The Press is the Enemy: The Problem of Public Trust in Mass Media

Trust is critical to news organizations.

The classic aspirations of journalism – informing the public, holding power to account, and serving as a shield for democratic principles – depend on public trust. Conversely, cynicism and distrust in journalism become a liability. In a column titled “War on Cynicism,” journalist David Broder declared, “If the assumption is that nothing is on the level, nothing is what it seems, then citizenship becomes a game for fools and there is no point in trying to stay informed.”

Beyond aspirations, trust affects revenue – a primary concern for the financially troubled industry. An American Press Institute study found that trust in a news source plays a significant role in how consumers engage with the source (click links, read articles, share them with others) and whether they pay for content. The API concludes, “[N]ews organizations that earn trust have an advantage in earning money and growing their audience.”

A Gallup poll recently revealed that America’s trust in mass media – the country’s major newspapers, TV and radio news organizations – sank to an all-time low in 2016. Pew Research came to similar conclusions, while an Emerson College poll shows that 53 percent of American voters believe news media are ‘untruthful’ compared to 39 percent responding ‘truthful.’

Trust in Mass Media Polling Data, 1997-2016. Source: Gallup

So, why do people find it hard to trust the media? What kind of consequences are we seeing because of that lack of trust? What do individual journalists need to do to get that trust back?

The Press is the Enemy from Deepan Dutta on Vimeo.

Why People Don’t Trust the News

Shrinking Revenue, Shrinking Newsroom

One factor leading to dwindling trust is the precipitous decline of traditional news outlets, particularly newspapers.

Pew reports that in 2015, the newspaper industry experienced its worst year since the 2008 recession, seeing a 7 percent drop in overall circulation and an 8 percent drop in advertising revenue. The losses come as the industry still struggles to adapt in the age of the internet.

“The rise of the internet just changed that whole business model and the way that people get their news,” says Jeffrey Roberts, veteran journalist and executive director at the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition (CFOIC). “It’s become more difficult for traditional mainstream, credible, [news] organizations and professional journalists to compete with all sorts of other avenues of information.”

The beginnings of the internet’s rise and the newspaper’s fall coincided almost immediately. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, at the newspaper industry’s peak in 1990 it employed over 457,000 people. In 1991, the World Wide Web became accessible to the public, and newspapers have been shedding jobs ever since. As of February 2017 – the last month data was available – 172,000 newspaper jobs remain, a staggering drop of 62 percent.

Newspaper Publisher Employees over Time, January 1990 – February 2017. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Newsrooms have shrunk at an even more alarming rate. The American Society of News Editors estimates newsrooms lost 22,100 jobs between 2006 and 2014, a loss of 42 percent.

The ASNE stopped reporting newsroom employment numbers in 2016, and the News Media Alliance (formerly known as the Newspaper Association of America) stopped releasing quarterly advertising revenue data in 2013. Media analysts have speculated that both organizations stopped reporting these numbers because they had become too depressing for an already demoralized industry.

The Denver Post is a prime example of a local newspaper hit hard by the crunch. Chuck Plunkett, editorial board editor at the Post, recalls the state of their newsroom when he started working there in 2003.

“We had 350 employees, five mountain bureaus around the state, and a large Washington bureau. They even considered opening bureaus in Mexico City and London.

“Since I’ve been here and times have gotten hard, we’ve scaled back and we don’t have the mountain bureaus anymore, we only have one person in Washington, and not talking about a bureau in Mexico City or anywhere else.”

Plunkett says the shrinking newsroom led to a shrinking product. “When you have 350 people, you can do a hell of a lot more than when you have 100.”

He says longtime subscribers noticed the change, and he frequently hears from critics who believe the Post no longer cares about the community. “I think to some degree that helps feed into the loss of trust.”

Jay Seaton, publisher of the Grand Junction Sentinel, employs 32 people in his newsroom, and wishes he could afford 10 more.

“I think that’s probably true for every newspaper and every news organization in the country,” he says. “We’re headed in the wrong direction in this industry, we got a great need for good, boots on the ground reporting right now, and most of us just don’t have the financial performance to support it.”

Corporate Ownership & the Ivory Tower Problem

After decades of deregulation and consolidation, a handful of corporations own almost all of the media outlets in America. The concentration of news outlets has brought about fears of an increasingly homogenous narrative that caters to a select few interests.

Greg Moore, editor of the Denver Post from 2002 to 2016, recently retired from the news business after a distinguished 40-year career. Shifting perspective from newsmaker to news consumer, he has started taking a more critical look at “Big Media,” the term he uses instead of ‘mainstream media’ to describe large, corporate-owned news organizations.

He points out how Digital First Media, the owner of the Denver Post, also owns over 50 other newspapers. He says it makes the Post look more like an appendage of a faceless corporation rather than a local newspaper, leaving them open to cynicism and criticism.

“I think that the Denver Post audience see it more as a big metropolitan corporately owned newspaper, and they fire a lot of shots at it.”

Moore also believes the national news media as a whole has become associated with the ‘establishment’ and elitist cultural values.

“They really concentrate on reporting on the coasts and in big urban centers,” he says. “They don’t pay much attention to what’s happening in the hinterlands, or what’s happening in rural America, or what working class people are thinking about.”

Chuck Plunkett believes the news media settled into this “ivory towerish” worldview back in the pre-internet heyday when traditional news outlet were the only game in town and did not have to worry about making money.

“When papers made a lot of money with their advertising pages and their classified sections… there was a certain amount of elitism at papers that was distasteful.”

Even when news media does pay attention to middle or rural America, Moore says they only scratch the surface.

“They write about them, but they don’t really pay attention to their lives, they treat them as sort of implements of policy.”

The notion that the news media as elitist and out of touch is a popular one in the wake of the 2016 election. Many commentators and analysts have made the issue of elitism in the media  a focal point on why it appears news media, and therefore many of its consumers, were apparently so blindsided by the populist wave resulting in Brexit and the “Trump phenomenon.”

“That’s really the biggest indictment of the media,” Moore says. “If you’ve done your job, your readers and your audience shouldn’t be shocked by what’s happened. Clearly, America woke up in a state of shock after the election.”

Moore says that instead of trying to get to know the audience or the issues, Big Media relies too much on polls that treat real people as if they were just pieces of data.

“I think [regular people] want to focus on ‘What do I need to know?’ and it’s a big comeuppance for polling and for the way the media covers communities.”

Jay Seaton agrees with this assessment, and says trust took a big hit because of how the 2016 election was covered.

“We paid too much attention to the polls,” he says, “We all got it marvelously wrong in November… they put too much faith in some polls that weren’t that far off, but certainly didn’t predict the outcome that we have. So I think we got a credibility problem, right there.”

The Internet, Alternative Facts, and “Fake News”

Social media is one of the great revolutions of the information age. However, it has created an environment where facts and lies have become intermingled or indistinguishable, creating misinformation, confusion, and distrust.

As executive director of the CFOIC, Jeffery Roberts is all for the free exchange of information. But he does worry about whether people can properly contextualize all the information and be able to determine what to trust.

“It’s kind of hard to know where all this information is coming from,” he says, “especially if it’s being pushed to you and you’re not actively looking for it.”

With traditional news outlets, he says there should be some faith they did their due diligence and are not presenting outright lies.

“But nowadays, you’ll see something on Facebook or Twitter and you may not even pay attention to where it’s coming from. It’s all kind of mixed together.”

Jay Seaton notes how “everybody’s a publisher now,” giving every user a platform and a voice for their views.

“But much of that information has an agenda. It may not be true, it may be completely fabricated with badges of truth, or otherwise nonsense, or maybe mostly true with a lot spin in it.”

With so many sources of information, he says, it is hard to know where to find the “touchstone of reality.”

“What do we know is real and what is fabricated? What is reliable and what is spin? It is a very hard for consumers of information to know that today, when they got thousands and thousands of sources of information coming to them.”

This, Seaton says, is why someone who reads a so-called ‘alt-right’ website like Breitbart may believe The New York Times is lying about its information.

Greg Moore blames a combination of the ubiquitous information and hyper-partisan politics for a situation “where people can actually turn a channel or type in a website and get confirmation for whatever it is that they believe… and increasingly people aren’t letting facts they disagree with influence what they think in any way.”

Moore says this is how ideas like “alternative facts” have become more and more acceptable to those seeking a narrative in opposition to the mainstream.

Fake News” is also a term that became famous in 2016. While there is no official definition for the neologism, it generally refers to blatantly false information, presented as fact, with the intent to misinform. The purpose may be malicious, but can also be simply a way to turn a profit.

During the 2016 election season, the term was primarily used to describe a wave of purposefully false and malicious articles aimed at the Democratic presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton.

Hillary Clinton speaks at a campaign rally in Commerce City, CO. Photo credit: Deepan Dutta

However, the term has been weaponized to discredit contrary or disagreeable information, regardless of actual truth or merit.

“Now it’s just turned into a strange political narrative,” Chuck Plunkett says, “where the definition changes depending on who is using it.”

Jay Seaton’s Grand Junction Sentinel experienced the indignity of the “fake news” label and he his response made waves.

On Feb. 8, 2017, the Grand Junction Sentinel published an editorial calling on state legislators to stop delaying hearings for a bill promoting easier access to government records. The editorial specifically called out State Sen. Ray Scott, R-Grand Junction, after he canceled a hearing on the bill, and called on him to allow it to go forward.

Scott responded by lashing out against the Sentinel on Twitter.

Seaton, incensed by the characterization of the Sentinel as “fake news,” personally fired back at Scott in another editorial. “I don’t think I can sit back and take this kind of attack from an elected official,” Seaton wrote at the time. “Words have real meaning in this business. Sen. Scott has defamed this company and me as its leader.”

Seaton ended the piece with a not-so-veiled threat of a libel suit against Scott: “I’ll see you in court.”

Seaton’s lawsuit threat made national news. It was the first time a news outlet really tried to fight back against the now-ubiquitous “fake news” label.

Months later, Seaton stands by his assertion that Scott defamed the Sentinel and believes a libel lawsuit could have succeeded on the merits.

“By referring to the Daily Sentinel as ‘fake news,’” he says, “I felt that was an attack on our credibility and our integrity, and a newspaper’s credibility and integrity are frankly its only real assets.”

However, after considering the cost to the Sentinel as well as to taxpayers, Seaton eventually decided not to pursue legal action.

Seaton was also concerned that a lawsuit might prevent the Sentinel from doing its job while playing into the hands of people who try to discredit it.

“[A lawsuit] would impair future reporting about Ray Scott,” Seaton explains. “If he is engaged in something that is newsworthy and I’ve got a pending lawsuit against him, anything that I would write about him would be viewed through the lens of pending litigation.”

Seaton says he also looked at the bigger picture and realized that the news industry “needs to rise above the petty back and forth” that has invaded public discourse, whether it be from internet trolls or the president.

“We take that kind of criticism, that kind of slam, because that comes from a place of weakness, and I think the institution of a free press is strong… I think we’re bigger than that.”

Seaton he partly came to this perspective a lecture by Marty Baron, legendary editor of “Spotlight” fame and current Executive Editor of The Washington Post.

Baron, addressing President Trump’s claims of being in a ‘running war’ with the news media,’ said:

“The president may be at war, but the Washington Post is not. We’re at work. We’re just trying to do our jobs.”

How the Media Can Bring Trust Back

A simple solution to regain the public’s trust:  Do your job, and do it right.

“The simplest way to build trust is to just do a really good job day in and day out,” Chuck Plunkett says. “Make sure that you’re minding the store, that you’re going the extra mile and you really research your article, whether it’s on the news site or opinion, so that you’re not just assuming what’s going on when it’s really more complex.”

Plunkett also suggests journalists something he has been trying himself: engaging constructively with “the other side,” or others who have a different point of view.

“I’m trying now to once in a while to sit down with a critic at lunch, buy a meal, say ‘Let’s break bread together,’ and ‘I want to more about where you’re coming from,’ and ‘I want to know more of your side of the argument to understand them better.’”

Moore believes the outreach should also go deep into communities, and that journalists should “really talk to the people they’re writing about” to understand them and their concerns better. He adds that he is seeing signs of progress on that front. “I actually think the best news organizations are redoubling their efforts to do that.”

He also says journalists need to “be professional and abide by journalistic ethics and standards,” especially in a time where their integrity is being constantly questioned and they are competing with false narratives that misinform the public.

“The media has to remind people how important facts are and how important truth is,” he says. “They have to be more transparent about how they do their work and what it’s based on, so people can make judgments on their own. That kind of transparency can help rebuild the trust.”

Seaton suggests that aside from getting to know the audience, journalists should also talk about themselves and the job they do.

“I think we need to do a better job of letting our community know who we are as people in the newsroom, whether it’s the reporters, the editors, me. I really want to give people a peek under the tent, and understand that the person who wrote a story about the school board is a graduate of this very school district, and takes his kids to that same school in the morning.”

Seaton also suggests that journalists try to inform their audience about what goes into the editorial process, the ‘sausage making’ side of journalism, to show how much work and care goes into making sure stories are accurate and truthful.

One of Seaton’s favorite movies is the 1976 political thriller All the President’s Men, which told the story of the legendary Watergate investigation. He even has the theatrical poster on his office wall. The film is famous for its accurate depiction of the editorial process, which Seaton describes step-by-step.

The Editorial Process from Deepan Dutta on Vimeo.

He says that this approach will help rehabilitate the profession of journalism in the public’s eye and promote “a First Amendment-driven mission of presenting reliable information that the community can organize their lives around.”

Roberts agrees that it is important to remind people what journalism stands for, and the ideals the profession seeks to uphold. He remembers how the Watergate investigation inspired him to become a journalist, and he hopes more contemporary investigations like Spotlight can inspire the next generation.

“I do think there’s an opportunity to really try to educate people, or just remind them of something that they already know, which is how important news organizations are to our nation and how our government is supposed to work.”

To that end, Moore says he takes heart in the wisdom he sees in young people today.

“I’m encouraged by the next generation of kids who are in junior high or even middle school who understand a couple of things.

  1. You can’t believe everything that’s on the internet.
  2. Check your facts.”

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