Media Distrust Has Serious Consequences for Opinion Formation

In the APSA Public Scholarship Program, graduate students in political science produce summaries of new research in the American Political Science Review. This piece, written by Dara Gaines, covers the new article by Stephanie Ternullo, University of Chicago: “I’m Not Sure What to Believe”: Media Distrust and Opinion Formation during the COVID-19 Pandemic”. 

Political scientists have noted the trend of polarization in the general population and among elected officials. Less attention has been given to those who do not support a blue or red banner. We know that an average citizen has selective political knowledge and limited understanding of what is important to them. How do these people learn about political issues or form opinions? Stephanie Ternullo builds on public opinion and trust formation literature to define specific pathways of understanding based on an individuals’ trust in media and political knowledge. In an analysis of several rounds of interviews with participants from small towns in the Midwest, Ternullo finds evidence of three distinct categories of media learning. Importantly, one of these categories results in the absence of opinion formation on certain topics.

Drawing on past research on the role of political trust in how people understand and form opinions on new issues, she explains the importance of understanding an individual’s predispositions and perceptions. People often lean into what they already know or feel comfortable with. This tendency makes it much easier to discredit anything that doesn’t align with this predetermined set of beliefs. The landscape of America’s news, social media, and technology environments, often add to the already polarized information by utilizing algorithms that increase clicks and isolate viewers into “echo chambers,” making it that much more difficult to change one’s opinion. The author points out the gap here; before we can really talk about supporting one side or the other, an individual must have an opinion to defend. In order to build this opinion, they need to build some sort of pathway or find a process to sort information. One way individuals do this is by going through sources they trust.

The context of this research is highly significant. The COVID-19 pandemic created additional pressures for information, and as an unknown factor people have less security in their knowledge of it. People determine how much they trust government and government officials by evaluating how well institutions perform their duties. For example, during the time of the interviews, the Center for Disease Control, the National Institute of Health, and health experts like Dr. Fauci, Dr. Birx, and Dr. Jerome Adams were essential sources of information. Unfortunately, the politicization of COVID-19 led to different and often conflicting information about the novel virus. Ternullo argues that some people are able to evaluate media credibility based on their partisan biases, but others struggle to find a trusted source of information and cannot adjudicate among competing accounts of reality to form an opinion.

To describe the process of opinion formation, Ternullo analyzed 293 interviews collected between June 2019 and November 2020 in three Midwestern towns finding that levels of media distrust, political knowledge, and partisan attachment work together to strengthen or weaken an individual’s ability to form a solid opinion. The interviewees fell into three distinct categories: Trusted Sourcers, Triangulators, and Nonbelievers. Trusted Sourcers have some political knowledge but selectively distrust certain media outlets. They cling to a favorite, based on partisan bias. This gives them comfort that others, with less strong partisan attachments, might not have. Triangulators have more political knowledge than Nonbelievers but less trust than Trusted Sourcers. In the time-consuming process, they take note of partisan information networks and do background research on issues before forming their opinion. Nonbelievers have little political knowledge and little political trust which leaves them without a way to anchor their thoughts or opinions on topics.

“This piece highlights the importance of considering many ways we learn and teach politics. We have an opportunity to turn the tide for Nonbelievers.” Ternullo finds that only Trusted Sourcers and some Triangulators were able to sort through the constant barrage of information to “develop a high degree of certainty in their partisan opinions about policies” regarding coronavirus. The Nonbelievers were more likely not to have an opinion at all. Rather than being in between the two parties, these people were more likely to be outside of the entire conversation, not believing anyone or anything. The people with the least confidence in their knowledge of the coronavirus were also less likely to know whom to support as president, even in a highly politicized presidential election. These findings suggest that there are serious consequences for an individual’s potential to learn or know how they feel about new information when their trust in media and government falters.

This piece highlights the importance of considering many ways we learn and teach politics. We have an opportunity to turn the tide for Nonbelievers. Accessible factual information is important for knowledge production. The challenges of building broad-based support for COVID-19 mitigation measures amidst a sea of misinformation underscores how much of a public good it is to have sources of political information that everyone can find, interpret, and trust.