Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

Photo Courtesy of Getty Images

Trusting the Media

Thirty-two percent: this is the percentage of Americans who say they have “a fair amount” or “great deal” of trust in American media, according to the most recent Gallup poll. Trust in the media has been declining for the past two to three decades, and has dropped dramatically within the last year. To understand the root of the problem, let’s take a look at how perceptions of the media evolved from the second half of the 20th century to today.

The 1970s were seen as a golden age for reporting. The Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War had made for intriguing topics that captured audiences’ attention. But those working in the journalistic profession were not pleased. Women and minorities had to fight for the scraps. They regularly did all the grunt work and received little or no credit. Since the ’70s, journalistic integrity has been on the decline.

In 1987, President Reagan’s Federal Communications Commission abolished the Fairness Doctrine, a piece of legislation that had been in place since 1949. This doctrine sought to ensure bipartisan presentation of the news by requiring holders of broadcasting licenses to include two opposing viewpoints on every topic covered. When this doctrine was pushed through Congress, Reagan vetoed it, claiming that it was “antagonistic to the freedom of expression guaranteed by the First Amendment.” Reagan’s contention had some validity, but his veto led many large broadcasting corporations to abandon careful journalistic practices and adopt partisan reporting techniques instead, honing in on a single audience that shared a narrow point of view. The result has been the deterioration of critical thought in the journalistic product, resulting in a less informed public.

Think that a partisan approach is a bad way to run a media company? Think again. A number of very successful broadcasting corporations employ a business model based on partisan viewership. For example, Fox News, founded in 1996, gained enormous popularity by attracting conservatives who were disenchanted by the mainstream media. Notorious today as a purely conservative news outlet, Fox appeals to only those viewers who are looking for their views to be confirmed.  

It is no surprise that 2016 was a particularly bumpy year for trust in the media. Trust levels routinely fall during presidential election years, but last year’s decline was especially precipitous. As The Atlantic observed, no presidential candidate has ever focused so much negative attention on  the press. Our current president even went so far as to criticize traditionally conservative news organizations such as Fox News and The Wall Street Journal. Apparently, no one is safe these days.

Then, too, technology has disrupted the business of journalism. The transition from print journalism to online outlets has caused several problems. First, the number of copy editor positions has been drastically cut. Copy editors are the men and women who sit in newsrooms and slave over corrections--not just to punctuation, but, more important, to facts. Could one poorly revised  news piece fundamentally undermine the public’s trust? Basically, yes. What Americans want most from the news media is accuracy, which is why simple editing errors can cause journalists and the organizations that employ them to lose credibility. So if there aren’t enough editors to check the facts that journalists spew out, there is no accountability in the newsroom.

Second, the heightened accessibility of the news has intensified the rush to report the news. Be first, or be last: if one media outlet is minutes behind another in reporting an event, it is perceived as having lost. And losers don’t attract advertisers. This pressure causes journalists to be willing to compromise quality and accuracy in order to be the first to report a story. If all news organizations have this thought process, how do we know who is getting the story right?

The list of problems caused by technology goes on:

  • Facebook has created algorithms that post only the news stories the company thinks will interest you, based on your previous search patterns. In other words, Facebook’s suggested reading confirms your preconceived beliefs.

  • Foreign nations often provide fake news stories in an attempt to make a quick buck. If you click the link, they make money.

  • Groupthink: at the end of any online publication, the comments section is filled with a multitude of responses. But if the first comment you saw was, “Fake news. Don’t believe this,” would you believe it? I would certainly question the article’s validity, even if the author provided her sources and accurately led me through her thought process. Although it’s important to question things, a wholesale distrust of the news can lead to imaginary problems.

Yet another factor contributing to the decline of print journalism is the dearth of local newspapers. My family terminated our subscription  in 2012 when The Birmingham News stopped producing daily papers and moved to a thrice-weekly system along with the Huntsville and Mobile papers. These aren’t rural papers we’re talking about. Most rural areas, by the way, have no news coverage whatsoever. And national news outlets are benefiting from the decline in local news coverage. As residents of rural areas lose their local outlets, they turn to the internet and large, national media for their information. Typically, national news outlets are located in coastal, urban areas, a.k.a. Democrat territory. Although Republicans always have the option of getting their daily news from Fox, I believe we should have more and better options for local news coverage.

The public editor of National Public Radio, Elizabeth Jensen, has suggested a multitude of solutions to this epidemic of mistrust that plagues America’s political landscape. One word sums them up: transparency. Transparency with respect to who funds organizations, what the funders’ beliefs are, and what the message is they’re trying to convey (or impose). But it doesn’t stop there: a news organization’s fact-checking and corrections policies must also be transparent. Journalists, like all humans, will make mistakes, but they need to be willing to acknowledge their mistakes and point them out.

The public wants accuracy. If a little more money can buy a little more quality control, the extra cost is worth the public’s trust. The only institution that the public has less trust in?

Congress. Talk about a low bar.

- Ada Cohen '18