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The Left and Right Both Distrust Partisan News, According to a New Study

New research finds that Americans tend to trust mainstream news sources over highly partisan ones, including those that reflect our prejudices.
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"Both Democrats and Republicans gave mainstream media sources substantially higher trust scores than either hyper-partisan sites, or fake-news sites," researchers write.

Quick quiz: Which news source do Republicans consider more credible: MSNBC, or Brietbart?

If you reflexively assumed that partisanship would trump perspicacity, guess again. Despite their political differences with many of the hosts, Republicans have more trust in Rachel Maddow and her colleagues than they do in the website once run by Steve Bannon.

That's the conclusion of an encouraging new study, which finds Americans generally distrust highly partisan news outlets—even those that conform to their own ideology. Similarly, it finds Democrats have more trust in the right-leaning Fox News than the left-leaning Daily Kos.

"While there are real disagreements among Democrats and Republicans concerning mainstream news outlets, basically everybody—Democrats, Republicans, and professional fact-checkers—agree that fake and hyper-partisan sites are not to be trusted," said David Rand of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, who co-authored the research with Gordon Pennycook of the University of Regina.

The researchers conducted two studies, the first of which featured 1,010 Americans recruited online via Amazon's Mechanical Turk. They were provided with the names of 60 news websites—20 from mainstream organizations like CNN and NPR, 22 that approach the news from a highly partisan slant, and 18 that are known for producing blatantly false content. Participants noted whether they were familiar with each, and how much they trusted its content.

A second, similarly structured study featured a representative pool of 970 Americans recruited via the survey tool Lucid. Finally, the researchers asked eight professional fact-checkers to rate the trustworthiness of the various websites.

Not surprisingly, the researchers found that Democrats in both surveys trusted mainstream news sites more than Republicans. Even less surprisingly, the one exception to this rule was Fox News, which Republicans trusted more than Democrats.

"Critically, however, despite these partisan differences, both Democrats and Republicans gave mainstream media sources substantially higher trust scores than either hyper-partisan sites, or fake-news sites," they write.

"While these differences were significantly smaller for Republicans than Democrats, Republicans were still quite discerning. For example, Republicans trusted mainstream media sources often seen as left-leaning, such as CNN, MSNBC, or the New York Times, more than well-known right-leaning hyper-partisan sites like Breitbart or Infowars."

The researchers also found a "remarkably high agreement between fact-checkers and laypeople" regarding which sites are trustworthy and which are not.

Pennycook and Rand argue that these findings bode well for the use of crowdsourcing to differentiate reliable from less-reliable news sources. "Incorporating the trust ratings of laypeople into social-media ranking algorithms may prove an effective intervention against misinformation, fake news, and news content with heavy political bias," they write.

As Pennycook and Rand remind us here, people on social media share individual stories, not entire websites—and they don't necessarily check to see where each post originated. Ensuring a well-informed electorate will require finding ways to get more stories from reliable outlets into their news feeds—and, most importantly, fewer from unreliable ones.

While that's a work in progress, it's reassuring to learn that motivated reasoning—our tendency to dismiss new information that doesn't conform with our pre-existing beliefs—has its limits. So far, at least, President Donald Trump's ongoing attempt to demonize the mainstream news media is going about as well as his push for a border wall.