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Post-Election Survey: Americans Doubt Media, Trust Electoral Process

Cable TV Punditry Fuels Worries About Bias in News Coverage

By Maryland Today Staff

Illustration of news anchors with "News" crossed out to say "Opinion"

Illustration by Shutterstock

A post-election national survey from journalism researchers found mistrust of the media, fueled by cable news pundits, balanced by faith that the U.S. electoral system would deliver valid results.

Wall-to-wall opinion journalism may be creating the impression for Americans across the political spectrum that the media is politically biased, according to results from a nationwide survey conducted by University of Maryland journalism researchers one day after the presidential election.

Most of the 755 respondents said panels of pundits on cable TV news programs—but not traditional newscasts—caused them to think the media is biased. The effect was stronger for Republicans (4.2 on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being most biased) than Democrats (3.7), according to the survey.

“It’s not just the fact that we’ve heard the media called the enemy of the people for years; there may be other factors that we can pursue” to address the lack of trust, said Associate Professor Ronald Yaros, who led the research with a group of Ph.D. students in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism. 

However, returning to the days when Walter Cronkite was known as the most trusted man in America might be more complex that just replacing Tucker Carlson, Rachel Maddow and Chris Cuomo with traditional anchors and factual reporting, Yaros said. While voters of both parties—and particularly Republicans—claimed they preferred straight news, both groups (again with Republicans in the lead) also said they would be less likely to watch news programs without pundit panels.

Voters from both parties reported social media as their primary news source, with significantly more Republicans than Democrats citing it as their No. 1 source. Other results indicate Republicans were more engaged with Facebook before the election and more of them rated Twitter as a significant political news source did than Democrats.

While they may eschew confidence in the news media, the respondents overwhelmingly said they trust the U.S. electoral process, with only two respondents—both of whom reported not voting in the election—indicating a complete lack of faith.

Overall, when asked to rate their “faith in the electoral system” on a 1 to 5 scale, respondents identifying themselves as Democrats scored an average of 3.67, while Republican averaged 4.01, despite President Donald Trump’s frequent complaints about rigged voting. Overall, half of respondents cited civic duty as their top reason to vote, above factors such as supporting their favored candidate.

When it came to voting patterns, 91% of Republicans reported voting in person, compared to 64% of Democrats. Just 9% of the Republicans cast mail-in ballots versus 36% of Democrats, with voters in both parties giving equal weight (2.6 on a 5-point scale) to COVID-19 in deciding whether to vote in person or by mail or dropbox.

Asked about pre-election activities, 24% of Republicans and 22% of Democrats said they put up signs, while only tiny numbers from either party donated to political candidates: 3% of Republicans vs. 1% of Democrats. 

Of the 755 respondents, 727 reported voting in this election. The group included 60% men and 40% women. The average age of participants was 37.5 years, and included 70% white, 14% Asian, 7% Black or African American, 4% Hispanic/Latinx and the remainder American Indian, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islanders.  47% of the respondents said they were Republican or leaning Republican, 39% indicated Democrat or leaning Democratic, and 13% Independent.



Maryland Today is produced by the Office of Strategic Communications for the University of Maryland community weekdays during the academic year, except for university holidays.