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  • Writer's pictureJustin McBrayer

Why it's Rational to Trust Today's Media Less

Updated: Jan 10

This fall, Gallup reported that American trust in the media is at an all time low, matching the nadir of presidential election year 2016. Fully 39% of Americans have no trust at all in mass media whereas 29% have not very much trust in those institutions. That means all told, over two-thirds of American have virtually no trust in the media. This is an inverse from the 1970s and 80s, when about two-thirds of Americans placed a great deal or fair amount of trust in media.

I've written and spoken quite a lot about what caused that shift in trust over time. The short answer is that news consumers want more than just the facts delivered in an unbiased way, and technology has created a media marketplace where news providers can cater to niche audiences. The net result is an information ecosystem that's significantly more polluted by misinformation and disinformation.

But set aside the question about what caused the decline in media trust. Here's a different question: is is rational to trust the media less than we used to?

Most of the intellectual world seems to think the answer to this question is no. Academics regularly bemoan the fact that Americans don't trust the media, and those who distrust media are made out to be backward, ignorant, or otherwise stupid. The unstated premise is that the media are just as deserving of our trust as they were in the 1980s, so the reduction in trust over that period of time is irrational.

In contrast to the mainstream, I think the answer to this question is yes: it IS rational to trust the media less than we used to. That doesn't mean it's rational to distrust all media--I have real concerns about the 39% of Americans that don't trust the media at all--but I also think it's rational for our trust in media sources to have declined over the last four decades.

Here are three reasons why we should trust the news less now than in the 1980s. First, news production has been centralized over time. There is more national news and far less local news. This is true both for news producers and news coverage. News today is more likely to have been produced by a national or multi-national company and is more likely to cover national or international topics rather than local ones.

There are lots of good sources covering this decline, and the Pew Research Center is one of the best. A report from this fall on news audiences paints a representative picture. In the 1980s, there were many local newspapers across the country. In fact, the circulation of US daily papers peaked in the 1980s, a time when local news production was alive and well. That market has declined consistently since then.

[Source: Pew Research Center]

The decline in newspaper circulation has hurt local papers harder than national ones and created what researchers call "news deserts" where residents have no access to local news. Since the 1980s, thousands of local newspapers have closed--about two a week in 2023 alone. That's a net loss of over 40,000 newspaper journalists, leaving nearly half the country without a local news option. And the market for local TV news isn't much different. Here's a snapshot of just the last few years.

[Source: Pew Research Center]

The centralization of news gives us a reason to trust it less. A local journalist reporting on a local issue is more likely to get it right than a distant journalist reporting on a local issue (or even a national one, for that matter). This is an epistemic corollary to a political principle many people accept: local governments should make local decisions. The reason we should defer to local governments is that they know more, and hence are more likely to get policies right. In the same way, local news is more likely to be relevant and accurate in a way that national news will not.

Suppose you find the epistemic local-first principle dubious. Here's an independent reason to be concerned about the centralization of news: the mere loss of journalists that comes with centralization creates an epistemic hazard. You're more likely to get to the truth of the matter with 50,000 investigative reporters than with 500. As diverse news producers close up shop, only the loudest voices remain.

Second, news media has become more politically polarized since the 1980s. That goes both for content and for producers, which is to say, journalists. In the mid-20th century, most American journalists were politically liberal, but newsrooms typically employed conservative voices, too. And since national newspapers and legacy TV networks reached a broad audience, they couldn't afford to tell just one side of the story. That means few producers could afford to be committed to hegemony of either side (with exceptions for publications like The National Review, etc.).

Since then, the trend of liberal dominance in mainstream newsrooms has accelerated. For example, in a 1990s survey, 89% of Washington journalists voted for Clinton (Democrat) over Bush (Republican). Nearly 20 years later, 95% of mainstream journalists who donated to the 2008 presidential campaign supported Obama (Democrat) over McCain (Republican). The exceptions to this rule are right-wing networks like Fox News, which hires mostly conservative voices. In either case, we have political uniformity--mainstream places are liberal and right-wing places are conservative.

This ideological hegemony is bad for getting to the truth. I've recently published an article detailing how ideologically diverse groups are epistemically better than ideologically homogenous groups. Intrepid readers can find here, but the gist of it is that groups with diverse members do a better job asking good questions, collecting evidence, and testing hypotheses than groups whose members all think alike. So, given the fact that newsrooms are far more ideologically uniform now than 40 years ago gives us a reason to trust the news they produce less.

Third, the news marketplace has become exceptionally competitive, and this competition is driving news producers to shift away from balanced, accurate coverage and towards infotainment. The syndication of talk radio, the rise of cable news, the ubiquity of the internet, and the algorithms of social media have transformed the competition for viewer attention and rewarded news producers who can entertain their audiences. That alone explains the significant rise in angertainment these days.

In the 1960s, producers of NBC news could pick, frame, and discuss stories with the goal of presenting an issue accurately and fairly. After all, they had a captured audience--there were only three legacy TV stations, and gaps in TV reception meant that many houses only received one of the three. But today, if you were an investor on Shark Tank, you would be better off investing in the company pitching news in clever YouTube shorts or TikTok videos rather than long-form magazine articles with charitable, logical analyses of difficult issues.

It should be pretty obvious why the shift towards entertainment justifies a reduction in trust. If a company is rewarded by how informed its viewers are, it has a clear incentive to get to the truth. If a company is rewarded by how entertained its viewers are, it does not. Just as Nickelodeon deserves less trust than National Geographic, so too does today's media deserve less trust than yesteryear's.

In sum, mass media just isn't the same as it was four decades ago. It's more centralized (less local), more partisan (less diverse), and more focused on entertainment than factual reporting. All of those features make it less likely that the news reports the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. And that's why it makes sense to trust the media less now than we did 40 years ago.

So, the next time you hear about a survey decrying Americans' loss of trust in media, don't be dismayed. That's exactly what you would expect of rational people responding to the significant changes to media companies in recent years. As media becomes more national, more partisan, and more fun, we should be trusting it less, not more.

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Jan 15

More of us should, I think, subscribe to the Durango Herald. It clearly leans to the left - but it does a good job of reporting local news. Kip Boy

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