There’s little question that the media is one of the least trusted institutions in Republican circles.
In the past two decades, trust in traditional media has plummeted — especially among Republicans. According to polling from Gallup, since at least the late 1990s, Republicans have been less likely than Democrats (and independents) to say they trust the media. But starting in 2015, trust among Republicans took a nosedive, falling from 32 percent to 10 percent in 2020. (Meanwhile, among Democrats, trust in the media has actually climbed back up, and by quite a bit.)
Part of this is because Republicans are often more vocal in their criticism of the media and have long perceived it as having a liberal bias. But now they are also more likely to say that being “anti-media” is part of their political identity, and this is likely driving the staggering gap in media trust that we are seeing.
Let’s start with Republicans’ media habits. In our fractured media ecosystem, it’s not uncommon for both Republicans and Democrats to seek out news sources that reinforce their political beliefs. And as a new study finds, exposure to media that is partisan — whether liberal or conservative — reduces people’s overall trust in the mainstream press regardless of political party. But what sets Republicans apart at this point is their steady reliance on just one source for all their news: Fox News.
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In its study of the media landscape in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election cycle, the Pew Research Center found that of the 30 news sources it asked about, only Fox News was trusted by a majority of Republicans. (Republicans’ second-most-trusted source, ABC News, wasn’t even a close second: 33 percent said they trusted ABC News for political and election news compared with 65 percent who trusted Fox News.) This finding stands in stark contrast with the views of Democrats, who said they trusted a variety of news sources, and it marks a further decline in Republicans’ trust of other news sources since Pew last conducted a similar survey in 2014.
This is in part because animosity toward the other party is at an all-time high and Republicans increasingly associate the news media with the Democratic Party. That means they are more likely to dismiss a source that isn’t Fox News (or One America News Network or Newsmax) as politically biased. For example, in a January YouGov/American Enterprise Institute poll among people who said they voted for then-President Trump in 2020, a staggering 92 percent strongly or somewhat agreed that “the mainstream media today is just a part of the Democratic Party.”
This distrust, and Republicans’ growing animosity toward the media, is significant because they’re already isolated news consumers. And studies have shown that when news consumers exist in a media bubble, they can be hostile toward news that doesn’t match their political beliefs. (It also means they can be too trusting of their preferred news outlets.) Plus, as Jonathan Ladd, a Georgetown University public policy and government professor and the author of “Why Americans Hate the Media and How It Matters,” points out, Republicans are getting the message from Fox News (and the broader conservative media ecosystem) that the mainstream media can’t be trusted. “This isn’t new,” Ladd said, but he added that the conservative media’s continued criticism of the press has been “kicked into high gear” by the modern Republican Party.
Take what happened in the Trump era. During both his campaign for the presidency and his four years in office, Trump openly attacked the media, calling journalists or news organizations critical of him or his administration “fake news.” Consequently, his supporters’ existing perceptions of media bias and distrust of news organizations intensified — this was especially true among his white supporters, who are more likely to consume exclusively conservative media. For instance, at many of Trump’s campaign events, his supporters would disparage, attack and threaten the press. And now, when Trump’s supporters disagree with a fact, they can decry it as “fake news” — whether it be crowd size or election results.
Hostility and distrust of the news media, in other words, has become a point of political identity among Republicans. We see this especially in how people talk about politics online. Take, for instance, a recent study of tweets mentioning “fake news.” Over the course of 15 months, study authors Jianing Li and Min-Hsin Su of the University of Wisconsin-Madison found an uptick in the number of tweets that used the words “we” or “our” and “they” or “their” in conjunction with the phrase “fake news.” Essentially, the researchers concluded that online discussions about “fake news” were a way for conservatives to create a sense of group belonging (“This is the worst kind of fake news possible. We have to stop this sort of thing”) while also establishing a shared enemy (“Fake News Media is a Hate Group. They hate President Trump”). The use of pronouns that signify group belonging (like “we”) and group opposition (like “they”) are useful on social media platforms, like Twitter, where users interact with strangers. Even though users might not know one another personally, they are still attempting to cultivate a community, which is certainly true of users who tweet about politics.
Another study that looked at trust in news media, by University of California, Berkeley, political scientists Taeku Lee and Christian Hosam, found that this attitude, independent of partisanship, helped predict a number of political opinions, such as support for a pathway to citizenship and affirmative action. But arguably, what was more consequential is that over time (from 2016 to 2019), the role of media distrust in opinion formation shifted such that individuals who distrust the media more consistently consolidated around Trump. Essentially, that media distrust now operates “as a basis for Americans to sort themselves into political tribes,” according to Lee. And as their study suggests, “fake news” functions as a “shibboleth,” or a way for Trump supporters to distinguish themselves, ideologically, even from other Republicans. It is possible that “a new form of conservatism is likely brewing with media distrust being one of its biggest factors,” Hosam told me.
So, why is being anti-media so central to the Republican identity? It’s not a coincidence that, against a backdrop of growing partisan animosity, Republicans’ distrust of the media is increasing as they grow more suspect that it leans Democratic. But it’s more than that, too. As Hosam explains, “what Trump does is connect that type of opposition to the media into a form of conservatism that just wasn’t around before.” And one byproduct of that is that media distrust is more central to conservatives’ group identity than it was before Trump. Or, as Lee put it, signaling media distrust is “much the same as wearing a red MAGA cap.”
As a researcher, Hosam admits that this can make studying distrust of the media a complicated topic, since distrust has shifted from an attitude about the institution itself to a credential of conservatism. “Now it’s even more difficult to know what people are really getting at when they talk about the media … what media diets and trust in the media are truly telling us.” And for many Republicans, that might mean distrust of the media is better thought of as a way to understand the centrality of their partisanship to their identity.
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