facts (54 percent) or making them up entirely (28 percent).

    David Bauder reported this story for the Associated Press. Mario Ritter Jr. adapted it for VOA Learning English. George Grow was the editor.


    Words in This Story

    biased – adj. showing one side as better than another side in an unfair way

    sobering – adj. causing seriousness or thoughtfulness

    function – v. to operate correctly

    unfavorable –adj. showing disapproval

    Move the dial –idiom to cause something to change in a way that can be seen or heard

    attitudes –n. (pl.) the way someone thinks about a subject in general

    fakeadj. a copy or reproduction; opposite of true or real

    critical –adj. extremely important

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