Americans' Trust in the Mass Media

by Jeffrey M. Jones, Gallup Poll Managing Editor

The media play an important role as intermediaries between the government and the public. In that role, the media relate, analyze, and interpret presidential policy decisions, court rulings, and legislation. For example, last week, George W. Bush faced the media in a press conference amid increasing doubts about the situation in Iraq and the government's anti-terror measures prior to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Gallup polling finds that most Americans place some trust in the mass media to report "the news fully, accurately, and fairly," but they tend to trust government institutions more. The data also show that Americans with less formal education express a great deal more trust in the media than do those with more formal education. 

Gallup updates the American public's trust in various institutions involved in the U.S. political process each year in its annual Governance poll. Gallup asks Americans to indicate how much trust they have in a variety of institutions in the U.S. political process. The most recent data, from September 2003*, show that 14% of Americans have a great deal of trust and confidence in the media, 40% a fair amount, 35% not very much, and 11% none at all. Despite the terror attacks and recent controversies over plagiarism by some journalists, this level of trust has been fairly steady since 1997. 

There was clearly an erosion of public trust in the media between the mid-1970s and late 1990s. Roughly 7 in 10 Americans had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media both before and after the Watergate scandal in the 1970s. 

Even though Americans are more likely to say they trust the media than not, they tend to have less trust in the media than in government institutions such as the presidency, legislature, judiciary, and local governments. (Trust in state government was atypically low in the fall 2003 Gallup Poll, largely due to the very low trust by California residents, associated with the ultimate recall of Gov. Gray Davis.)  

Americans Expressed Trust in Political Institutions, September 2003

Institution

Great deal/
Fair amount

Not very much/
None at all

 

%

%

American people

76

23

Local governments

68

31

Federal judiciary

67

32

Federal legislature

63

36

Federal executive

60

40

Men/Women in political life

59

40

Media

54

46

State governments

53

46



The data reveal a persistent pattern in trust in the media according to formal education levels. Those with a high school education or less tend to have significantly greater trust in the mass media than do those with more formal education. Since 1997, on average, 61% of those with a high school education or less have said they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the mass media, compared with 49% or less of all other educational groups.

With the exception of the 1999 poll, which was conducted shortly after the Senate tried President Bill Clinton on impeachment charges, the pattern has existed in each Gallup Poll since 1997. In the 2003 poll, the gap between those with a high school education or less and those with a postgraduate education was 26 percentage points.

Percentage of Americans With a Great Deal/Fair Amount of Trust in Mass
Media, by Education Level, 1997-2003

 

Date

Overall

High
school or less

Some
 college

College
grad

Postgrad

 

%

%

%

%

%

2003 Sep 8-10

54

66

51

42

40

 

 

 

 

 

 

2002 Sep 5-8

54

60

47

53

48

2001 Sep 7-10

53

61

49

53

41

2000 Jul 6-9

51

57

51

39

44

1999 Feb 4-8

55

56

55

51

52

1998 Dec 28-29

55

66

45

46

43

1997 May 30-Jun 1

53

63

48

47

42



This is not a general pattern of diminished trust by education level. There are essentially no differences by education in expressed trust of the legislative branch, the executive branch, and state and local governments. There are differences in trust in the judicial branch by education, but in the opposite direction -- with the more highly educated expressing greater levels of trust. 

Percentage of Americans With a Great Deal/Fair Amount of Trust in Actors in U.S. Political Process, September 2003 Gallup Poll

Institution

Overall

High
school or less

Some
 college

College
grad

Postgrad

 

%

%

%

%

%

Executive branch

60

58

65

59

56

Legislative branch

63

63

66

59

59

Judicial branch

67

57

75

73

70

State governments

53

54

53

55

49

Local governments

68

65

68

69

72

Politicians

59

61

59

50

58

American people

76

77

80

66

74



One possible explanation for the differences is that those who take college courses are exposed to a broad range of perspectives and information, and are often required to evaluate competing perspectives, arguments, or theories in a critical manner. This may help to develop a certain amount of skepticism about what they see, hear, or read in the news. This is especially likely given that the differences are mostly confined to those without any college education. 

While there are definite partisan differences in media trust -- Democrats are more likely to express trust than Republicans -- the fact that postgraduates (a group that has increasingly become Democratic in its politics) are as low in trust as the more Republican groups of four-year college graduates and those with some college education, suggests that the differences are not solely due to partisanship. 

Bottom Line

Of all the major actors in the United States political process, Americans have the least amount of trust in the mass media. Those with more formal education have consistently been less trusting in the media than those with a high school education or less. Perhaps the increasing proportion of Americans with college educations is one of several explanations (along with increasingly partisan views of the media, and an increasing media presence in American life, for example) that helps explain the decline in media trust compared with the 1970s. 

*Results are based on telephone interviews with 1,025 national adults, aged 18 and older, conducted Sept. 8-10, 2003. For results based on the total sample of national adults, one can say with 95% confidence that the margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points.

Get Articles in Related Topics:


Gallup http://www.gallup.com/poll/11428/Americans-Trust-Mass-Media.aspx
Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030