Moral intuitions may partly explain why so many Americans don't trust the media

Ed wrote about this new report earlier but I wanted to dig into it a bit more. First, I should say that I think it’s undeniable that the media is largely made up of liberal people who often, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not, presents a bias in the stories they produce and the narratives they elevates. I could cite chapter in verse on this or provide examples from the newspaper on any given day (here’s yesterday’s example).

But the new report from the American Press Institute really does offer an interesting new take on this topic. The basic concept is built around the research of social scientist Jonathan Haidt, who has argued that many of the divides in our public life are based on differences in our moral intuitions. The API research suggests such moral intuitions have a lot to do with how people feel about journalism because it turns out most Americans don’t share the values journalists themselves claim to pursuing:

The study tested public attitudes toward five core values of journalistic inquiry that many journalists consider fundamental. We identified these principles based on previous studies and input from a group of journalists. These core journalism values include such ideals as it’s vital for a free society to monitor the powerful to keep them from misbehaving, and the press should be a voice for the less powerful in society.

In all, only 11% of Americans unreservedly embrace all five of the journalism principles tested and these people tend to be politically liberal.

In short, the entire goal of journalism, according to journalists themselves, is a set of values that only a small portion of politically liberal Americans agree with. The report describes this small group of people as “journalism supporters.” [emphasis added]

The one group of Americans that showed the strongest support for the core journalism principles we tested was the smallest. This group—whom we call Journalism Supporters—make up only 2 in 10 of those surveyed. That number suggests that some of the traditional framing journalists bring to stories, and many of the traditional marketing appeals journalism organizations use that trumpet traditional journalism values, will only reach so far in rebuilding trust or winning new subscribers. The people in this cluster tend to put a higher emphasis on two of the five moral values: caring for others and fairness, values that closely align with what the press considers its core professional values. A great majority of this group think the news is accurate (83%) and a majority think the news media are trustworthy (58%). But even here there are reservations. Less than half of this group thinks the media are moral (26%) and only a quarter believe they care about people like them (24%). This group is also the most liberal of the four clusters.

It does seem like a problem that the media’s biggest supporters are the most liberal Americans. You can probably predict based on this that “journalism supporters” are most likely to admire journalists and to seek to become journalists. Indeed, later in the report we find that people who agree with journalism’s values are more likely to seek out the news and more likely to support it financially.

The result is a kind of feedback loop in which journalism serves the most liberal Americans and liberal Americans in turn are most likely to serve journalism (by paying for news, supporting journalists online, becoming journalists, etc.). Meanwhile, the other 80% of Americans aren’t as enthralled with what they see coming out of newsrooms.

The piece makes a big point of the fact that distrust of the media based on differences in moral intuition goes beyond the obvious partisan divide.

The differences are subtle and cannot be dismissed as another case of political or ideological divide. We find, for instance, some people often associated with having more liberal political views (such as Democrats, women, or people of color), are hesitant about some core journalistic values. And there are some core journalistic values that do resonate among conservatives. Education level also correlates with how people respond to some of the values journalists hold dear.

Rather than distrust toward the media being tied only to the perception of partisan bias, the problem at the heart of the media trust crisis may be skepticism about the underlying purpose and mission journalists are trying to fulfill in the first place.

It’s not purely left vs. right or based on partisan ideology, but it basically does boil down to a difference between those who emphasize caring and fairness (more likely on the left) and those who emphasize authority and loyalty (more likely to be on the right). You can see how the five moral intuitions map onto right and left in that chart above.

But the report doesn’t end with a diagnosis of the problem. It also tries to offer solutions and I found this section pretty interesting. By tweaking headlines and the way stories were written, the authors were able to make stories more appealing to a wider audience. For instance, here’s a sample story as it might ordinarily appear in a local paper:

New recreation center for low-income neighborhood a casualty of parks scandal

A project aimed at helping the city’s most marginalized, low-income neighborhood has been abandoned in the wake of a misuse of city funds by the Parks Director, according to documents obtained by a local media investigation.

The Mayor had designated the money for a recreation center in the city’s poorest district, but the director funneled the money to a series of unauthorized projects.

The documents show the director misled city officials about how the funds were being spent, and the city no longer has the money to build the recreation center to help both low-income seniors and at-risk youth.

This may sound routine to you but the moral emphasis of the writing becomes clear when you compare it to this alternative version:

Parks boss deceived Mayor, misused taxpayer money

The city’s Parks Director intentionally defied the orders of the Mayor and diverted city money from a key recreation project to businesses owned by his friends and family, according to documents obtained by a local media investigation.

The Mayor had designated the money for a recreation center in the city’s poorest district, but the director funneled the money to a series of unauthorized projects.

The Parks Director bypassed protocols in order to send money to businesses with close connections to his family and friends, the investigation finds. Emails from the Parks Director reveal that he repeatedly disregarded instructions from the Mayor’s office about the funds and the project that residents voted to fund.

The documents show the director misled residents and other top city officials about how the funds were being spent, and the city no longer has the money to build the recreation center to help both low-income seniors and at-risk youth.

Both stories relay the same information, but the first version emphasizes the moral idea of sticking up for the downtrodden. The second version focuses more on issues of authority. Both stories are presenting a kind of morality play with a clear villain (the Parks Director) but the reason he’s a villain has a different emphasis. In the first version it’s because he’s done harm to the marginalized. In the second version it’s because he defied his superior to steal money for himself.

What I notice most about the two versions above is that the first version seems to emphasize collective harm and deemphasize personal responsibility, i.e. the Parks Director’s decision to steal money and mislead people is presented in a very anodyne way. The second version emphasizes the bad actions of the individual and focuses on the ways he manipulated the system to benefit his family. The individual focus on an actual person makes the second version more interesting to read.

You could even say the second version focuses on what actually happened (the misuse of funds) rather than what didn’t happen (the recreation center). And when you think about it that way it really does make you pause. Shouldn’t the news be about things that happened rather than diffuse impact on a vaguely defined group from a rec center that will never be built? The first version really does rely heavily on a particular moral framework.

There are more examples like this here. But the general idea is that by focusing on more broadly held moral intuitions, the same basic information can be made to appeal to a broader audience. This makes a lot of sense so why isn’t the media already doing it?

My own suspicious is that it has everything to do with the feedback loop mentioned above. Rather than expand that bubble, many seem intent on sticking with the current formula and pleasing the minority of liberal Americans who already completely agree with them. It’s literally who they are and change would require hiring some different people with different baseline intuitions as editors at these major institutions. But we’re not headed in that direction. If anything, the most extreme voices on the woke left seem to be taking over newsrooms, making the left-wing partisans who’ve been there for decades seem like moderates by comparison.