LAWRENCE — 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 one’s political leanings, a study co-authored by a University of Kansas professor shows where someone comes from can have just as much to do with whether he or she trusts media.
Masahiro Yamamoto, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse; Tien-Tsung Lee, associate professor of journalism at KU, and Weina Ran of UW-La Crosse have authored a study in which they analyzed 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. The study was published in Communication Research, one of the most prestigious journals in the discipline.
“This is among the first studies to expand beyond individual factors. I study media trust and distrust, and Masahiro studies community factors, and he thought there must be a way to combine the two into one line of research,” Lee said.
The researchers 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 said. “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 said. “The next day they may come back and cover things like poverty or unions and anger conservatives.”
Lee and Yamamoto, a former student of Lee’s at Washington State University, 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 said.
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 wrote. 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 said.