Pundits spend a lot of time lamenting how the Internet has undermined journalism. There’s an argument for that. But there’s a better argument that the web has revealed some long-time industry flaws that have slowly been eroding the public’s faith in journalism for many years.
Last week, a Gallup poll showed that 57 percent of Americas no longer trust the media to fairly and accurately report the news. This is an all-time high. The reason most people give for this distrust is a sense that the media gives deferential treatment to one ideology or another.
I’d argue that most Americans are wrong about this (with the enormous exceptions of FOX-News and MSNBC). What the public is identifying as biased reporting is really flawed reporting.
The distrust, I believe, are rooted in three primary flaws, which are outlined below.
1. Too much balance, not enough truth
Most professional news outlets vie for a balanced approach to news – but that balance has undermined “truth.” Why? Because times have changed and the sources that journalists rely on for information no longer always tell the truth. These sources include politicians, bureaucrats, clergy, business executives and industry experts.
Over the years, sources have figured out the underlying fundamentals about the way journalism works. One of these is balance. Balance sounds like a sound goal for reporting, except that sources now understand that a journalist is obligated to report “both” sides of story – no matter how ridiculous one side might be. In fact, there might only be one side to a story – or even many.
But journalists still report one side and then need another side to balance the story. The more outrageous the other side – the more likely they’ll be included. So sources have learn to manipulate the media and will sometimes resort to innuendo, propaganda, and, in some cases, outright fabrications.
This is how the news cycle gets clogged up with news that isn’t true. For example, reports that President Obama was born in Kenya and not an American citizen, that the health care reform bill included provisions for elderly death panels, or that Muslim radicals were building a mosque on Ground Zero. None of those stories are true, but in the name of balance – they were reported that way.
Balance no longer works and the media’s obsession with it needs to stop. When the media report fabrications – instead of the actual facts – they lose public trust.
2. Too much ME, not enough YOU
Unfortunately, my favorite show on NPR (OnPoint Radio) is guilty of this behavior. I’m talking about the practice of journalists interviewing other journalists as experts and witnesses to news events.
How many times have we listened to reporters from the New York Times or Wall Street Journal openly opine about the stories they are working on? How many news shows center their broadcasts on the thoughts and opinions about news events relying solely on other journalists as the sources of information?
This practice has eroded the public’s faith in journalism for two main reasons. First, it elevates journalists from the background – from being observers and recorders of a news events – into active participants as pundits and professional witnesses. Rather than allowing the real participants and experts to put news into perspective and into context, journalists are doing this themselves.
Think back to the violent protests after the Iranian election. Western journalists, sequestered in a Tehran hotel, provided commentary about the events to their peers in the United States through scores of interviews. Most of them getting second-hand information or simply watching events unfold by looking out their hotel window.
Second, the news media spend inordinate amounts of time proclaiming that it is unbiased and impartial and then proves itself wrong again and again by having their journalists argue their strongly held political opinions on news shows. And in these days of tight budgets and smaller staffs, many “news reporters” also write opinion columns and op-eds.
Is it any wonder the public thinks journalists are biased?
3. Obsessed with the sugar coating
Contrary to what you read in the news, politics is not a horse race. Yet that’s how it is covered. Issues and policy get short-shift compared to who is winning in the latest polls, who has raised the most money, and who has made the latest blunder or misstatement. No bill or legislation is covered anymore without a deep discussion on which side gets points for it.
Think back to the health care reform bill. Every day the public was fed a steady diet of who was on top. Would the bill pass? Did the Republicans score points today? Or did the Democrats?
Actual substance of the bill was overshadowed by an obsessive need to record winners and losers.
This type of coverage doesn’t benefit the public and, even worse for the media, puts them in the position of scorekeepers rather than as journalists.
What do you think? How broken is journalism and what do you think can be done to fix it?
Politico story: “Distrust in Media Hits All Time High”
Photo by Palolo Camera (via Flickr)