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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Solutions to low media trust not clear

One of the researchers of a study that finds Republicans and supporters of President Donald Trump have far more negative attitudes toward the press than Democrats and Trump opponents, doubts that incremental changes in news ethics will make a significant change in media trust.

Andrew Guess, who along with Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, studied media trust along ideological and partisan lines for the Poynter Institute.

The researchers additionally find exposure to anti-media messages, including attacks by Trump on “fake news,” have relatively limited effects on attitudes toward the press.Their research also suggests that Republicans and Trump supporters are far more likely to endorse extreme claims about media fabrication, to describe journalists as an enemy of the people and to support restrictions on press freedom than Democrats and Trump opponents. Overall, the majority of the public does support the press, albeit weakly.

According to Guess, however, the pattern of polarized media trust by party is not a particularly new phenomenon.

But nevertheless, finding a solution to reduce such problems, seems to be a complicated process.

“I think that we can begin by acknowledging that there is a trust problem,” said Indira Lakshmanan a Washington columnist for the Boston Globe and Newmark Chair in Journalism Ethics at the Poynter Institute said. “I think that one of the most important things in that regard is figuring out why we have the problem.”

Lakshmanan said she believes increasing transparency about the reporting process and reducing the use of anonymous sources might help increase the trust people have in the media.

Guess, while acknowledging increasing transparency, crediting sources and correcting mistakes are positive steps that may help, these measures will be unlikely unlikely to shift people’s views as drastically as some journalists might think.

“It seems kinda unlikely that a little bit of extra transparency about the way that reporting is done is gonna move a lot of these attitudes,” he said.

Instead, Guess also suggested that media organizations should work to avoid any appearance of partisanship and reach out to Republicans and Trump supporters who affirm the importance of a free press. Doing so might create a more bipartisan consensus on the importance of journalism in a free society.

Additionally, Nyhan told Poynter that it feels like “double-edged sword” to try an increase trust through the work of one political party.

“We’ve seen these dynamics occur on issues with scientists and their perception is being affiliated with the Democratic Party, and it really harms scientific credibility in the public debate,” Nyhan said. “If journalists go down the same road and become seen as part of the Democratic [Party] coalition, I think it’s very harmful to the ability of all you to do your jobs and to create this reasonably broad, shared consensus about the nature of reality that we’d like to hope is a mission of journalism.”

Another suggestion from Guess to reduce potential media polarization is to initiate more opportunities for journalists to speak to Americans around the country “outside of the partisan fray.”

“Maybe there is also some merit to getting out there and speaking to people as people and not as journalists,” he said.

“I think we know what the problem is now,” Lakshmanan said. “I think it’s time we find a solution.”