The Gallup polling company last week released a report saying Americans' trust in the mass media hit a new low this year. The survey results, which have a four-percent margin of error, show that 40 percent of Americans have either a "great deal" or a "fair amount" of trust in "newspapers, TV, and radio," while the remaining 60 percent have "not very much" or "none at all." That's lower than any time since Gallup began polling on the question in 1972.
What's most alarming — for those of us in the media business, at least — is that a mere 8 percent of Americans have a "great deal" of trust in the media. So 23 out of 25 Americans have somewhere between a little and zero trust in the people, companies, and organizations that claim to be expending great effort and sums of money in attempts to be honest and trustworthy.
How's that for a bad job-performance score?
The Gallup report goes on to say that "Media sources must clearly do more to earn the trust of Americans" — which must strike mainstream newsrooms as a serious blow, since most American journalism outfits have been striving for many years to improve transparency and increase consumer confidence, including hiring ombudsmen and having top editors write columns about the news process.
Gallup says "This is particularly consequential at a time when Americans need to rely on the media to learn about the platforms and perspectives of the two candidates vying to lead the country for the next four years."
But Gallup's own analysis gives us a view into exactly how dire are the consequences of media misinformation. For one thing, there are more than two viable presidential candidates: Green Jill Stein and Libertarian Gary Johnson are on enough state ballots that either could potentially achieve the winning tally of 270 electoral-college votes.
And second, Gallup presumes that Americans are getting, should get, and need to get a significant amount of information about the presidential campaign through the news media. That's no longer a safe assumption at all.
A Google report on political decision-making (released in July) said that for half of voters, comparing candidates online helped make their voting decisions. (The report didn't specify on what sites, but then a part of the impetus for Google's study was to promote the company's Internet-wide campaign-advertising services.)
Further, one-third of voters hadn't watched TV in the previous week — and even those who were watching TV weren't giving it their undivided attention: 80 percent of smartphone owners used their phones while watching TV. The Google report also said people spend more time on their mobile devices than with newspapers and magazines combined.
Of course, at least some of what people are looking at online and on their mobiles may in fact be electronic versions of traditional news media. (Google's report said 90 percent of tablet users get news on their tablet that they used to access "in other ways.")
But there's much, much more online, including material people find and share themselves. A report earlier this month from the Pew Internet and American Life Project showed the strong influence of social-network sites on people's efforts to keep up with political news: 36 percent of social-networkers say the sites help them that way, and 25 percent say they debate and discuss political issues online (plus or minus 2 percent).
And the Internet will only get more influential. Minorities — blacks and Hispanics (who are poised, together, to become a majority in the US) — say they find social-networking sites even more useful for keeping up on political news than whites; younger people (who will get older and find their views more prevalent as those who disagree expire) say so at a higher rate than all social-network users.
All of which is to say that if people mistrust the mainstream media now, and are increasingly seeking out alternative sources of information and finding it influential, those reporters and editors and managers whose jobs it is to make themselves truthful and useful to the public really have their work cut out for them.