Nine weeks before the 2018 midterm elections, and evidently feeling pressure from the Mueller investigation, President Trump stepped up his assertions via social media that the mainstream media – and Google – are conspiring against him and against conservatives. The underlying theme of the president’s messages is that his opponents are falsifying information and only he can be trusted as a source of information (Parker, 2018). While polls have tested agreement with Trump’s assertion that certain members of the news media are “enemies of the people”, it remains unknown to what extent the public agrees with the president that he is the only credible source of news. It is possible that his attacks on the news media may boomerang or rebound on himself in much the same way that negative advertising was found to boomerang against candidates who went negative (Garramone 1985). Also largely unexplored is the effect of the politically bifurcated nature of the news media on those who follow the news, and any potential effect on the midterm elections.
In an era in which the label “fake news” is often applied by political partisans to unfavorable stories, the growing political polarization in the U.S. is accompanied by a growing distrust of the news. The last time Gallup measured trust in “the mass media” – in 2016 – it had reached an all-time low, with only 32% of Americans saying they trusted the media a great deal or a fair amount. The dramatic decline was driven mainly by a growing distrust among Republicans. Their trust in media had dropped from 32% the prior year to 14%; among Democrats and Independents the decline was minimal (Swift, 2016).
A USC survey of U.S. residents, conducted this summer before the most recent escalation in President Trump’s accusations, measured the public’s trust in sources of information and asked about feelings they experienced while watching news about Trump. Results indicate that only one in five (19%) trusted President Trump and his administration as a source of “truthful and unbiased” information. Survey results were deeply divided along political lines. Only 2% of voters likely to back Democratic candidates said they trust the president, compared to 55% of likely Republican midterm voters.
This survey tested the public’s trust in seven specific media sources and two government sources: Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, National Public Radio, Public Television, National newspapers, local newspapers, President Trump and his administration, and their local congressional representative. A nationally representative sample of U.S. residents were asked to indicate their generic (Democratic or Republican) voting preferences in the midterms, as well as how much they trusted the nine sources of information to provide “unbiased and truthful information” on a scale from do not trust at all to trust completely. Respondents also rated how often they experienced positive and negative emotions while consuming news about the president and his administration, and whether the news from trusted and untrusted sources is making them feel more or less motivated to vote.
Not one of the tested sources garnered more than single digits saying they trusted that source completely. Figure 1 provides the proportions of the public and likely midterm voters who mostly or completely trusted (which we will refer to as “trusting”) each tested source.
While President Trump and his administration fared the worst in terms of public trust, fewer than one in four in the survey trusted either of the arguably two most strongly ideological media on either side of the partisan divide — Fox News (24%) and MSNBC (23%). CNN fared only slightly better, at 29%, and national newspapers such as the New York Times and Washington Post were trusted by only a third of the public. Especially for media that prominently present themselves as even-handed and non-partisan (such as PBS or NPR), having trust sink below 50% is concerning, and it is difficult to predict what might reverse these trends.
In general, majorities of Democratic likely voters trusted a wide range of sources: national newspapers (62%), NPR (60%), Public TV (58%), and CNN (57%). Roughly half said they trusted MSNBC (51%). Republican likely voters were most likely to trust Fox News (50%) and/or the president (55%) and least likely to trust any other sources. While the groups of voters who trusted Fox News and those that trusted the president largely overlapped, it was still the case that only half of those who said they trusted Fox News also said they trusted the president.
Figure 2 shows the percentage of trust for both sources among all respondents – 69% of the public did not trust either source, 11% trusted both, 8% trusted Trump but not Fox, and 12% trusted Fox but not Trump.
Figure 3 shows the percentage of trust among voters likely to back Republicans in the midterm elections. Just under 3 in 10 trust both sources, and an additional 28% trust one source or the other. More than four out of 10 of those intending to vote for Republicans trusted neither source.
Regression testing indicated that trusting Fox but not Trump was associated with non-white voters with less than a college degree; trusting Trump but not Fox was significantly associated with being white, no college degree, rural location, and voting for Trump in 2016.
Feelings About the News
The public’s distrust of media has increased in an era in which the U.S. president, during his campaign and since his election, has often characterized negative reports as “fake news.” He declares some reporters and media to be the “enemies of the people”, while praising others. Those accusations are often countered by reporters who fact-check the president’s assertions and by political leaders and pundits who push back on the accusations. This environment has led to a partisan divide as to which sources of information are trusted and mistrusted, and may also provoke strong emotions. Some of the public may experience confusion about what is real and what is not, when strong accusations of untruth and bias are traded between what have been traditionally viewed as trusted sources of information.
The survey asked respondents how often they experienced positive and negative emotions when following the news about President Trump and his administration from their favorite or most trusted news sources. Many respondents reported frequently or always experiencing negative emotions including feeling worried (45%), disgusted (51%), or outraged (42%). Far fewer reported feeling satisfied (12%), hopeful (14%) or pleased (11%).
On the other hand, respondents who trusted Trump as an unbiased source reported the most positive emotions compared to others. About four out of 10 reported feeling satisfied, 50% hopeful, and 44% pleased. Relatively few who trusted Donald Trump as a source of information reported feeling worried (12%), disgusted (22%), or outraged (22%). Those who trusted Fox News also were significantly more likely than others to experience positive emotions.
Nearly half of respondents reported feeling tired of partisan coverage of the news including nearly six in 10 (57%) of likely Republican voters and 45% of those backing Democrats. For some Americans, this situation has also led to a sense of confusion. About four out of 10 indicated that they frequently or always feel confused about what is really going on. In regression testing, the only group who were significantly unlikely to report confusion were those who trusted Donald Trump.
Impact on the Midterm Election
Midterms have taken on significance as a referendum on the presidency of Donald Trump, as well as being consequential as to which party will control the House and the Senate. Outcomes of the election are likely to turn on who actually votes. In this survey, the proportion of voters who said they are likely to back Democrats in their House district (52%) exceeds the proportion of voters likely to back Republican candidates (44%) by greater than the margin of error.
Results also indicate that emotional reaction to the news about president Trump may be differentially affecting motivation to vote among likely Democratic midterm voters compared to likely Republican voters. More than two-thirds of likely Democratic voters said that news they hear from sources they trust is making them feel more motivated to go to the polls and vote, and 70% said the same thing about news they hear from sources they do not trust. Just under two-thirds of voters backing Republicans in the midterms said they were motivated by news they trust and 61% by news they do not trust.
Taken together, the results of the survey indicate widespread doubt about the truthfulness of information, likely reflecting the drumbeat of “fake news” accusations and numbers of untruths exposed by fact-checkers. Accompanying distrust of media is a preponderance of negative emotions while consuming the news. The extent of negative emotion experienced is important because negative emotion helps to maintain polarizing attitudes between two groups (Mackie, Smith, and Ray, 2008).
Finally, results indicate that feelings invoked by the news will play a role in turning out voters on election day, although to what extent is unknown.
How the Survey was Conducted
The survey’s sample of 5,044 adults included 2, 459 likely midterm voters. The margin of error for all respondents and all likely midterm voters is +/-2; for likely Democrat voters it is +/-3 and for likely Republican voters it is +/-4> The survey conducted from July 16 to August 16, 2018 in the USC Center for Economic and Social Research (CESR) Understanding America Study, a probability-based national panel of adults. The survey was overseen by Jill Darling, CESR Survey Director, and conducted in partnership with the Center for the Political Future at USC Dornsife and the Los Angeles Times. The survey was funded by USC Dornsife College of Arts, Letters and Sciences. The survey’s methodology, question text, and topline results are available at uasdata.usc.edu/index.php. The survey’s microdata is available to registered UAS users at uasdata.usc.edu.
Garramone, GM. (1985). “Effects of Negative Political Advertising: The Roles of Sponsor and Rebuttal.” Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media 29(2):147-159. DOI: 10.1080/08838158509386573
Mackie, D., Smith, ER., and Ray, DG (2008). “Intergroup Emotions and Intergroup Relations”. Social and Personality Psychology Compass 2/5 1866–1880, DOI: 10.1111/j.1751-9004.2008.00130.x
Parker, A. (2018, August 30). ‘Totally dishonest’: Trump asserts only he can be trusted over opponents and ‘fake news’. Washington Post.
Swift, A. (2016, September). Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low. Gallup.