Why Americans are losing trust in elections and the media
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Americans' trust in both their government and in each other is declining. That might be something you have concluded on your own from watching the news or even talking with your neighbors. But the respected research institute, the Pew Research Center, did what researchers do. They tried to get their hands around this by taking a fresh look at the data they've gathered in recent years to try to understand how and why Americans are losing trust in a number of their critical institutions.
Right now, we want to focus on two of those institutions, elections and the media. By elections, we're thinking about how elections are administered. As you must know, Democrats and many Republicans are engaged in a furious fight over new restrictions that Republican-led states are trying to, or, in many cases, have imposed on the administration of elections. Republicans are calling these common-sense measures to tighten up lax practices or to respond to voter concerns. But Democrats say most of these are unnecessary at best and unfair, punitive and racist at worst, with a clear strategy to keep minorities and others from voting.
As you probably know, the White House and progressive congressional Democrats have been trying to pass new legislation that would standardize some of these rules around the country, an effort that has been stymied both by Republicans and more conservative Democrats. And trust in the media - well, that's been on the decline for some time, even before former President Trump and his allies started haranguing news reporters and outlets he didn't like as enemies of the people.
We wanted to hear more about what researchers have to say about this, so we called two of the researchers at Pew, Bradley Jones and Katerina Eva Matsa, to tell us more about what they found out. And they're with us now. Thank you both so much for joining us.
KATERINA EVA MATSA: Thank you for having us.
BRADLEY JONES: Thank you.
MARTIN: So, Katerina, I'm going to start with you. And this is a basic question, but why focus on trust?
MATSA: We know that the news media is an important pillar of U.S. democracy, of democracy overall. So trust is a huge part of that, right? Like, we want to see how trust in the news media may have a relationship with the sources that people turn to and how, especially now, with this misinformation environment that people are in, how they manage to make sense of the world.
MARTIN: So, Bradley, your focus is politics and policy. Faith in the administration of elections has been front and center in no small part because of the riot at the U.S. Capitol. What stands out to you most about Americans' trust in elections and their election systems?
JONES: Well, that's exactly right. When the candidate that a person supports loses in an election, we see trust decline. That's a pattern that we've seen pretty regularly throughout our data going back to 2002, after the 2000 election, when we really started studying this in depth.
MARTIN: Has either of you noticed stark trends in regards to who tends to be the most distrustful? Is there any sort of clear pattern that emerges in terms of age or political affiliation or geographic location or anything like that?
MATSA: Yeah. We actually looked at two years' worth of data between 2019 and 2021. Definitely, partisanship is the biggest factor. And what we saw in the data is that Republicans specifically are the ones that - they have become increasingly distrustful towards the news media. So for instance, like in 2021, 35% of Republicans and Republican leaners trusted national media, compared with 78% of Democrats. Like, this is a huge gap, as you may expect. One caveat to that is that there is a relationship with who is in power at the time - so that relationship shifts. But never before, prior to 2016, we had seen that huge divide between Republicans and Democrats when it comes to their views about the news media.
MARTIN: Hmm. That's fascinating. Bradley, there's data to suggest that Americans trust their local elections more than they do federal elections. Can you tell us more about that?
JONES: Yeah. That's an interesting pattern that we've observed across different domains. People just tend to have more comfort with the things that they're familiar with. And so when we asked people about confidence that their own ballot was counted, we see higher levels of trust in that than people do about ballots around the country, for example.
MARTIN: So I know that you're both researchers and not policymakers. Can you dream with me for a bit here? And I want to ask you both, what do you think this all means for American society? And what do you think needs to happen to change this?
MATSA: Yeah. I mean, as you know, it's very tough for us to give any kind of advice in that front. Also, it's not the one thing. Like, I could talk about polarization, and, OK, there are partisan divides. But it also is different things for different people. For instance, when it comes to trust, we saw that Black Americans are more likely to value their news media when they see themselves in the stories or when they're - or the news media as part of the community. They're actually more likely to have that confidence.
There's so many elements - that's where I'm getting at. And I know it's maybe not a very satisfying answer, but there's so many things that are happening that it's very, very difficult to say, OK, we need to fix this one thing, and then the relationship is going to be repaired or trust is going to come back.
MARTIN: Well, I think it may not be simple, but if it's the truth, that's what we need to hear. Bradley, what about you? What are your concerns about the current moment, and what are some elements that might affect that trajectory?
JONES: Well, the biggest concern is that elections are the primary way that the public is connected to politicians, right? It's the way that we hold politicians accountable, and it really kind of underpins the whole system. And so if faith and trust in elections is undermined, is - erodes, it's like the foundation of the building crumbling, right?
You know, we fielded a survey in the middle of last year that had a lot of different election proposals. And there's a fair amount of partisan agreement across issues in terms of things that could be done to reform elections. So for example, both Republicans and Democrats agree that there should be a paper trail in their balloting. There are large majorities of partisans on both sides. We also see, actually, majority support among both Republicans and Democrats for ID requirements. There's majority support for making Election Day a holiday and other reforms like this.
So there are things that potentially could be done to bolster trust in the system. But the challenge is, just like you said at the beginning, is that it's so often framed as a zero-sum argument. And so there are some real challenges. I think you pointed out as well that the messaging coming from elites really matters in these views. So politicians at the highest level bear a lot of responsibility for the things that they say about elections. And those kinds of things filter down into the public.
MARTIN: That was Bradley Jones, senior researcher, and Katerina Eva Matsa, associate director of research. They're both with the Pew Research Center - such a complex conversation, obviously a conversation we need to have not just once, but many times. Thank you both so much for talking with us and sharing your expertise.
MATSA: Thank you.
JONES: Thank you so much, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.