Life after Hillary or Trump: Can public faith in American press drop even lower?

Back in the early 1990s, when I began teaching journalism and mass media full-time, I used to ask my Communications 101 students a simple question: How many of you grew up in a home in which your parents subscribed to a daily newspaper?

I also asked them how many televisions were in the homes in which they were raised, which yielding some shockingly high numbers.

I would say that, semester after semester, it was normal for about 75 percent of the entering mass-communications students in that particular Christian liberal arts institution to say that there was no daily newspaper in their homes. When I asked why that was the case, the most common answer was that their parents believed that their local newspaper couldn't be trusted because it leaned way to the left and offended their beliefs as traditional Christians.

Do the math. A student who was 18-19 years old in the early 1990s would be how old today? That would be 40-ish?

I thought of this when I was reading mainstream press materials about (1) that recent blast of dire Gallup Poll numbers (click here and then here for earlier GetReligion posts) about public trust in the news and (2) the growing awareness that elite journalists have given up pretending that they can cover Donald Trump and, more importantly, the views of supporters (many of them reluctant supporters), in a fair, balanced and accurate manner. On that second topic, see this conversation-starter of a piece at The Atlantic, with the headline, "The Death of 'He Said, She Said' Journalism."

All of this factored into this week's Crossroads podcast with host Todd Wilken. Click here to tune that in.

As you would expect, we were still mulling over the ramifications of the Gallup numbers. Click here to see a Gallup executive summary of those stats. Here is the hook that drew some (but surprisingly muted) media coverage:

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Americans' trust and confidence in the mass media "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly" has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32% saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media. This is down eight percentage points from last year.
Gallup began asking this question in 1972, and on a yearly basis since 1997. Over the history of the entire trend, Americans' trust and confidence hit its highest point in 1976, at 72%, in the wake of widely lauded examples of investigative journalism regarding Vietnam and the Watergate scandal. After staying in the low to mid-50s through the late 1990s and into the early years of the new century, Americans' trust in the media has fallen slowly and steadily. It has consistently been below a majority level since 2007.

What does this have to do with Trump? That's the obvious question, right?

While it is clear Americans' trust in the media has been eroding over time, the election campaign may be the reason that it has fallen so sharply this year. With many Republican leaders and conservative pundits saying Hillary Clinton has received overly positive media attention, while Donald Trump has been receiving unfair or negative attention, this may be the prime reason their relatively low trust in the media has evaporated even more. It is also possible that Republicans think less of the media as a result of Trump's sharp criticisms of the press. Republicans who say they have trust in the media has plummeted to 14% from 32% a year ago. This is easily the lowest confidence among Republicans in 20 years.

So Hurricane Donald may tell us something about that grabber number -- that 32 percent of the American public at least as a "fair" level of trust in the mainstream news industry.

But here is why I started with that anecdote from my classrooms in the 1990s. Why were the trust levels already so low?

Maybe Trump crashed things from 40-something to 30-something, in terms of the trust numbers. But what, in previous decades, took the press-trust level down to 50 percent and below in the first place? I would be interested, for example, in the direction that these media-trust numbers took in the decade after Roe v. Wade. Is there a link between earthquake U.S. Supreme Court decisions and the popularity of the press?

However, there is no question that the status of the press is especially bleak at the moment.

Over at The Washington Post, opinion writer Charles Lane noted that the things have gotten so bad, in terms of average Americans trusting the press, that journalists are finding learning that they can't even throw darts at the ultimate target -- Trump -- and make them stick.

Thus, he confesses:

Trump is benefiting from the political equivalent of jury nullification. This is the well-known phenomenon whereby a jury returns a “not guilty” verdict despite its awareness that the prosecution has proved its case.
Jurors do this for many reasons, but generally it’s a form of protest, either against the law that the defendant is alleged to have violated, the system that the prosecution represents, the prosecution’s methods -- or some combination of these.

This is where the Gallup numbers play a brutal role in public discourse.

Against Trump, the press is a particularly ineffective prosecutor, for the obvious reason that “mainstream media” enjoy so little legitimacy among his followers. Only 14 percent of Republicans express trust and confidence in the media, according to Gallup. The figure for independents, who also lean toward Trump, is 30 percent. In fact, sticking it to the “liberal” press is probably one of the things his backers enjoy most.

At this point, critics on the left who believe journalists haven't done enough to crash Trump need to stop and thing, noted Lane. As painful as it would be, it is time for them to focus less on the "insufficiency of that vetting." Instead, they might try "reflecting on its futility."

So, what happens after the election? Could things get even worse?

I asked Wilken if he could imagine a Clinton presidency producing happier days for the press, in terms of public trust. #NOWAY

Well, how about a Trump presidency? #HELLNO

It was at that point that I wanted to cue the music in the YouTube at the top of this post.

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