Public discourse starts with trust in news sources

York Dispatch editorial board

Republicans, as a bloc, don’t seem to be very trusting.

From public health recommendations to elections results to climate change, if the information doesn’t fit a pre-determined framework, no amount of evidence or proof can change their minds.

That’s largely because they don’t trust one of the main sources of that information: traditional, responsible media outlets.

A poll released by The Economist and YouGov this month measured public trust in more than 50 radio, television, online, and print sources of news and information. The gap between Democrats and Republicans was stark — and telling.

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The CNN logo is displayed at the entrance to the CNN Center in Atlanta on Wednesday, Feb. 2, 2022.

Democrats, by and large, put far more faith in the reporting of major news sources. From PBS to the Associated Press to the three major television networks to even conservative-friendly publications like The Wall Street Journal, Democratic respondents were more willing to trust what they heard and read than their Republican counterparts.

For the poll, YouGov asked participants whether they trust, distrust, or neither trust nor distrust media organizations. From these responses, they extrapolated something called a net trust score — “that is, how much more likely Americans are to say (an) outlet is trustworthy or very trustworthy than untrustworthy or very untrustworthy.”

The results are, in a word stunning. While major sources of news generally ended up with positive net trust scores (USA Today: +21, C-SPAN: +14, The New York Times: +12), the results were almost entirely owing to higher Democratic scores.

National Public Radio, for example, had an overall net trust score of +16. That was the result of a rating of +55 from Democrats and -21 from Republicans — a 76-point swing!

That gap was consistent throughout the poll. The Washington Post: +18 overall, +55 Democrats, -15 Republicans; Time magazine: +16 overall, +56 Democrats, -14 Republicans.

Even when Republicans indicated trust in a news source, it lagged far behind that specified by Democrats. The Wall Street Journal had a trust score of +24 but that was thanks to a score of +42 by Democrats and only +9 by Republicans.

There were a handful of media sources that Republicans found more trustworthy than Democrats: Fox, Newsmax, One America News, Brietbart, The Federalist and Infowars. It hardly needs pointing out that these are “news” sources in name only.

Fox, the most reputable of the lot, just agreed to pay three-quarters of a billion dollars to settle a defamation lawsuit over its airing of fabricated claims about voting machines and the 2020 election. But all of them swath their offerings in a comfortable conservative patina designed to reaffirm right-wing biases and stoke discontent. (Sample headline from the One America website over the weekend: “Free Resource Helps Parents Identify Porn In Schools And Take Action.”)

Worth mentioning is the news source that had the highest trust scores across the board: The Weather Channel. It joined Fox as the only media source given a net score of above 30 by Republicans. Democrats, by contrast gave similar scores to nearly 30 outlets.

All of this goes a long way to explaining why Republicans and Democrats are split on so many important issues: they’re split on the trustworthiness of the sources reporting on those issues.

As the poll shows, a wide swath of voters largely refuses to engage with responsible journalism in favor of bias-reinforcing opinion. It’s not that Republicans don’t trust the media. It’s that they’re anti-media.

That’s not healthy — neither for Republicans themselves, nor democracy.

Public discourse and political compromise are doomed to failure if those taking part can’t agree as to the basic facts surrounding an issue, be it a scientific study or an election result.

On a personal level, Republicans who rely solely on partisan, agenda-driven sources as their information sources leave them themselves vulnerable to misinformation — and the politicians who profit from it.

That’s not good for them, the two-party system or society as a whole.