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Bias, Bullshit and Lies: Audience Perspectives on Low Trust in the Media

This report explores the underlying reasons for low trust in the news media and social media across nine countries (United States, United Kingdom, Ireland, Spain, Germany, Denmark, Australia, France, and Greece). The study is based on analysing thousands of open-ended responses from the 2017 Reuters Institute Digital News Report, where we asked respondents to give their reasons for low trust in their own words, using open-ended text fields.

By coding and analysing responses, authors Nic Newman and Richard Fletcher categorise the specific issues that are driving public concern across countries.

Among those who do not trust the news media, the main reasons (67%) relate to bias, spin, and agendas. Simply put, a significant proportion of the public feels that powerful people are using the media to push their own political or economic interests, rather than represent ordinary readers or viewers. These feelings are most strongly held by those who are young and by those that earn the least.

  • In many countries, particularly the US and UK, some media outlets are seen as taking sides, encouraging an increasingly polarised set of opinions. Others are criticised for not calling out lies, keeping information back, or creating a false equivalence of partisan opinions that are obscuring facts and understanding.
     
  • For those that do trust the news media (40% across the nine markets surveyed), a significant proportion feel journalists do a good job in checking sources, verifying facts, and providing evidence to back up claims. There is more confidence in the professional integrity of journalists (and the transparency of their processes) in the US, Germany, and Denmark than in the United Kingdom, France, and Australia.
     
  • Social media (24%) is trusted less than the news media in its ability to separate fact from fiction. There is a sense from respondents that feeds are becoming polluted with inaccurate information, extreme agendas, and strong opinions, perhaps encouraged by social media algorithms. But, people also blame other social media users for fuelling these stories by sharing without reading them. 
     
  • Despite this, we also find a substantial minority who trust social media for its broad range of views and authenticity. Some of these are people who distrust the mainstream media or complain about its biases and agendas. Others revel in a wide range of sources and feel confident in their ability to spot inaccurate or agenda-filled news.

Based on these findings, the report argues that the news media needs to differentiate itself more from information that has not gone through the same professional checking processes. It argues that journalists and news publications should be far more open about their biases and clearer about distinguishing news from opinion and news.  

The paper argues that technology platforms also need to face up to their responsibilities around low quality news which is putting off a significant majority who worry about an increase in noise, disruptive agendas, and lack of checks.