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How Trump devastated Republican trust in the media

Mistrust of major media is not just an individual feeling; it has become a mark of community and a signaling of one’s political tribe.

A recent poll from the Pew Research Center shows that Republican trust in national news organizations halved during the last five years. Even in our era of political extremes and unexpected turns, it’s an eye-popping stat that underscores one of former President Donald Trump’s most damaging legacies: sowing mistrust in the idea of shared reality.

The key takeaway from the analysis is that while Democratic trust in national organizations has dipped by 5 percentage points since 2016, Republican trust has nosedived. Here’s Pew’s breakdown of some of the major findings about how much the gulf between the two groups has widened:

Nearly eight-in-ten Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents (78 percent) say they have “a lot” or “some” trust in the information that comes from national news organizations — 43 percentage points higher than Republicans and Republican leaners (35 percent) — according to a new Pew Research Center survey conducted June 14-27, 2021. This partisan gap is the largest of any time that this question has been asked since 2016. And it grows even wider — to 53 points — between liberal Democrats (83%) and conservative Republicans (30 percent).

The 35 percent of Republicans who have at least some trust in national news organizations in 2021 is half that of in 2016 (70 percent) — and has dropped 14 points since late 2019 (49 percent). By comparison, Democrats have remained far more consistent in the past five years, ranging somewhere between 78 percent and 86 percent.

A similar, if less pronounced, dynamic can be found in Democratic and Republican trust in local news organizations and social media. While Democrats’ and Democratic-leaning independents’ trust in local and social media fell by just 1 to 2 percentage points, Republicans’ and Republican leaners’ trust dropped by over 10 points in both.

Of course, Republicans have been disproportionately skeptical of mainstream national media for decades — mostly because they perceive it as tainted by liberal bias — but the trend intensified during the Trump era. Gallup polling from 1997 to 2020 found that Republican trust in mass media not only cratered during Trump’s tenure but also reached an all-time low. At the same time, Gallup’s polling found that Democrats and independents reported a large increase in trust in mass media during the Trump years.

Several structural trends are likely to have play a role in the sharp decline in Republican trust in mainstream media, such as accelerating political polarization and a digital media landscape with increasingly niche offerings for people on the right. If you’re on the right and you want to drop out of consuming mass media, you have access to more alternatives than ever before. Perhaps the blossoming of those alternatives has validated and accelerated a sense among conservatives that mainstream media is, indeed, not worth trusting.

There is good reason to think that Trump himself played a big role in decimating trust in media during his time in office.

But there is good reason to think Trump himself played a big role in devastating trust in the media during his time in office. After all, he made attacking the media — including encouraging assaults on members of the media — a central theme of his presidency and popularized the term “fake news.” From his very first day in office, Trump sought to undermine the idea that any media that wasn’t right-wing could be trusted to report even basic facts about reality, whether it was talking about plainly observable crowd sizes at his inauguration or statements he’d made in the past or election results.

Crucially, Trump not only promoted mistrust in most national media; he also oversaw the rise of mainstream media hatred as a critical part of right-wing identity.

As Meredith Conroy, an associate professor of political science at California State University, San Bernardino, wrote this year for FiveThirtyEight:

Hostility and distrust of the news media … 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.

In other words, mistrust of major media institutions isn’t just an individual feeling — it has also become a mark of community and a signaling mechanism for one’s political tribe. There can be no doubt that Trump helped turbocharge this with his us-vs.-them politics and his relentless animosity toward reporters.

The consequences of this national divergence on the credibility of mass media are serious — they certainly make it much harder to imagine a way to resolve the increasing divides in our political life.