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Media Coverage of Trump Government’s Flaws Might be Backfiring

February 27, 2017, 7:02 PM UTC

Since Donald Trump took office in January, there has been a steady stream of critical articles in the mainstream press about potential problems with his administration and its policies. These have ranged from the government’s immigration ban to allegations of conflicts of interest with Russia, with dozens of smaller controversies in between.

Is all of this coverage increasing public mistrust of Trump and his government? There are some signs this could be the case, including polls that show a low approval rating for the president. But there are other signs that the opposite may be true.

For example, a recent survey by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News found that just over half of those surveyed said the media are being too critical of Trump and his administration. And a similar amount—53%—said that the media’s coverage has exaggerated any problems within the Trump government.

Not surprisingly, an even greater proportion of regular viewers of conservative-leaning Fox News said they believed the media has been too critical of Trump’s problems.

According to the survey, almost 80% of those who picked Fox as their primary news source agreed that “the news media and other elites are exaggerating the problems of the Trump administration, because they are uncomfortable and threatened by the kind of change that Trump represents.”

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Even among viewers of more mainstream or less conservative-leaning networks such as MSNBC, however, the survey found that about 40% of those who answered the survey agreed with the statement that the media are exaggerating Trump’s problems.

Although it’s often unwise to extrapolate from a single survey, the Journal/NBC poll raises the possibility that the mainstream media’s coverage of the Trump administration could be backfiring, and creating more mistrust of the media rather than more mistrust of Trump.

This effect could also be fueled by Trump’s repeated attacks on what he calls the “dishonest media,” including “the failing New York Times” and other outlets that have been critical of him. The president recently described the mainstream press as “enemies of the American people,” and his chief strategist Steve Bannon has said the media acts as though it is the opposition party.

Last week, White House press secretary Sean Spicer excluded the New York Times, CNN, the BBC and BuzzFeed from an off-the-record press briefing, in what appeared to be retaliation for critical stories about the Trump government’s ties with and potential conflicts of interest in Russia.

Even before these attacks, however, surveys have shown that public trust in the media is at all-time lows, the result of a sustained downward slide of more than a decade. Last fall, a poll done by Gallup found that only 32% of those surveyed said they had either a great deal or a fair amount of trust in the media, down from more than 50% in 1997.

And in Edelman’s recent Trust Barometer study, which it does annually, the public-relations firm found that just 35% of respondents said that they trusted the media.

Much like the Journal/NBC News poll, the Edelman survey also found significantly lower levels of trust in the media among those who voted for Trump. Just 15% of Trump supporters said that they trusted the press to report the news fairly, compared with about 26% of Clinton voters.

Since a significant proportion of the public don’t appear to trust the press to begin with, critical stories about Trump and his government’s policies or decisions may not be seen as credible. So instead of encouraging people to be more skeptical or critical of the Trump administration, these stories are instead seen as evidence of bias on the media’s part.

This narrative is one that Trump’s attacks play into, painting the press as out to get him, or engaging in what he and his spokespeople call “fake news.” And the Journal/NBC News poll suggests that this strategy may be having some impact on the way people see the president.