!1 Bosworth Anna Bosworth Modernism, Middle Class, and the Media 14 December 2017 The Evolution of Middle Class Trust of Media and its Impacts on Modern Day Politics Over the past several years, the media as an institution has come under critique from politicians, artists, and the common layperson. The rapid development and expansion of technology over the past thirty years has allowed media- both as entertainment and as news- to grow and become an increasingly crucial part of everyday life. Whereas once mediaâ€™s reaches could be compartmentalized into specific times of the day when certain programs aired, media of all kinds is available to millions of people at the touch of their fingertips. Further, genres and modes of media have expanded by incredible measures over the last century. While television used to consist of only a handful of basic channels showing a small variety of shows, there is now the choice of hundreds of channels and thousands of programs. In addition to the growth in television, the creation and popularization of the Internet has allowed consumers a greater choice in what they view and provided the ability to become content creators. These developments have drastically changed public opinion of fact for both technological and print media. Over the past decade in particular, public narrative has shown trust in news media to be at an all time low (Concha). Although this information is often referenced as common knowledge, there seemed to be no easily accessible facts about how consumers have viewed news over time spanning to the present. This piece will attempt to ascertain if trust in news media has declined since the popularization of technological media
!2 Bosworth reporting and will hypothesize why this phenomenon may be occurring. The conclusion will explore the potential impacts of this trend on media and politics.
Section 1: Exploring Decline in News Media from the 1930s to the Present Many early surveys concerning media centered around the public’s opinions on the freedom of the press and on their viewpoints of government control on the media. In July 19 of 1937, 82% of those polled were against the government controlling what the media could or could not print, and numbers concerning opposition of government regulations on news media remained high in the data shown through 1941 (Erskine 633). From 1936 to 1938, the belief that the press abused their power dropped from 41.8% to 24.5% (Erskine 634). In another poll, 64.2% of those asked answered “no” to the question “Do you feel that the press has abused its freedom in any way?” (Erskine 634). These figures indicate that in the mid-1930s to early 1940s, the press was viewed as a reliable tool for the people and that freedom of press was a public priority. However, when the question of government controls was asked again in 1961, only 39% of participants were opposed to control of what was on air, and 55% were opposed to putting restraints on newspapers (Erskine 634). These figures could show the change in public view of the free press, or could reflect a desire for more regulations around newer forms of media, such as television. Public perception of fairness in the media was also surveyed. Over the span of 1937 to 1969, public view of the fairness of topics covered in newspapers seems more indicated by subject matter than by the year (author’s analysis of polls on Erskine
!3 Bosworth 635-636). This analysis is further reinforced by the data involving trust in the newspaper as a medium. Although the newspaper routinely receives mixed reviews (Roper Polls, Erskine 643), from 1963 to 1979, it is still rated the highest overall for most complete news coverage (Table 7, Stephens 46). However, in August of 1939 49.7% of people said radio was the best for least prejudiced news whereas only 17.1% of those polled believed it to be newspapers. The conflicting viewpoints on newspaper credibility could be due to class differences. In “Media Use and Media Attitude Changes” by Nancy Stephens, she notes, “print media have traditionally held greater appeal for the highly educated” (45). While Stephens’ study on attitudes towards media takes into account age, wealth, and education (of which her participants were wealthier and more highly educated than an average American), the polls compiled by Erskine do not. This could account for some of the discrepancies that appear in the public perception of newspapers. It should also be noted that Stephens’ surveys include the mediums of television and magazines, whereas some of the data from Erskine’s compilation is too old to reference television news. Public perception of the credibility and importance of radio news media follows a clearer pattern. From 1938 to 1948, four polls discussing the fairness of radio broadcasters and broadcasting stations each showed that 60% to 79% of participants saw the treatment of news on the radio as fair (Radio, Erskine 637). By 1959, radio was seen as a less revered news source. From 1959 to 1964, those most willing to believe the radio in the case of conflicting reports dropped from 12% to 8% (Erskine 643). The decline of interest in radio corresponds with the rise in popularity of the television. In the span of 1963 to 1979, those who said radio was the least important news media for them rose
!4 Bosworth from 21% (average taken between male and female responses) to 50%. In contrast, those who said television was the most important media for them rose from 43% to 52% (average taken between male and female responses) (Stephens 47). This data shows that from 1939 to 1979, radio went from being one of the most trusted news sources to losing its importance to the rise of television. Similar to public opinions on the newspaper, research on the credibility and importance of television offers varied results that are likely in part due to the plethora of forms that each media takes. This contrasts with radio, which was not popular or technologically advanced enough to create a wide variety of content before other technology took its place. As shown in Stephens’ study, more personal importance was placed on television from the years of 1963 to 1979 (47). By 1979, television attained the highest average in all questions asked in the study except in the categories of which is “getting worse,” which is the “least important to you,” and which shows the “most complete news coverage” (Stephens 46-47). A Roper poll ranging from 1959 to 1968 echoes these results by showing an increase of trust in television reporting if conflicting information was presented elsewhere (Erskine 643). Trust in television reporting also correlates with the public perception that television’s depictions of issues were fair (Television, Erskine 637). This raises the question of if people consume news because they believe it to be fair or if continued consumption impacts perceptions of fairness. With the many possible framings of issues in the news, this question is especially important in modern times because it points to the consumer’s ability to select what they determine as truth.
!5 Bosworth Although public opinion on different forms of news media throughout the years has been explored, perception of news media as an institution has not. In 1972, Gallup began studying the public’s trust in media. Gallup analyst Art Smith said, “Americans’ trust and confidence hit its highest point in 1976, at 72 percent in the wake of widely lauded examples of investigative journalism regarding Vietnam and the Watergate scandal” (Concha) (Fig, 1). However, overall trust in news media has been in a steady downward declining trend since 1976.
! Fig 1: http://news.gallup.com/poll/101677/republicans-remain-deeply-distrustful-news-media.aspx
In the past 20 years, confidence in the media has followed a downward trend. By 2016, trust in the news media dropped to 32% nationally (Figure 2). This shows a decline of 8 points from the previous year.
! Fig 2: http://news.gallup.com/poll/195542/americans-trust-mass-media-sinks-new-low.aspx
In 1976, trust in the media correlated with distrust in government following the incorrect information concerning the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal (Fig. 3). The news media was viewed as a beacon for truth and served as another branch of checks and balances for the government as a whole. The trend of heightened media trust when governmental trust is low is no longer true.
! Fig, 3: http://www.people-press.org/2017/05/03/public-trust-in-government-1958-2017/
In modern times, the decline of trust in government starting in 2001 is very similar to the decline of trust in media as an institution. Although these correlations seem telling, there are many other factors at play that must be taken into account.
!7 Bosworth Section 2: Hypotheses on the Decline of News Media Trust Despite determining that trust in different modes of media has fluctuated throughout time, there is also research supporting that trust in media is at a historic low. In addition to this data, trust in media has been in decline far longer than trust in government. Although polls indicate the publicâ€™s viewpoints towards media as a whole, the data does not provide context as to why the public may be feeling the way they do. In order to understand the historical context behind the data, more information must be sought out. The addition of cable news and the Internet particularly changed the media landscape and the way that views consumed their news. Rapid technological expansion, commercialization, and increased cynicism goaded by media framing could account for some of the lack of trust in modern news media. The nature of broadcast news began to change with the invention of cable, which allowed a wider variety of both entertainment and news choices. In 1971, more than 80,000 people were subscribed to cable in New York (M. Stephens). By 1980, HBO, CSPAN, Nickelodeon, WTBS, and CNN were being distributed. Unlike the Public Broadcasting Stations before them, cable stations were for profit and in business because of subscriptions and advertisements. When making a choice to watch a specific station, the products being advertised were targeted at the demographic of the viewers. Therefore, cable networks attempted to gain viewers because they could be more profitable by selling more expensive advertisement slots to a larger, more reachable audience. In order to grow their audience, cable networks became more specialized and targeted their programs to what viewers wanted to see. This caused the creation of a plethora of niche
!8 Bosworth networks that catered to specific audiences. Without a broad intended audience, there is less competition and polarization of the specific media channel ensues (Gal-Or, Geylani, Yildirim 99). The rise of cable news and niche-based framing of facts correlates with a decline in media trust as a whole. The Internet being released to the public in 1991 was another major development that altered the perception of media. Throughout the early 1990s, web browsers were developed that allowed a common person to access an international database (M. Stephens). One important difference between the Internet and television was that consumers could also become content creators. Information could be disseminated by anyone with access to the Internet, and was not fact checked or credibility tested before it was viewable. The Internet was also a perfect platform to extend the reach of preexisting news organizations. Corporations could continue using advertisements to fuel their economic growth, and it was easier than ever to create specific content that only reached those who were seeking it. In addition, the Internet also made access to news media easier than ever before. The demand for filling the 24-hour news cycle exacerbated the journalism crisis of accuracy versus speed. Because some viewers want the facts as quickly as possible, they will gravitate towards the organization that breaks the story first. As such, those organizations are rewarded by higher viewership and greater ad sales. The popularization of Internet news in the late 1990s to the present also correlates with the decline in both governmental trust and media trust (fig. 2 and fig. 3). Although the Internet and cable television have changed the way the public consumes news, it is presumptuous to assume that these technologies are the only reason
!9 Bosworth that trust in media has declined. Utilization of both cable news and Internet news by corporations and by governmental figures has most likely impacted the public perception of media as a whole. As referenced earlier, news organizations are incentivized to produce polarizing content because a homogenous audience offers less competition in viewership and sales (Gal-Or, Geylani, Yildirim 99). Although this study looked specifically at newspapers, the economic principle would hold the same for other forms of news. This model allows financial potential to dictate what news stories are covered and how they are framed. For two opposing organizations with polarized audience viewpoints, this portrayal of a news story makes another portrayal of the same facts seem false. With so much information readily available, consumers are left to staunchly support their preferred news network or feel that media as a whole is untrustworthy. The phenomenon of fake news, made particularly popular during the 2016 presidential election, has also influenced how the public perceives the news and truth as a whole. Although fake news has always existed, the proliferation of fake news has been exacerbated by the lack of restrictions placed on what is posted on the Internet. This also allows people to seek out news that supports their views. In “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election”, Allcott and Gentzkow write, “the growth of online news prompted a new set of concerns, among them that excess diversity of viewpoints would make it easier for like-minded citizens to form ‘echo chambers’ or ‘filter bubbles’ where they would be insulated from contrary perspectives” (211). This concern proved true and was made worse through social media algorithms that allowed users to see news that supported their views. Users also had the ability to un-friend people who they disagreed
!10 Bosworth with, which further polarized readers. Social media also makes it easier than ever to share news stories. The news relayed on social media is not checked by a third party like traditional news (Allcott and Gentzkow 211), which means that â€œnewsâ€? can gain traction if it is untrue as long as it supports the narrative of a specific viewpoint. Because fake news sites often mimic the names and structures of real news sites (Allcott and Gentzkow 217), it is often difficult for consumers to discern if what they are consuming- especially on social media- is fact. Although this may seem unimportant, Allcott and Gentzkow note that many people have suggested that the 2016 election would have had a different outcome without the influence of fake news (212). Allcott and Gentzkow did not find evidence to support this in their study, but it remains a commonly held narrative in liberal circles. Choosing to believe a specific news company or Internet site is now akin to determining which facts you believe to be true. Where a consumer gets their news is also likely to correlate with their level of trust in government. In a study published in 2013, researchers found that those who consider both Fox and CNN as credible news sources were more likely to trust the government (Stroud and Lee 83). However, government trust has been below 40% since the mid-2000s (fig. 3), and media trust has also been steadily declining. These figures reinforce the data found by Stroud and Lee that those who distrusted CNN and Fox were also more likely to distrust the government (83). This distrust in institutions could lead people to seek out alternative news, such as that provided on niche interest sites. The same study confirmed their hypothesis that democrats were more likely to trust CNN and republicans more likely to trust Fox (83),
!11 Bosworth which indicated “trust across media outlets […] does not replicate research on trust in the media as a whole” (84). This supports the hypothesis that increased polarization between news organizations leads to widespread media distrust, but does not necessarily create distrust of a specific media organization. Other studies also indicate that media and government’s representations of each other are damaging the credibility of both institutions. Because media must be entertaining in order to obtain viewers, news media often depicts politics and political races in a strategic “game-framed” (Hopmann et al. 776) mindset. The researchers argue that the framing of politics as a strategic game makes politicians appear “to be acting on their own self-interest, instead of based on the common good” (777). Many studies also show that entertainment geared depictions of media foster cynicism and distrust towards the government (Hopmann et al. 777). Another study done on high conflict television news echoes these sentiments. Researchers showed participants one of two CNN news programs. One program was laden with conflict-heavy speech while the other used more classically “civil” low-conflict language (Forgette and Morris 450). After exposing participants to these programs, the researchers asked if they believed that congress, and then President George W. Bush, were doing a good job. After accounting for variables, it was found that participants exposed to the high-conflict news clip were more likely to have negative opinions of both congress and the President (451). These results lead researchers to the conclusion that “exposure to conflict-laden talk shows adversely influences institutional support” (Forgette and Morris 452).
!12 Bosworth A theory proposed by Cappella and Jamieson called Contagious Cynicism hypothesizes that “‘the elevation of public distrust of political institutions and processes may have attached itself to the bearers of information about those institutions—the news media itself’” (as cited in Hopmann et al. 777). The viability of this theory was explored in the 1997 book Spiral of Cynicism by Jamieson and Cappella and was found to hold true (Hopmann et al. 780). This theory could help explain correlation between the lack of trust in media and government.
Section 3: Repercussions and Conclusions In section 1, the idea of declining media trust is explored and the conclusion is reached that trust in both media and government have been at an all time low since after 9/11. Section 2 hypothesizes why media trust could be declining by discussing changes in modern media climate, increased political polarization and cynicism, and the proliferation of partially true or untrue news. Although it is clear that there are many factors contributing to the decline of public trust in the media, this paper has not yet discussed what this could mean for the news and media long term. The fact that media trust in general is declining does not necessarily mean that trust in specific media does not exist (Stroud and Lee 84). The implications of this could be severe and continue to shape the media and political climate for years to come. First, it must be noted that researchers have found that there is a positive feedback loop between specific news consumption and belief in that news’s credibility (Williams 119, Hopmann et al. 789). This means that the more of one type of news that is
!13 Bosworth consumed, that more the consumer will trust it. Because of the increased polarization in the news media and the availability of choices in news viewpoints, consumers become even more staunchly secure in their opinions. This limits the opportunity for compassion concerning other viewpoints and lessens the likelihood of compromise, both for consumers and for those in politics. Lack of trust in media and government also negatively impacts civic engagement (Williams 116). If citizens become too jaded, they will no longer feel as though they can make an impact, which in turn causes disinterest. With the decline of trust in the media, it follows that civic engagement will also decline. If both of these trends continue, voter turnout could drop so low that only a tiny fraction of the nation is deciding who becomes a lawmaker. For a country that boasts democracy, this could be fatal. In summary, news media and the public’s trust in news are impacting the political climate and show no signs of changing soon. Many factors contribute to the evolution of news media, including technological developments, the possibility for capital gain, the declining trust in classical institutions, and the polarization of the voting base. Although some aspects of Internet and social media news have allowed for the proliferation of fake news, these technologies have also allowed those who are not in positions of power to share their viewpoints. Because the issue of media trust is so complex, there is no way to “solve” the problem of overall declining trust. Public criticism of the media can be a positive, but the issue with distrust of modern media is generally targeted towards media that disagrees with the consumer’s viewpoint. In order to address the issue of declining
!14 Bosworth media trust, news organizations must stop catering to their audiences and the audience must seek out news stories that do not support their pre-constructed narrative. â€Š
!15 Bosworth Resources Allcott, Hunt, and Matthew Gentzkow. “Social Media and Fake News in the 2016 Election.” Journal of Economic Perspectives, vol. 31, no. 2, 2017, pp. 211–236. Web.
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!16 Bosworth Gallup, Inc. “Americans' Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low.” Gallup.com, 14 Sept. 2016, news.gallup.com/poll/195542/americans-trust-mass-media-sinks-newlow.aspx.
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