Media mistrust is common, with people often claiming that a given news outlet is biased politically, against others personally or professionally, or even biased against one’s favorite sports team.
While such mistrust is usually attributed to individual factors, such as political views, a new study shows where someone comes from can have just as much to do with whether he or she trusts media.
The study analyzes survey data from Japan that showed two key community factors predicted whether people were likely to mistrust the media. Structural pluralism, or essentially how diverse a community is, and political heterogeneity, or how varying the political attitudes of a community are, showed a strong connection to individual’s levels of media trust.
“This is among the first studies to expand beyond individual factors,” says coauthor Tien-Tsung Lee, associate professor of journalism at the University of Kansas.
Diversity and trust
Lee and colleagues analyzed data from the Japanese General Social Survey, which questioned Japanese citizens ages 20-89 on a variety of topics. It also sorted respondents by region of Japan they live in and the size of their cities. As the authors hypothesized, respondents from regions that have a diverse makeup, such as people who work in a wide variety of professions, were more likely to mistrust media. The same was true for people who were from communities that showed high political heterogeneity, or a wide range of political views among residents.
“The more diversity there was in a community overall, the less trust there was in media,” Lee says. “I think it makes perfect sense. The media try to be in the center, and if you’re strongly conservative or liberal, you tend to think the media favors the other side.”
The size of media also likely plays a factor in peoples’ levels of mistrust. In smaller communities, newspapers tend to stay away from political coverage or national news that can anger people. Instead they will often focus on community news that larger media outlets do not report on. The same patterns play out in the American media landscape.
“Conversely, a bigger newspaper one day will cover something that angers democrats,” Lee says. “The next day they may come back and cover things like poverty or unions and anger conservatives.”
Does this pattern apply in the US?
Lee and coauthor Masahiro Yamamoto, a former student of Lee’s at Washington State University now at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, hope to expand their research to see if the same holds true in the United States. Such a study would be timely, as a 2011 Pew Research Center poll showed 66 percent of respondents thought media stories were often inaccurate and 77 percent believed news organizations “tend to favor one side.” The authors conducted the first study in Yamamoto’s native Japan because of access to the Japanese General Social Survey data.
They hope to expand the study to consider county size in which a person resides and analyze data from the General Social Survey and American National Election Studies Survey, Lee says.
The findings of this and future studies are important not only because they are among the first to consider community factors in media mistrust but also because such mistrust can undermine media’s ability to inform the public, and consumers can ultimately be unaware of important issues and alternative ideas outside of their personal networks, the authors write. Additionally, such mistrust harms the credibility and bottom line of news outlets.
The findings also illustrate the importance of balance in news coverage and understanding the relationship between community and news consumption. “That’s what we teach students in journalism schools. Always cover both sides. Balance is important,” Lee says.
The study appears in the journal Communication Research.
Source: University of Kansas