Do tabloid newspapers undermine social trust?

Trust might be one of the most valuable assets a society can have. David Halpern of the Behavioural Insights Team summarises the evidence that:

Levels of social trust, averaged across a country, predict national economic growth as powerfully as financial and physical capital, and more powerfully than skill levels – over which every government in the world worries about incessantly. It is also associated with many other non-economic outcomes, such as life satisfaction (positively) and suicide (negatively). In short, it’s not much fun living in a place where you don’t think most other people can be trusted. Low trust implies a society where you have to keep an eye over your shoulder; where deals need lawyers instead of hand-shakes; where you don’t see the point of paying your tax or recycling your rubbish (since you doubt your neighbour will do so); and where you employ your cousin or your brother-in-law to work for you rather than a stranger who would probably be much better at the job

In light of these findings, an increasingly prominent argument by those who favour restricting immigration (made, for example, by Paul Collier and Ross Douthat) is that immigration undermines social trust. According to their theories, this can operate in two ways. First, immigrants coming from societies with lower levels of trust may bring these norms with them. Second, the increased presence of foreigners may cause ‘natives’ to ‘hunker down’ (in Robert Putnam’s phrase). As Noah Smith finds, the evidence on this is contested, to say the least – some studies suggest social diversity reduces social trust, but many others suggest that it has no effect or even a positive effect.

However, the whole argument leads me to wonder what other factors might impede social trust. Insofar as people are ‘hunkering down’, what is estranging them from other members of society? In the case of immigrants in the UK, there is a case to be made that tabloid newspapers should carry some of the blame. Such papers have been unremittingly hostile to migration, with one academic review pointing out the consistent use of “language that evokes the theme of ‘invasion’” and that “Stories on immigration are often unconsciously collocated in the news with reports of ‘foreign threats’ (for instance, war, drugs, crime, or terrorism”. It should be unsurprising then that newspaper readership is one of the best predictors of attitudes to immigration: in 2013, 52% of Express readers said that it was the most important issue facing the country, compared to 14% of Guardian readers.

It goes beyond immigration. For many tabloids, the default tone seems to be fear and suspicion. Tabloids are more likely to carry stories about crime and to sensationalise them. Consequently, tabloid readers have been found to be more likely to worry about crime. An analysis of newspaper reports on benefits found that 29% of stories related to fraud, and that the issue was especially pronounced for tabloids, whose readers were more likely to overestimate the prevalence of fraud.

Putting this together, it seems plausible that tabloids may erode social trust, through consistent repetition of the message that society is filled with people that will threaten, exploit or manipulate the reader.

To test the theory, I looked at data from the British Social Attitudes survey. Between 2011 and 2013, the survey asked people both about their newspaper reading habits and their level of general trust in others. The chart below shows how those who read a broadsheet three times a week, those who read a tabloid three times a week and those who read no newspaper that often compare in their responses to the question ‘Would you say that most people can be trusted, or that you can’t be too careful in dealing with people?’


It shows that tabloid readers are less likely to believe most people can be trusted, with 65% saying you can’t be too careful, compared to 51% of broadsheet readers and 60% of those who don’t regularly read newspapers.

Of course, these results are merely suggestive at best. The difference between tabloid readers and non-newspaper readers is barely statistically significant. Moreover, this analysis does not account for the various ways in which tabloid readers differ from other groups – they are older and less affluent, which may affect their level of social trust. Nor does it account for the possibility that readers may seek out newspapers that reflect their personalities and prejudices – maybe being predisposed to mistrust makes people seek out tabloids.

However, it is worth considering what our response would be if it were to turn out to be the case that tabloids cause lower social trust. I suspect most people would insist that we just need to accept lower social trust as the price of press freedom. But that raises another question: why is freedom of movement not be an equally valuable principle that overrides any cost to social trust?

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