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Trust in media hits new crisis low

Trust in traditional media has declined to an all-time low, and many news professionals are determined to do something about it.

Why it matters: Faith in society's central institutions, especially in government and the media, is the glue that holds society together. That glue was visibly dissolving a decade ago, and has now, for many millions of Americans, disappeared entirely.


By the numbers: For the first time ever, fewer than half of all Americans have trust in traditional media, according to data from Edelman's annual trust barometer shared exclusively with Axios. Trust in social media has hit an all-time low of 27%.

  • 56% of Americans agree with the statement that "Journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations."
  • 58% think that "most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public."
  • When Edelman re-polled Americans after the election, the figures had deteriorated even further, with 57% of Democrats trusting the media and only 18% of Republicans.
Source: Edelman; Chart: Axios Visuals

The big picture: These numbers are echoed across the rest of the world: They're mostly not a function of Donald Trump's war on "fake news".

  • As vaccine rumor hunter Heidi Larson puts it, "we don’t have a misinformation problem, we have a trust problem.”
  • News organizations have historically relied mainly on advertising income, and as those dollars flow increasingly to Google and Facebook, that has created institutional weakness that shows up in trust data.

Reversing the decline is a monster task — and one that some journalists and news organizations have taken upon themselves. They're going to need help — perhaps from America's CEOs.

The catch: Mistrust of media is now a central part of many Americans' personal identity — an article of faith that they weren't argued into and can't be argued out of.

What they're saying:

  • Former Financial Times editor Lionel Barber talks of factual reporting as a means of "regaining the trust of the reading public".
  • Axios has a stated mission to "help restore trust in fact-based news".
  • Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan writes that "our goal should go beyond merely putting truthful information in front of the public. We should also do our best to make sure it’s widely accepted."

How it works: Media outlets can continue to report reliable facts, but that won't turn the trend around on its own. What's needed is for trusted institutions to visibly embrace the news media.

  • CEOs (a/k/a the fourth branch of government) are at or near the top of Edelman's list of trusted institutions.
  • By the numbers: 61% of Trump voters say that they trust their employer's CEO. That compares to just 28% who trust government leaders, and a mere 21% who trust journalists.

The bottom line: CEOs have long put themselves forward as the people able to upgrade America's physical infrastructure. Now it's time for them to use the trust they've built up to help rebuild our civic infrastructure.

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