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Why It Matters that People Distrust the Media

- April 26, 2012

This is a second guest post from Jonathan Ladd.  His first post is here.


Yesterday, I discussed causes if media distrust. Now, I would like to focus on the consequences.  A variety of evidence suggests that those who distrust the media are more resistant to new messages about the state of the country, instead relying on their prior beliefs and partisanship to form their current perceptions.  In my book, I present evidence from panel data and an experiment to get leverage on the direction of causation. The bottom line is that it isn’t simply that having rigid and partisan beliefs (or other correlated attributes) causes one to distrust the media. There is also substantial causation flowing in the other direction. Distrusting the media causes people to hold less responsive and more partisan beliefs.

Below, I present the consequences of this. Political scientists have documented the tendency of people from different parties to have perceptions of reality that reflect their partisanship. Put simply, when a Democrat is president, Democrats tend to think that national conditions are better than Republicans do, and vice versa. I find that this trend is much larger among those who distrust the institutional media.

The first three figures below present economic perceptions in the 2004 American National Election Study. Perceptions of the overall economy, unemployment and inflation over the past year are broken down by party identification and trust in the media. In each case, beliefs about the last year of George W. Bush’s first term are more driven by partisanship when people distrust the media.

In another example, the 2000 American National Election Study asked people how various national conditions had changed over the 8 years that Bill Clinton was president. As one might expect, Democrats thought change in these areas was more positive than Republicans did. But in every area except the crime rate, partisanship’s influence on perceptions was greater when people distrusted the media.

In my next (and final) post in this series, I will discuss the relationship of media distrust to partisan self-selection of media outlets.