Survey: Many Minnesotans distrust media

Photographers lined up for news conference
Members of the media record a news conference in Eden Prairie, Minn., in 2014.
Jennifer Simonson | MPR News 2014

Many Minnesotans don’t trust the state’s news media or believe it does a good job of covering people like them.

That’s the findings of the APM Research Lab’s new Diverse Communities Survey, which interviewed more than 1,500 Minnesotans about media trust and other topics.

This widespread mistrust of the media is driven by multiple factors, including politics and race. Many Republicans, for example, believe news outlets have a liberal bias. Meanwhile many people of color also see the news media as covering them in too negative a light — if they get covered at all.

“These communities (of color) have always had their separate news outlets, because mainstream news outlets have not made room for them except as problems,” said Catherine Squires, the interim dean at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs and a professor who researches representations of race in media, among other topics.

All these different complaints can add up to a serious lack of trust. The Diverse Communities Survey found less than half of Minnesotans say they trust the media to always or mostly do what’s right. That’s lower than Minnesotans’ trust in other institutions like public schools, police, or the medical system, and similar to levels of trust in state government.

Graph of Minnesotans' trust in various institutions
Less than half of Minnesotans trust the Minnesota news media to usually do what's right
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

Politics polarizes media trust

But this relative mistrust isn’t spread evenly around the population. For one thing, it’s heavily driven by politics, with most Minnesota Republicans disliking the state’s media, and most Democrats holding much more positive views.

That’s no surprise, with national surveys consistently showing widespread Republican antipathy for the media, which they see as generally leaning to the left.

“Conservatives have always felt that there’s been a bias against them in the mainstream media,” said Ed Morrissey, senior editor at the conservative news site HotAir and a decadeslong Minnesota resident until this summer.

That same pattern of polarized views of the media holds true in Minnesota. Just 16 percent of Minnesota Republicans say they usually trust the state’s media to do what’s right, against 68 percent of Democrats.

Morrissey said that while Minnesota conservatives have their complaints about local media outlets including the Minneapolis Star Tribune and MPR News — only 1 percent of Minnesota Republicans said each of those two outlets is a primary source of news for them — he thought some of the distrust the survey found toward local media was spill-over from “attitudes toward the national media.”

David Brauer, a retired longtime media reporter, said Republican critiques of Minnesota media outlets have existed for a long time, and have probably grown more intense — though Brauer, a self-identified progressive, noted that left-leaning Minnesotans like him have their own critiques that mainstream media outlets can sometimes be too conservative.

“If you see coverage that doesn’t conform to your beliefs, and you’re not willing to change your beliefs, you’re probably going to rate it low,” Brauer said.

A 2013 survey of journalists found they were nearly 30 percent more likely to identify as Democrats than Republicans — a shift from an earlier 1971 survey, which found a 40 percent edge. (Both surveys also found many journalists identify as political independents, including just over 50 percent in 2013.) And in an era where American politics is increasingly polarized by education, more than 90 percent of working journalists have a college degree, the 2013 survey found.

Race and politics

Despite having their own concerns about Minnesota’s media, people of color overall have much higher levels of trust in local media than do Republicans. Collectively, Native American and Hmong Minnesotans are much less likely to trust the media, while Hispanic and non-Hmong Asian Minnesotans have higher levels of trust.

White Minnesotans overall have the lowest media trust of any racial group, at just 43 percent. But that’s an artifact of political divisions. Only 15 percent of white Republicans trust the Minnesota media, while a full 70 percent of white Democrats do.

Graph of trust in Minnesota news media
Trust in Minnesota's news media, by race.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

Minnesotans of color also show a political divide over media trust, but a much smaller one. White Democrats are 55 percentage points more likely to trust the media than white Republicans, while the gap is only 20 points among people of color. (Around 15 percent of Minnesotans of color lean toward the Republican Party.)

Graph of trust in Minnesota media by race and party
Trust in Minnesota's news media by race and party.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

Many communities dislike their media coverage

Some of this mistrust of the media might relate to concerns about how media outlets cover people’s racial or ethnic groups.

Less than half of every group surveyed said Minnesota media strikes a good balance in in covering people of their race. This was particularly low for many people of color, with just 13 percent of Black respondents, 14 percent of Native Americans and 16 percent of Hispanics saying the media strikes a good balance.

But diving deeper uncovers some big differences of opinion in how the media is getting it wrong.

A majority of Black Minnesotans, for example, say there are too many negative stories about Black people — twice as high as any other group.

“Black folks typically look at mainstream media and are frustrated by the preponderance of news that has a crime focus to it,” said Duchesne Drew, the president of MPR News, who is Black. “That’s not a new issue, but one that people are rightfully highlighting and calling on us to put more effort into addressing — making sure we’re not just reaching out to Black folks when there’s some story of dysfunction.”

Graph of trust in Minnesota news media
Trust in Minnesota's news media, by race.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

Members of other non-white groups, in contrast, are more likely to say the bigger issue is that there are too few stories about their groups.

“In the history of the United States, particularly in the dominant press, the issue of race or racism … has almost always been framed as a Black-white issue and other groups not included,” said Squires.

While that is “starting to change,” Squires said the “larger pattern” is an assumption among many mainstream reporters that “you only need to talk to people from those groups when there is a story that looks like it is about those groups, usually in the ‘crisis’ frame or ‘the first’ — ‘the first Latinx restaurant’ or ‘the first Asian American to win this sports contest.’ ”

Local journalist Mukhtar Ibrahim founded the nonprofit news website Sahan Journal “to fill those gaps in stories of these communities” — gaps he said he’s seen for years. Like Squires, he said mainstream Minnesota media sources too often don’t get “close” to communities of color and fail to tell “interesting stories that reflect the true experience of these communities, and not just when a fire breaks out or someone gets killed.”

(MPR News and Sahan Journal are news partners and have a content-sharing agreement.)

Politics also plays a role here. Many white Republicans say the media is too negative about whites. Almost no white Democrats agree there, with 22 percent of them saying the media is too positive about whites.

Graph of views on media coverage of racial groups
Minnesotans' views on how local media covers their racial or ethnic group.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

That’s not to say that these communities that distrust the mainstream media are left relying on it. They often have their own alternative sources of news coverage, from tiny to giant. That can range from conservative outlets like Fox News or Morrissey’s HotAir for Republicans to a range of outlets focusing on particular racial, ethnic or cultural communities like the Black-owned Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder, or Twin Cities Hmong Television.

Mitch Lee, the executive producer of Hmong TV, said his station has spent nearly two decades covering people and events in the Hmong community that mainstream reporters rarely do.

“There are a lot of success stories out there, they’re just not being covered,” he said. “That’s the sad thing. There’s also a lot of negative stories out there, and sometimes when a story gets out there, it’s always … the negative one.”

Solutions

Journalists and outside experts alike said the way to rebuild trust in news outlets is to produce coverage that reflects how disaffected communities view themselves.

“People are living in this time very separate lives, and we have an obligation as public media to cover the range of realties for Minnesotans,” Drew said.

One way to do that is to hire more journalists from these disaffected communities — people who already have ties to sources and an understanding of the community’s concerns.

Nationwide, a 2018 analysis found that 77 percent of newsroom employees were non-Hispanic whites. That’s a higher rate than the U.S. workforce as a whole, which is 65 percent white.

“Part of the challenge, to be frank, for us as well as for other mainstream media outlets, is our staff is not always as diverse as the community is,” Drew said. “So we don’t have the perspectives to bring us a wide range of stories.”

Morrissey identified that exact same solution for conservatives’ distrust of the media.

“Why don’t you just hire someone who’s actually conservative and can provide that viewpoint and perspective in your newsrooms?” he said. “That’s the way you solve that problem — you recruit people from those perspectives into the newsroom.”

But plenty of efforts at newsroom racial diversity over the past decades have fallen short — in part, Squires said, due to “hostility to people who come in and point out the gaps” and try to change the newsroom culture. She also noted a hiring-based solution can push responsibility off the organization to change, putting it on the new hire: “That doesn’t change the culture, that just says, ”this is your job."

Brauer also noted the failures of many diversity hiring programs.

“I don’t think there’s any doubt that they haven’t worked enough,” he said. “The excuse always was, ‘There just isn’t a qualified pool of candidates.’ One of the things that reflects progress is, I don’t think that excuse is accepted — by as many white people, anyway.”

Another proposed solution is to task existing journalists to build connections with communities they don’t come from.

Ibrahim said Sahan Journal has tasked his reporters with doing the “hard work” of intentionally talking to “new sources, new leaders, who haven’t been profiled or written about” before.

“It’s hard work,” he said. "You have to be out there, you have to be in the community, you have to build trust and make sure you’re intentionally covering these communities.

Until mainstream media outlets consistently do that, Squires said, alternative outlets that provide journalism from and for particular communities will have a clear place.

“You might argue … that until more of the dynamics of racism change, those (alternative) outlets are part of a healthy media ecosystem,” Squires said.

Where Minnesotans get their news

Regardless of how they feel about the media as a whole, most Minnesotans do rely on the media to stay informed about current events. Only 12 percent of the state say they don’t have a primary source of news.

When Minnesotans do consume news, it’s disproportionately likely to be on TV. Overall 49 percent of Minnesotans named a TV station as their primary source of news, compared to 26 percent naming an internet outlet, and 14 percent each a newspaper or radio station. (This doesn’t account for many outlets that publish news in multiple mediums. Someone who gets their news primarily from MPR’s website would still be classified as “radio,” while an avid reader of CNN.com would be coded as “television.”)

“There is no doubt that TV remains the No. 1 source for news, and anybody who doesn’t believe that is ignoring reality,” Brauer said.

The biggest exceptions to this trend are many Hmong and Asian Minnesotans, who are likelier than any other group to get their news online.

Graph of Minnesotans' favorite news sources
Minnesotans' favorite medium of news, by demographic groups.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

Lee said that in the Hmong community, at least, online news can get past language barriers. Hmong Television broadcasts in the Hmong language. And though it has roots as a conventional TV station, it’s now exclusively online as a YouTube channel with more than 90,000 subscribers.

“These YouTube-based, Facebook-based channels have massive audience,” Ibrahim said. “They cover the community in their native languages and provide talk shows. I’m not surprised that’s one main source of news for these communities.”

But this breakdown by race and party ignores another huge factor determining media consumption: age. Minnesotans over 50 are overwhelmingly likely to rely on television for their news, regardless of race. Meanwhile Minnesotans under 50 tend to rely on websites or apps for news, though even among this younger group TV remains popular.

Graph of Minnesotans' favorite new source by age
Minnesotans' favorite news mediums by age and race.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

By far the most common news sources for Minnesotans are national cable news networks. CNN and Fox News were named more than any other outlets overall — and in roughly equal proportions.

That doesn’t mean Minnesotans are ignoring local news. Roughly equal shares of respondents mentioned local and national outlets as key sources of news for them.

Cable networks were the top news source for Black, white, Hispanic and non-Hmong Asian Minnesotans. Native Americans and Hmong were somewhat more likely to watch local TV news like WCCO and Fox 9.

Politics plays a role here too. Around 18 percent of Minnesota Republicans named Fox News as a favorite news source, against just 3 percent of Democrats. Meanwhile 14 percent of Minnesota Democrats named MPR and 9 percent the Star Tribune as top news sources — against just 1 percent each for Republicans.

Graph of Minnesotans' favorite media outlets
Minnesotans' favorite media outlets by demographic groups.
David H. Montgomery | MPR News

The APM Research Lab has more details on the survey methodology and the specific questions respondents were asked.

Tell us where you get the news you trust and how you stay informed about issues that matter to you. 

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.