What’s Less Trustworthy than the Candidates? The Media, According to Survey Results
Now that the first presidential debate is behind us, many American voters have a clearer sense of their choices on November 8. The cacophony of criticisms and commentary that followed the debate, however, has reminded voters of how little they can trust the media to provide an unbiased report on reality.
A new survey from the American Culture & Faith Institute (ACFI) among Christian conservatives indicates that the segment is more aware of election-related news than the typical American, with 90% currently paying “a lot” or “quite a bit” of attention to the presidential race. However, the survey also underscored just how little that segment of voters trusts most of the major media outlets in the country.
Twelve Media, Two Winners
Among the 1,500 SAGE Cons interviewed – the Spiritually Active, Governance Engaged Conservatives – twelve different media outlets were evaluated. Each survey respondent was asked the following question: “During the course of the election there has been discussion about the performance of the media. For each of the media listed, please indicate how much you trust that media source to provide truthful and accurate reporting about the election.” They were asked to rank that level of trust on a five-point scale: totally trust, trust a lot, trust some, not much trust, and no trust at all.
Overall, just one of the 12 media sources – CBN – reached double figures (14%) as being totally trusted by SAGE Cons.
Only two media sources were trusted either “totally” or “a lot” by at least half of the sample. Topping the list was Fox News, which generated such a trust level among 56%. CBN ranked second in such trust, at 49%.
A distant third was the Christian Post, an online news publisher, which was highly trusted by 25%. Half as many people (13%) gave high ratings to Salem Communications, which includes various websites and publications along with the largest chain of Christian radio stations in the U.S. The Wall Street Journal (13%) also received high ratings from 13% of the respondents.
The other seven media were all given high trust ratings by less than one out of every ten respondents. Those media included NPR (6%), Washington Post (3%), CBS News (2%), CNN (2%), ABC News (1%), NBC News (1%), and the New York Times (1%).
Low Trust for Seven Outlets
Seven of the 12 media sources tested were considered to be untrustworthy by a majority of the SAGE Cons interviewed. That was based on more than 50% saying they had either “not much trust” or “no trust at all” in those media outlets.
The least trustworthy source of all was NBC News: 80% of the respondents had low trust in that news organization. Similarly low levels of trust were assigned to CNN (78%), ABC News (77%), CBS News (76%), and the New York Times (76%). The other two organizations rejected by a majority of SAGE Cons were the Washington Post (62%) and NPR (58%).
Two organizations emerged as largely unknown by the conservative Christians involved in the survey. Significantly, those were two of the three Christian-based media sources tested.
Salem Communications, which provides radio programming to more than 2,000 radio stations (including more than 100 stations that it owns and operates), provides content for a variety of websites, and publishes both books (via Regnery Press) and magazines, was unknown to 70% of the survey respondents.
The Christian Post is a comprehensive Christian news website that typically ranks among the top 5,000 websites in the U.S. in terms of unique visitors. Despite the substantial reach of the website, 55% of SAGE Cons did not know anything about the news organization.
The other Christian-based media source, CBN, also had a high proportion of Christian conservatives who were not familiar with its existence: 22% did not know about its content and thus had no sense of the trustworthiness of CBN.
Among Those in the Know
If the results are recalculated to solely take into account the respondents who were aware of a given media source, the numbers are amplified.
Overall, positive trust ratings were accorded to the three Christian-oriented media as well as Fox News. CBN pulled the highest positive rating, with a ratio of 6.3 people giving it a high trust rating to every person who gave it a low rating. Fox News was a close second, with a 5.8-to-1 ratio. Christian Post ranked third, with a 5.1-to-1 ratio among the people who were knowledgeable of the media source.
Salem did not fare nearly as well as the other Christian-based media, generating a 1.2-to-1 ratio among those who were aware of Salem.
All of the other media sources – Wall Street Journal, NPR, Washington Post, CBS News, CNN, ABC News, NBC News, and New York Times – were saddled with overwhelmingly negative trust ratios among the Christian conservative respondents.
Demographics Mattered Little
The survey also revealed that demographics played a minor role in people’s trust of these media.
Gender did not affect the ratings to any great degree. Conservative Christian men were slightly more likely than conservative Christian women to have a high level of trust in Fox News and the Wall Street Journal, while the women had notably higher trust levels for CBN.
Age had a more significant impact on media trust levels – but not much. Christian conservatives under the age of 50 were somewhat more likely to trust the Christian Post (31% compared to 25% of their elders) and marginally less likely to trust CBN (42% versus 49%, respectively). The biggest age-based difference related to Fox News. Four out of ten Christian conservatives under 50 (39%) had high trust for Fox News, compared to five out of ten in the 50 to 64 age group (51%), and two out of three (67%) in the 65-plus age bracket.
Peoples’ presidential candidate of preference also impacted media trust levels. Although more than four out of five SAGE Cons surveyed plan to vote for Donald Trump, the survey revealed that those who will not vote for the GOP candidate had significantly lower trust levels for Fox News (62% versus 22%, respectively). Trump voters also had much higher trust levels for CBN than did those who will not vote for the New York real estate titan (51% versus 31%, respectively). Other differences in trust levels between the two voting segments were minimal.
A Discerning Audience
The survey results show that Christian conservatives are becoming a more discerning audience for information provided by the nation’s leading media outlets, according to ACFI’s Executive Director, George Barna.
“Years ago, people were unaware of media bias and naively absorbed content from a variety of sources, assuming that the media were all bound to tell the truth,” explained the lead researcher on the project. “Today, though, conservative Christians are more discerning about the agenda behind the news being provided. They are less likely to believe that reporting is objective. They may gather information from some mainstream media sources, but they are also more cautious about that content than they used to be.”
Barna also pointed out the significance of conservative Christians being largely unaware of news alternatives.
“A shockingly large proportion of the Christian conservative community is unfamiliar with the major Christian-based news media evaluated in this study. Who would expect one-quarter of the most politically engaged Christians to be unaware of CBN, or a majority of them to be unaware of the Christian Post, or nearly three-quarters to not know about Salem?,” he commented. “There are various plausible explanations for this condition – ineffective branding, limited access, and limited exposure are among them – but these statistics suggest that conservative Christians may be gathering a lot of their political news from media that have little love for conservatives and have been known to distort news events to conform to a liberal point of view. That certainly poses a major challenge to the Christian media who hope to serve conservative believers – and to Christian conservatives to be wary of the bias to which they are subjected to through the mainstream media.”