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Public trust of journalists has been in decline for decades in the U.S.

A recent study conducted by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research (AP-NORC) suggests that a key factor is skepticism about several core journalistic principles.

Five core journalistic principles were established for the survey based on dialogue with journalists, as well as data from previous surveys of journalists and values set forth in The Elements of Journalism.

  • Oversight: how strongly a person feels the need to monitor powerful people and know what public officials are doing.
  • Transparency: society works better when information is out in the open and the public knows what is happening.
  • Factualism: the more facts people have, the closer they will get to the truth.
  • Giving voice to the less powerful: whether people want to amplify the voices of those who aren’t ordinarily heard or think that is overdone and favoring the least fortunate doesn’t help them.
  • Social criticism: how people feel about the importance of casting a spotlight on a community’s problems to solve them versus celebrating what is right and working well to reinforce the good things.

To gain insight into the reasoning behind someone’s affirmation (or lack thereof) for these principles, researchers drew upon Moral Foundations Theory, which “at its core is the idea that different people instinctively respond more strongly to certain moral values than others.”

The five moral value continuums of this theory are:

  • Care / harm: importance of being kind and protecting others, especially the less fortunate, and keeping them from harm.
  • Fairness / cheating: importance of justice, equality and reciprocal altruism and how much people should be punished for dishonesty and fraud.
  • Loyalty / betrayal: feelings about a group they are part of and self-sacrifice for group gain.
  • Authority / subversion: attitudes toward social hierarchy and respect for leadership, tradition and authority.
  • Purity / degradation: feelings about virtues such as sanctity.

First, participants were asked to respond to a series of statements to gain a sense of their moral values and another set of statements to obtain insight into how they felt about the five journalistic principles.

Overall, only 11% of U.S. adults affirmed all five of the journalism principles. A majority (67%) affirmed factualism, followed by giving voice to the powerless (50% affirmation), oversight (46%), transparency (44%) and social criticism (29%).

Comparing responses to both sets of statements, researchers found that divergent views of journalists and journalism aren’t based on political affiliation, as is often presumed.

Rather, a person’s location on the moral value continuum – in terms of what values they most value or emphasize – was more telling regarding how they are likely to feel about the five journalistic values.

“At the risk of oversimplifying, those who most valued care or fairness tended to embrace journalism principles more strongly. Those who put more value on loyalty and authority, by contrast, tended to be more skeptical of journalism values such as giving voice to the less powerful,” the report said.

“This connection between people’s moral values and views of journalism principles exists regardless of people’s age, race/ethnicity, education, gender or political affiliation or ideology.”

In addition, those who most highly value caring for others and fairness in society had higher levels of trust in the news media (56%) and were more likely to believe news report are accurate (79%).

By contrast, those who most highly value authority, purity and loyalty expressed the lowest levels of trust in journalists (28%) and were less likely to affirm the accuracy of news reports (53%).

Next, respondents were presented with the headline and opening paragraph from a real news article that reflected various journalistic and moral values.

As with the survey questions, researchers found a correlation. “People who resonated toward certain moral values in the survey also resonated toward stories that touched on or demonstrated those values in the news.”

Finally, researchers presented respondents with one of a few versions of a news story on the same event, followed by a series of questions to gauge their interest level and to understand why they would (or would not) want to read the entire story.

“A relatively standard news story with a tendency to emphasize care and fairness values” was presented to some, with an alternate version that emphasized the values of authority and loyalty, while retaining the other values, presented to others.

The results from three news articles surveyed in this manner found that adding elements focused on the values of authority and loyalty resulted in an overall greater appeal to readers and, in most instances, was seen as more balanced and trustworthy.

“Although the public might not fully embrace core principles of journalism, there are clear signs of hope for the media in this report,” Trevor Tompson, director of the AP-NORC Center, said in a press release announcing the findings.

“A better understanding of how Americans’ moral values are connected to their views of news can help journalists identify how they can frame their stories to appeal to a broader audience.”

The full report is available here. Topline results are available here.

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series this week for World Press Freedom Day (May 3). The previous articles in the series are:

Standing for Truth – And the Right to Tell It | Brian Kaylor

How ‘Lou Grant’ Ignited My Spiritual Call to Journalism | Mark Wingfield

Free Press Steers Society in Right Direction | Marv Knox

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