LazyWeb: Why Did Trust In Press Collapse in the mid-80s/early-90s?

I have a question I’d love others to answer for me.

So I was looking at longer term declines in trust in the press. And what I expected to see was a long steady fall-off from the peak trust of Watergate and if you look at some charts you see that.


But when you look closer on those charts they really elide the 1980s,

If you get granular, and look at the 1980s, the charts look like this:


That’s a dramatic drop, which coincides with Clinton’s election, and maybe with the rise of AM radio news hosts? But man — that’s really steep.


Again, you can peg the launch of Fox in here at the end (mid that elision at the end of the graph), but here there is even a significant uptick through 1985-88 (Iran-Contra?)


Here’s a different story. And again, I think about Iran-Contra for that late 1980s dive, but it just seems naive to lay it totally at the feet of one story like that. And again, AM radio is important — Limbaugh gets syndicated in 1988 and has 5 million listeners within two years. Is that enough? Or is his rapid growth more of a symptom of underlying causes here?

Let me be clear — I’m not at a loss for explanations — in fact I have many that can adequately explain this. But I’m curious if I am missing something. I’m particularly curious after reading some literature on the impact of Hollywood on press perceptions if anyone can remember popular media which may have fed this viewpoint — there’s a case to be made we don’t pay enough attention to the impact of popular media on perceptions — one can make a good argument that police have maintained good reputations despite evidence that should undermine that reputation due to a relatively sympathetic portrayal on television.

Jay Rosen looked into this a couple years back, not sure where he eventually landed (and I note that in the explanations featured AM radio, Iran-Contra, or Hollywood are not featured, so maybe I’m in the weeds here).

And of course, maybe it’s noise! It could be. But if it corresponds with something in particular that would be one route into investigation.

UPDATE: A Gallup study from the period supports the idea that at least a chunk of it was due to Iran-Contra. Brendan Nyhan — more famous recently for work on cognitive science of correction — had a solidly sourced article from 2007 arguing this is part of a pattern, with coverage of major scandals eroding trust of the governing party, and trust not returning to trend.


3 thoughts on “LazyWeb: Why Did Trust In Press Collapse in the mid-80s/early-90s?

  1. As an erstwhile “media scholar”, I’m wary of attempts to link popular culture to social effects in simple, direct ways (because I don’t think that’s how culture works)…But, with that caveat, I’ll entertain your hint and say a quick look at Hollywood’s biggest 80’s box-office hits doesn’t make me think there’s something like a correlation between a common/popular narrative of mistrust of journalism in film and a change in how people answer surveys about it (sorry, I’m also skeptical of “survey” social sciences).

    One sees very few films in the top 50 80’s films that one could even say have such a narrative connection. One could stretch to relate #28 Good Morning Vietnam, #43 9 to 5, or #46 Dead Poets Society, or maybe #42 Porky’s (just kidding). #82 Born on the 4th of July? Films specifically about journalism like Where the Buffalo Roam (1980), Absence of Malice (1981), Year of Living Dangerously (1982), Under Fire (1983), Killing Fields (1984), Salvador (1986), Broadcast News (1987) don’t even make the top 100 and in many cases probably narratively support faith in journalism rather than undermine it.,1989&title_type=feature&sort=boxoffice_gross_us,desc

    One could look farther back at obvious films like like Parallax View (1974), All The President’s Men (1976), or Network (1976), but then is there an incubation period for mistrust?

    Could we blame Lou Grant (1977-1982), Murphy Brown, or (the now apparently prescient) Max Headroom (1987-88)?

    I bet some of your other theories are more explanatory 😉

    • Thanks for taking a look. I do think that more tangential roles could play a role. For instance, I forget if there are any mobbing reporters outside the home in E.T. But in Batman, aren’t reporters trying to unmask him? In Crocodile Dundee, the authenticity of the manly man melts the heart of the cynical world-weary reporter out for a story. Etc.

      In fact I think there’s a lot of these stories where a cynical female reporter gets shown the real deal by a manly man, which is something to look at in itself.

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