Trust in the media at historic low

Apr 12, 2017

By Al Cross
Into the Issues

Trust in “the mass media, such as newspapers, TV and radio” in polls taken by the Gallup Organization was at 32 percent last year, the lowest ever—and was significantly lower than the 40 percent recorded in 2015. Rural newspapers have often presumed that such trends don’t affect them, because they’re in closer touch with smaller communities, where readers know the people at the paper. That is not as safe an assumption as it once was, based on some events, trends and issues we’ve reported lately in The Rural Blog.

For example, a Feb. 5-6 Emerson College poll of registered voters, weighted to reflect turnout in the 2016 election, found them evenly divided about the Trump administration’s truthfulness, but by 53 percent to 39 percent, they considered the news media untruthful.

The Pew Research Center found in early 2016 that there was little difference in the trust of local and national news outlets. About 22 percent of Americans said they trust local news outlets a lot, and 18 percent said that of national news sources. Recently, rural and community journalists have voiced concern that the attacks on “big media” are hurting “little media,” too.

One is Mark Smith, editor of the Davenport Times in Lincoln County, WA, just west of Spokane, who was a minister for 14 years. He told columnist Sue Lani Madsen of The Spokesman-Review that the current atmosphere reminds him of the 1980s scandals involving televangelists, which “forced him to defend his profession at a local level,” Madsen wrote, quoting him: “There is the same sense now that if one media source is bad, they all are.”

Madsen wrote, “He believes he’ll weather the fake news and biased-media storm because he’s built relationships in the community to establish trust and credibility. … It’s tougher to build trust and credibility, to make that human connection, as the circle gets larger.” You can read the rest of our story on The Rural Blog at

At the state level, local newspapers still have influence, but in some states, the anti-media political atmosphere is threatening them. Tom Larimer, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association, wrote that he believed a rash of bills to limit government transparency was fueled by “anti-media sentiment in Washington.” Our blog item is at

Attacks on traditional news media and the new dominance of social media have left people in rural areas disconnected from the facts about national issues, the president of the Kentucky Press Association said at a Society of Professional Journalists forum in Lexington Feb. 23.

“You have people who do not trust anything outside of their own bubble, their own county, their own city,” said Ryan Craig, publisher of the Todd County Standard in Elkton, KY, for nine years the state’s top small weekly.

Craig said he occasionally posts national news stories on Facebook and is asked how he knows they are true.

“I have to tell them … ‘You live in this very rural bubble, and the algorithms for Facebook that you keep popping on all the time have pretty well ruled out what I consider balanced journalism that comes into your life.’ The only balanced journalism … they may get is a regional or statewide newspaper, or a local newspaper, and maybe something off the Nashville TV stations.”

Craig said he hears people say they read his newspaper, President Trump’s Twitter feed and the Facebook pages of their Republican governor and representative.

“They consider that their news source,” he said. “The problem is, nobody’s asking the source if what they’re saying is even so.” The rest of our blog item about the event is at

Social media limit our exposure to different viewpoints and hurt democracy and journalism, Harvard University law professor and author Cass Sunstein states in his new book, #Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media. You’ll hear more about the book; you can read our blog item about it at

Social media’s focus on national news has hurt mid-major newspapers.

“There is so much more national and international news available to people, it has changed what people are interested in,” Tom Rosenstiel, director of the American Press Institute, told The Guardian. During the election, “I saw clear and distinct evidence that people were consuming more national news and less local.” We picked up the story at

In a speech at the University of Kentucky, Rosenstiel said news media need to adjust to the age of social media, and they can do so without compromising their principles. The co-author of The Elements of Journalism showed how each element has been affected by the new environment and how journalists and their audiences can adapt. You can read our write-up at

One essential element of journalism is what Rosenstiel and co-author Bill Kovach call “the discipline of verification,” which social media lack. Traditional media can reinforce their journalistic brand and the public trust by explaining that, and showing audience how to spot “fake news” and discern facts from “alternative facts,” Danielle Ray of our staff wrote on The Rural Blog at Read her informative blog item at

If you do or see stories that are relevant across rural areas, please send them to me at


Al Cross edited and managed weekly newspapers before spending 26 years at The (Louisville) Courier-Journal and serving as president of the Society of Professional Journalists. Since 2004 he has been director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based at the University of Kentucky. See