Democrats trust the press and Republicans don't. What now?

Sarah Wasko / Media Matters

Donald Trump’s presidency has coincided with an unprecedented partisan divide in attitudes toward the press, with Democrats’ confidence soaring as Republicans’ trust plummets, according to a new study.

The research was presented yesterday at a journalism ethics summit organized by the nonprofit journalism think tank the Poynter Institute, which I attended along with dozens of journalists and advocates keen on discussing how to strengthen the public’s trust in the press during the Trump administration. The summit came in response to unprecedented attacks on the press from a president who has called the media the “enemy of the American people,” and over the course of the day, academics, advocates, and mainstream and conservative journalists participated in panels with titles like “Avoiding the ‘Enemy of the People’ Trap: Covering the President without Politicizing the Press.”

But as Brendan Nyhan, a professor of government at Dartmouth College and one of the study’s co-authors, explained during his presentation, journalism's credibility problem with the right goes beyond coverage of Trump. “The bad news is the stabilities of these attitudes,” Nyhan said, noting a consistent decline in Republican confidence in the press over two decades of data, which he suggested “means they are likely to be here long after Trump leaves the political scene.”

How should journalists respond in an era in which Democrats trust the press and Republicans don’t? The summit's focus was on winning back the Republicans. The day began with Poynter ethics chair Indira Lakshmanan’s exhortation for journalists to “reach out across the partisan divide and try to bridge trust,” and closed with Poynter Vice President Kelly McBride stating that one of the key ideas coming out of the conference was to target Republican news consumers. The impetus for the inaugural Poynter Journalism Ethics Summit, titled, “The Press and the President: Trust and the Media in a New Era,” was clearly Trump’s unprecedented attacks on the media, and valid concerns over the negative impact the president might have his voters' views. But by contrast, there was little serious discussion of how to preserve the recent big jump in Democrats’ trust in the press.

I’m sympathetic with the journalists who find themselves in this tough spot. The gaping partisan divide makes them very uncomfortable. They don’t like being subject to derision, ridicule, and hate from one party’s voters, or relying on the financial support of the other’s. All else remaining equal, it would be better for the industry to have a broader base of support. 

I am skeptical, however, that the menu of options for improving journalistic practices presented yesterday would actually win over a significant number of Republicans.

That’s not to say that those ideas were bad. Increasing transparency, explaining the process of reporting within articles, and educating the public on the methods, practices, and values of journalism make sense on their own merits. Honorable behavior, stringent fact-checking, and discipline for those who violate best practices are their own rewards. But journalists are not going to win over large numbers of Republicans by ensuring that news, analysis, and opinion articles are more clearly labeled as such. They’re up against powerful forces with a decades-long head start.

Conservative political elites, including GOP presidents and presidential candidates, have been trying to delegitimize the press since the era of civil rights movement. They created a parallel right-wing news apparatus that explicitly promised to “balance” the unfair coverage they said the mainstream media provided. We can argue about the degree to which that criticism was accurate, how much of it was offered in good faith and how much was a partisan smokescreen. But the results are clear: The vast majority of Republicans don’t believe the mainstream press, and the profits of a massive conservative infotainment industry depend on keeping things that way.

The criticism against the press is not about ethics in journalism, and cannot be assuaged by additional transparency and the like. The loudest and most powerful Republican voices attacking the press -- up to and including the president -- are not offering a measured critique about reporting practices. They are angry about media coverage that makes the president look bad, full stop. This is an ends-motivated critique, and the end is news coverage that favors conservatives.

Good luck trying to make your media literacy campaign heard when the president is calling you liars. Good luck trying to target your message of transparency to whatever Republicans might be amenable to it when Fox is calling you fake news. You can try winning over the anti-Trump Republicans, but the lesson of the last few years is that they are an extremely limited constituency.

What could actually attract large numbers of Republican, Trump-supporting readers, is for the press to start providing Trump with much more favorable coverage. That is, of course, a terrible idea, and one that Poynter would rightfully reject on its merits. But in addition to those merits, journalists would be wise not to chase a Republican audience by engaging in this behavior because it would risk Democrats’ trust -- and resulting audience -- that media outlets currently enjoy.

The flip side of data showing Republican trust in the press plummeting is that media outlets have been reaping the revenue that comes with rising support from Democrats. Despite deeply flawed coverage of the presidential election, Democrats’ confidence in the press has since jumped more than 20 percentage points.

Democrats’ confidence in the press is a bubble, and journalists at the Poynter summit did not appear overly concerned with whether it will pop. A few participants offered hopes that Democrats will understand that it’s important for journalists to go after both sides the next time a Democrat is in the White House. But on balance, this was a summit about winning back Republicans who don’t trust the press, not about holding on to Democrats who do.

There are certainly steps that journalists could take to try to retain Democrats’ record-high support for the press without violating their industry’s standards and best practices. Leading figures at major institutions could stop treating liberal concerns about their coverage with open contempt. Media outlets could avoid firing progressive commentators in response to bad faith attacks of the right-wing fever swamp. Journalists could have more patience with those who were sold subscriptions on near-explicit promises of standing up to Trumpian  “alternative facts.”

Poynter’s conference was well-intended, and there’s always value in bringing together journalists and advocates to discuss the industry. But there’s certainly more to explore in the future, and perhaps ensuring that Democrats’ support for the press remains robust would make a worthy focus for the next summit.