While Americans have doubts about how much they should trust the "news media" in general, a poll by the Media Insight Project released Wednesday suggests they have a higher opinion of the sources they personally rely upon to follow the world.
The survey by the project, a partnership between The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and American Press Institute, echoed the phenomenon where people express distaste for politicians yet support their local representatives.
Only 17 percent of people judged the "news media" as very accurate but twice as many said the same thing about the news sources they visit most often, the poll found. Ask about other attributes and it's the same pattern: 24 percent judged the media as a whole as moral, while 53 percent said that about their favorites. Twenty-seven percent said the media was willing to admit mistakes, and 47 percent said that about their sources.
"The whole question of trust in the media is more complicated than we think," said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute.
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Mistrust in the media has soared since the post-Watergate days when many journalists were seen as heroes. The fragmentation of media, the increase in partisan media outlets and an aggressive anti-media stance by some commentators and politicians have all contributed, he said.
Personal devices put news at the fingertips of most Americans today. Four out of five people say they check the news at least once a day, and 58 percent said they follow news several times daily, the poll found.
Fragmentation means many different sources to follow. The most-used outlet by both Democrats and independents is CNN, although it was able to get first place among independents with only 20 percent of citations. Forty percent of Republicans said that Fox News is their most frequently relied-upon source. The second most-used outlet for Democrats is The New York Times, for Republicans it's CNN and for independents it's Fox News.
Seventy percent of Republicans say the "news media" is too liberal, while 63 percent said their favorite source is "just about right."
News executives will likely be disheartened to learn that young people polled are much more suspicious of the media than their elders. Eleven percent of people under age 40 said they have a lot of trust about information they get from the media, while 22 percent of people 40 and over say that, according to the survey.
"These are folks that grew up entirely in this fragmented landscape," Rosenstiel said. "They're suspicious of any media that says, 'We're just telling the story as we see it, without any bias.'"
The survey also uncovered a significant number of people — one-third of those who responded — who said they have difficulty distinguishing between news and opinion. The percentage is higher among Republicans.
"It's very hard to distinguish what is a news show and what's not a news show when Rachel Maddow is co-anchoring news coverage with Brian Williams," Rosenstiel said.
The poll of 2,036 adults was conducted March 8-27, with funding from the American Press Institute. Half were asked about "the news media" and half were asked about "the news media you use most often." The poll used a sample drawn from NORC's probability-based AmeriSpeak panel, which is designed to be representative of the U.S. population. The margin of sampling error for each set of respondents is plus or minus about 4 percentage points.
Respondents were first selected randomly using address-based sampling methods, and later interviewed online or by phone.