Americans Think ‘Fake News’ Is More Prevalent Than Ever

President Trump turns away from reporters and walks to the Marine One helicopter on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., July 31, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

The most recent iteration of a multiyear project conducted by Gallup and the Knight Foundation on “Trust, Media and Democracy” shows that Americans are increasingly likely to believe that “fake news” is a real and damaging phenomenon.

The latest version of the poll, conducted between Nov. 8, 2019, and Feb. 16, 2020, shows a four-point increase in the number of respondents who perceive a heavy bias in political media coverage compared to the last Gallup/Knight survey, which was released in 2018.

In 2020, the number of Americans who believe the media is biased is six times as large as the group that perceives no bias whatsoever. Among that group, 49 percent see “a great deal” of bias while 37 percent see “a fair amount.”

Republicans perceive media bias at a much greater rate than their Democratic counterparts: A whopping 94 percent of self-identified Republicans believe the media is biased compared to 79 percent of Democrats. Republicans are also much more willing to acknowledge that their primary news sources are compromised: 63 percent of Republicans are willing to acknowledge bias in their primary source of news coverage, compared to just 46 percent of Democrats.

Nearly three out of every four respondents (74 percent) believe “owners of news outlets attempting to influence the way stories are reported” is “a major problem,” a five-point increase from the 2017 survey. The number of respondents who agree that the media is “being too dramatic or too sensational in order to attract more readers or viewers” stands at 70 percent, up from 66 percent in 2017.

In categories ranging from objectivity, to accountability for public leaders, to story selection, Gallup and Knight universally found that respondents believed the media is doing a worse job now than several years ago.

What’s behind this? One reason could simply be the prevalence of high-profile coverage screw ups. Partisans of both stripes have been handed plenty of fodder in recent years to support their belief that the political media is hopelessly corrupted by bias, whether it be the breathless Russiagate narrative or the Covington Catholic scandal.

The new poll found that Americans who detect inaccuracies in a news story are more than five times as likely — 82 percent to 16 percent — to believe that the mistakes are intentional rather than the product of good faith error. Simple political polarization might serve as an additional causal factor. Compared to 2017, Gallup and Knight found an eight-point increase — 61 percent to 69 percent — in respondents believing that outlets are abandoning neutrality to report from a more liberal or more conservative bent.

And while Gallup and Knight find that 84 percent of Americans still see the news industry as critical (49 percent) or very important (35 percent) to democracy, the heightened distrust could also speak to a deeper rot. While the survey ended before COVID-19 swept the country, a recent Axios/Harris poll found that the media’s approval rating has fallen five points among Americans amid the pandemic — airlines are the only industry that suffered a worse loss in public trust during the pandemic.

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