Survey Reveals That Americans Overwhelmingly Support Freedom of the Press, but Many do not Trust the U.S. News Media

From Medill-Northwestern University

Trust in news media remains tepid with just above half of Americans saying the media is trustworthy, rising only two percentage points from December 2019, according to a new survey by Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications and The Harris Poll.

Americans overwhelming agree that freedom of speech is one of the values that makes the country great and freedom of the press is essential for American democracy; even so, four in 10 say the news media is the “enemy of the people.” Majorities of Americans say the news media are too negative in their reporting and that they report “fake news.” That said, significantly fewer Americans in May compared with December agree that the media reports fake news, suggesting that trust in media is improving in the COVID-19 era. In fact, nearly two-thirds say they trust information about COVID-19 provided by the news media, much more than the 55 percent who trust the information about COVID-19 provided in White House briefings.

Charles Whitaker, dean of Northwestern’s Medill School, said, “This research is a timely snapshot with fresh data on one of journalism’s most critical challenges, that of trust by the audience and larger public. The findings underscore public reliance on professional journalism while wary of social media.”

“The report especially opens the aperture on trust, which in U.S. news media is often narrowly cast in one’s politics and world view. This has been no ordinary year in the face of COVID, racial equality and economic/ cultural fallout with Americans receptive to science, public health and local media,” says John Gerzema, CEO of The Harris Poll.

The survey was conducted December 9-11, 2019, and repeated May 27-29, 2020, on behalf of Medill by The Harris Poll. Both polls were conducted online among roughly 2,000 nationally representative adults.

The research was organized and overseen by Everette E. Dennis and Klaus Schoenbach, well-known media researchers, authors and educators. Dennis is professor of journalism at the Medill School and formerly dean and CEO at Northwestern’s campus in Doha, Qatar (NU-Q). Schoenbach, a former senior associate dean at NU-Q, is a distinguished adjunct professor there and honorary professor at Zeppelin University in Germany.

Results for the study’s first wave were completed before the COVID-19 pandemic began, so Dennis and Schoenbach decided to do a second wave to see whether the national lockdown caused an uptick in media use or had influenced change in public perceptions of the news media.  Importantly, the study was conducted two days after the death of George Floyd at the outset of national demonstrations.

As Dennis put it, “Public attitudes toward the news media are as polarized as the country itself, mostly along partisan lines and threatening to the idea of an informed citizenry.  We wanted to see whether reliance on media during the pandemic would alter that perception.  In some significant ways, it did so with regard to some media outlets and news sources.”

Key Findings from the report include:

  • Americans give the news media a tepid endorsement, viewed simultaneously as a friend and foe. There is a wide political divide in perceptions of the media, and the gap has expanded over time.
    • 55% of Americans trust the news media, up 2 percentage points from December, ranking the media behind such organizations as the medical community, banks, car manufacturers and pharmaceutical companies.
    • Democrats are nearly twice as likely as Republicans to agree that the news media is trustworthy (77% Democrats vs. 36% Republicans).
    • On the other hand, 41% of Americans describe the news media as the enemy of the people, down 2 points from December.
    • Nearly six in 10 Americans believe the media report fake news, but this is down significantly from December (65% December vs. 58% May).
  • Almost all Americans say they support freedom of speech and freedom of the press. At the same time, many would like to suppress media that don’t support their own views.
    • 61% agree reporters should be shielded from prosecution by the Trump administration (63% in December).
    • But 40% agree the president should have the authority to close down news outlets engaged in bad behavior (39% in December), and 29% in both waves say President Trump should close down certain media like CNN, The Washington Post and The New York Times.
  • There is a strong distrust of news on social media, yet many still get their news from social media.
    • 82% are concerned about what is real or fake on the internet (85% in December), and only 33% both waves say they trust news on social media.
    • Yet 42% get news on social media each week, jumping to 54% among Millennials and 62% among Gen Z.
  • Most Americans trust information about COVID-19 provided by public health experts. Trust in news media and briefings by the White House and President Trump are split down party lines.
    • For information about COVID-19, 83% trust public health experts, 63% trust news media and 55% trust White House briefings.
    • By party affiliation, 85% of Republicans vs. 19% of Democrats trust President Trump, while 85% of Democrats vs. 44% of Republicans trust news media for information about COVID-19.
  • Americans have more respect in journalists as a profession than they do in media as an institution.
    • Two-thirds of Americans say they respect journalists, unchanged from December. That puts journalists behind doctors, medical scientists, military personnel, teachers, police officers and the clergy, but ahead of entertainer/actors and members of Congress.
    • Democrats are much more likely to respect journalists (85%) than Independents (59%) and Republicans (51%).
  • Respect for the military and police officers has decreased from December to May, with a significant decline for police, which likely is a reaction to the recent killings of African Americans including George Floyd.
    • 42% of Americans respect police officers very much, down 9 percentage points from 51% in December.
    • While this decrease in respect is observed among Black and White respondents and across political affiliations, respect for police has fallen more among Black Americans, dropping 16 points to 60%.

A complete 60-page report including detailed findings from the Trust in U.S. News Media survey can be found here.