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Measuring Trust in the Press in a Changing Media Environment

The only long term trend data on trust in the American press comes from the General Social Survey (GSS). The erosion of trust in the press as measured by the GSS indicator is indisputable, but its implications for the functioning of American democracy depend on what, precisely, is being measured. In this study we use an experimental design embedded in a representative national probability sample to shed light on what people are thinking of when they say they trust or distrust the American press. Are they thinking about the sources they themselves use for news? The sources that are most popular with the population at large? An average of all possible media sources? We find that individuals express much greater trust in the press when they are asked to consider specific news sources than when they are asked to evaluate a generic news media. Our results suggest that an accessibility bias combined with the proliferation of news sources in recent years may lead individuals to think of distrusted sources when asked to answer generic media trust questions. We therefore argue that different measurement strategies are needed to successfully address trust in the press in the current news environment.