Trust in the media is down, and this chart does not help

Good data is only part of the challenge; using it correctly is important too

Public trust in the media has dropped, but not as low as one chart made it appear.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Public trust in the media has dropped, but not as low as one chart made it appear. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 29, 2021 at 4:02pm

ANALYSIS — I’m under no illusion that trust in the media is waning, but a recent chart on the topic was one of the most ridiculous visuals I’ve seen in a long time.

Trashing the media is obligatory for conservatives, Republicans and former President Donald Trump, and there’s evidence that distrust in journalism is becoming a bipartisan affair. I’m just skeptical that the drop is as precipitous as it appeared in a chart published by Axios last week. 

With the ongoing discussion about the challenges of polling and usefulness of public opinion research, this is a reminder that having good data is only part of the challenge. Using it and analyzing it correctly is important too.

The chart, titled “Percentage of Americans who trust traditional media (2012 to 2021),” showed a couple of peaks and valleys, a dramatic rise in 2019 followed by an even larger drop in 2021, to where the data point nearly falls completely off the chart.

According to Edelman’s U.S. Country Report, the source Axios used to populate the chart, trust in the traditional media dipped to 46 percent this year, which is down from 59 percent in 2019.

My problems with the chart are that the graphic makes it look like trust in the media has nearly fallen to zero, as it almost reaches the bottom of the chart. In reality, the bottom of the y-axis is 45 percent, and the entire y-axis spans just 15 points (from 45 percent to 60 percent). That exaggerates the drop. 

If the y-axis were a typical 0-100 percent, the movement would appear much less dramatic. 

You can see the information more properly laid out in the Edelman research (slide #27), which spans many years and has a wider range on the y-axis (even though they condensed the 60 percent to 100 percent range). Overall, it shows less dramatic change.

Don’t get me wrong, the lack of trust in the media is a problem. I’ve even offered at least one solution for how the media can get some of that trust back: Newspapers need to stop endorsing candidates

Yet the idea that there’s been a recent, seismic shift is not borne out in the data, and the information from Edelman is in line with trends of other surveys about the media.

According to a Pew Research Center survey from April 2020, 45 percent of U.S. adults had a great deal or fair amount of confidence in the news media. It’s not exactly the same question, but similar to comparing Gala apples to Red Delicious.  

Gallup has been tracking attitudes on the media since 1972. The latest numbers, released in September, painted a more dire picture for the media, with just 40 percent of Americans saying they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the “mass media.” 

Maybe most notably, the Gallup chart has a more traditional y-axis that goes from 0 percent to 100 percent, putting the numbers in proper context and showing less volatility.

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Nathan L. Gonzales is an elections analyst for CQ Roll Call.