How much do politically divided Americans distrust their television news sources? Let’s count the ways:
• A majority of conservatives trust Fox News, and only Fox News, among eight major outlets.
• Liberals trust every other outlet — including Comedy Central — more than Fox News.
• PBS is the sole TV news outlet not distrusted by a plurality of respondents — and even then, only 52 percent of them trust the network, which doesn’t exactly make Big Bird the new Walter Cronkite.
Such are some of the findings from an annual Public Policy Polling survey of the nation’s news preferences. Released Wednesday, the poll depicts a skeptical America split into partisan news-watching camps, red and blue state viewers peering warily at their screens.
“I think it says something about the state of TV news, which, let’s face it, does a lot of goofy stuff,” said Robert Thompson, a media scholar and director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University. “There is over-coverage of certain kinds of stories. There are things that get reported incorrectly. There have been lots of mistakes and problems, and these numbers reflect that.
“The other thing is the state of public attitudes. There’s a drumbeat of not trusting the mainstream media, especially in the digital universe. I’ve seen surveys that put journalists just about as low as lawyers in terms of despised professions. In some ways, it’s become a cultural cliche for people to say they simply do not trust big news operations.”
A Democratic-leaning firm based in Raleigh, N.C., that received high marks for the predictive accuracy of its 2012 election polls, PPP recently conducted a survey in which Congress proved less popular than both cockroaches and colonoscopies — but did manage to beat out North Korea and Lindsay Lohan.
The poll released Wednesday also found that:
• PBS was the only news source that more Americans trust (52 percent) than distrust (29 percent).
• Seventy percent of self-identified Republicans expressed trust in Fox News.
• Roughly two-thirds of those same Republican respondents expressed distrust in every other news outlet except PBS.
• A majority of self-identified Democrats expressed trust in every news outlet except Fox News and Comedy Central.
• Democrats were most trusting of PBS (72 percent), followed by NBC, MSNBC, CBS, CNN and ABC.
• More voters who self-identified as “very liberal” distrusted Fox News (66 percent) than Comedy Central (35 percent).
• While Comedy Central and Fox News earned equal overall distrust ratings (46 percent), Democrats trusted the home of “The Daily Show” (38 percent) far more than Republicans (8 percent).
• Fox News was the most polarizing news source, as 34 percent of all survey respondents said it was the single news source they trusted most and 39 percent said it was the one they trusted least.
“There has always been partisan rivalry and party distrust from the very start of the nation,” Mr. Thompson said. “Newspapers were originally the voices of political parties. So the media was by definition partisan. If they had polls back then, people would have strongly distrusted the newspaper run by the other party.
“The problem with these numbers, however, is that if you’re going to take everything categorically that comes out of MSNBC and CNN and say they are coming out of a biased liberal media and throw it out, or ignore Fox News, then where are you getting your information? When you get to a point where there are no news sources where we can get some kind of consensus, it gets very difficult to have an actual debate.”
The polarization was even starker among voters who expressed the strongest ideological self-identification.
Among survey participants who said they voted for Mitt Romney for president, 68 percent said Fox News was their most trusted TV news outlet.
By contrast, 67 percent of participants who said they voted for Barack Obama said Fox News was their least trusted outlet — and more Obama voters picked Comedy Central as their most trusted outlet (seven percent) than Fox News (five percent).
More than 80 percent of voters who identified themselves as “very conservative” said they did not trust ABC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC and NBC.
Among those same voters, 78 percent said they did not trust Comedy Central, while 65 percent said they didn’t trust PBS.
Meanwhile, a majority of voters who self-identified as “very liberal” said they trusted ABC, CBS, MSNBC, NBC and PBS — but did not trust CNN, Fox News and Comedy Central.
In general, men were more distrustful of news outlets than women, while women were more likely to answer “not sure” when asked if they trusted a particular news source. Whites were more likely to be distrustful of news sources than Hispanics and blacks.
Younger voters — ages 18 to 29 — were more trusting of all eight news sources included in the survey than voters as a whole.
“You look at these numbers and think, OK, the citizens of a democratic republic ought to be skeptical, diversifying their sources of information, always wondering what is true or not,” Mr. Thompson said. “Fine. They’re going to multiple sources to weed out errors. But I don’t know it that is what people are doing.
“In the end, diversity of sources is good. The best bet is to diversify your intellectual portfolio, just like diversifying your stock portfolio. If you believe all your information in a culture can only come from one source — whether it’s a king, a dictator, whatever — that opens up problems. That source becomes incredibly powerful.”
The survey of 800 voters was conducted from Jan. 31 to Feb. 3 and has a 3.5 percent margin of error.