An annual survey of public trust in mass media by Gallup found that just 41% of Americans in 2019 had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in forms of media such as newspapers, television and radio to report the news fully, accurately and fairly. That number included a mere 15% of Republicans and 36% of independents.
That’s a problem. But where did it come from, and what can be done to turn it around?
I think it is necessary to look first at our current political situation -- most obviously the distrust between President Donald Trump and the news media and whether he is responsible for the decay in public trust in the press. Some media critics, such as New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen, have called for journalists to use “novel responses” to the challenge of covering Trump, including “risk[ing] the breakdown of decorum” when interviewing him.
In response to this argument, I would ask those who still agree with Rosen -- who wrote his piece before Trump’s victory -- the following question: Has the press not already broken decorum in the way it covers the Trump presidency? Look at this exchange between Trump and CNN White House correspondent Jim Acosta, in which Acosta repeatedly interrupts the president and pushes back on his claims. Regardless of who, if anyone, was right in that confrontation, it was a clear breakdown of decorum: a decidedly abnormal interaction between a reporter and the president of the United States.
Trump likely deserves some of the blame for the breakdown of trust in the media. After all, his presidency itself has been abnormal in too many ways to count. Yet I would argue that the media has done more damage to its reputation than its collective hubris would allow it to admit.
And what has that breakdown of decorum gotten the press? Gallup’s data shows that since 2006, a majority of Americans have not trusted the press, with the average percentage of people trusting the press since that year hovering in the low 40s. Although the 2019 number has rebounded from an all-time low of 32% in 2016, it still fell four points from 2018. The distrust extends through parts of three presidencies, including the entirety of the Obama administration.
Perhaps more importantly, many media outlets now show a shocking indifference toward presenting the news in a full, accurate and fair manner. Consider the following two examples, drawn just from the first month of 2020.
On Jan. 22, during House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff’s opening arguments in the Senate’s impeachment trial of Trump, CNN political analyst Joe Lockhart tweeted the following:
“Overheard conversation between two Republican Senators who only watch Fox News. ‘Is this stuff real? I haven’t heard any of this before. I thought it was all about a server. If half the stuff Schiff is saying is true, we’re up s--t’s creek. Hope the White House has exculpatory evidence.'"
Nine minutes later, Lockhart followed up his first tweet:
“Ok maybe I made up the convo, but you know that’s exactly what they’re thinking.”
Both of Lockhart’s tweets remain on his Twitter page, and the original tweet has amassed more than 11,600 retweets and more than 46,300 likes. CNN has not disciplined Lockhart.
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I can say with near certainty that if a journalism student behaved as recklessly as Lockhart did while covering a story even as minuscule in importance as a school board meeting -- much less the impeachment trial of the president of the United States -- he would receive a failing grade for the assignment and quite possibly the course, while completely destroying his professor’s trust.
This raises another question: Why is a political analyst working for an international news station held to a lower ethical standard than a college student?
The simple answer, and the correct one, is that this should not be the case. Yet it somehow is.
My goal here is not to pile on CNN. Right-wing media outlets regularly publish similarly lazy or unethical stories.
On Jan. 14, Fox News aired a television segment criticizing attempts to “cancel” actor Vince Vaughn by liberals who were upset by his decision to greet Trump during the college football national championship game.
The problem? The segment’s main evidence of “liberal cancel culture” was a sarcastic tweet posted by conservative journalist Siraj Hashmi of the Washington Examiner. Even a 30-second glance at Hashmi’s Twitter feed should have told the segment’s producers that he was a conservative who regularly tweeted sarcastically.
The decision to air Hashmi’s tweet as a legitimate example of cancel culture ended with Hashmi receiving racist messages from angry Fox News viewers. Although that disgusting display of racism cannot be tolerated regardless of whether Hashmi’s tweet was serious, there is also something sickening about how journalistic laziness can distort actual meaning in order to fit a preconceived narrative.
The producers at Fox News -- and the writer of the Fox News article that originally cited Hashmi's tweet -- had likely decided before they found the tweet that they would run a segment on cancel culture designed to mock overly sensitive Twitter liberals. On the surface, Hashmi’s tweet fit their narrative, so they ran with it.
This sort of behavior cannot be accepted if the media is to improve its reputation. But who ought to hold the press accountable?
It cannot be the government. One needs only to look at any government-run media outlet to realize that media that toes the government line is just public relations. Government interference to promote certain news outlets and stories while silencing others, meanwhile, goes against the very nature of the freedom of the press -- even if that interference has good intentions.
It might be news consumers, though this is unlikely. Some Supreme Court rulings in favor of free speech have been justified through the lens of the “marketplace of ideas,” or the belief that censorship is far less effective at promoting truth than the free market. If consumers have a choice between being told a lie and being told the truth, one might say, no rational person would choose the lie. However, the rise of conspiracy outlets such as InfoWars casts some doubt on the absolute nature of this claim. It would seem that some people actually prefer attractive lies to the ugly truth.
The most obvious solution is for the media to police itself. Editors should stop giving ink to bad journalism. As journalists, we must first look inward, not at those we cover, when we assign accountability. We must stop projecting our industry’s failures entirely onto other people, even if those people deserve some of the blame.
In other words, we must stop seeing ourselves as victims. We must accept that our industry is viewed negatively by a considerable portion of the American public, and we must work to fix it ourselves.
Is this solution perfect? Of course not. Is it even possible? I believe so, but there's no avoiding the fact that it will be difficult. Exaggerations, lies and loyalty to personal interests have a history of driving journalistic decision-making, most infamously during the Spanish-American War.
But I firmly believe two things: that the media needs to own up to its failures, and that this path is the best way to do so.
Contact opinions editor Riley Blake at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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