Why people distrust news media

Reporter's notebook

November, 2015

Last Wednesday I listened to an extraordinary interview.

A BBC interviewer was talking with the Israeli ambassador to the European Union, about the EU’s recent decision to stop labelling products from settlements in the occupied territories as “Made in Israel.” What was amazing was how the interviewer refused to allow the ambassador to avoid the subject. The ambassador continually tried to draw false analogies, or make comparisons that really did not fit the situation, to attack the EU’s decision. But the BBC interviewer was having none of it, and she forced him time and again to answer the question that she actually asked.

And I can remember thinking to myself, as an American, “Boy, I wish we had a few interviewers like that over here.”

Because the sad truth is, now that Jon Stewart (who wasn’t even a journalist) has retired, we don’t have many left anymore. With notable exceptions, far too many members of the news media in this country spend their time on frivolous endeavors, celebrity reporting, weightless subjects, and softball interviews.

And so it was with some amusement that I read the righteous indignation of my fellow journalists at the refusal by students of the University of Missouri to talk to them, after a protest about race relations achieved its desired result of making University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe step down.

It’s not that I necessarily disagree with them – journalists wouldn’t be doing their jobs if they hadn’t tried to talk to the students. And the actions of two Missouri employees to prevent journalists from reaching the students were way over the line, and maybe illegal, since they are technically government employees. But what all of these righteously indignant journalists failed to understand is that many in the general public don’t want to talk to us, because they don’t trust us anymore to get the story right.

And, they have good reason.

As journalists it is our responsibility, indeed our duty, to do the very best that we can to report on stories of public interest. But that doesn’t give us the right to be bulls in a china shop. How we do our job is every bit as important as why we do our job. I don’t think, by and large, that we’re doing a very good job.

A Gallup poll in September suggested that people’s distrust of journalists runs deep:

“Four in 10 Americans say they have ‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’ of trust and confidence in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly. This ties the historical lows on this measure set in 2014 and 2012. Prior to 2004, slight majorities of Americans said they trusted the mass media, such as newspapers, TV and radio.”

The reason the media consistently ranks so low on surveys of public trust (particularly among young people) is that we frequently don’t give the public reason to trust us.

We pay only lip service to diversity, and entire communities are poorly served as a result. We often send reporters and photographers into situations without any background knowledge of the incident they are covering, or the individuals that they are reporting on. And much of the news media that now operates in the U.S. does so with an explicitly political agenda.

In 2009 Time magazine asked readers who was the most trusted newscaster in America. Jon Stewart won in a nationwide landslide. (The number two most trusted newscaster was Brian Williams, and that’s probably enough said about that.)

Here’s what Psychology Today had to say at the time about the reasons behind Stewart’s popularity:

“Stewart seems to know what’s really going on in the news. In fact, a great part of his appeal as a news source is the fact that he shows the ‘real’ news story behind the network and cable news programs’ *often limited and politically slanted versions of a story.* (My Italics)

“But the most important element is that Jon Stewart’s main purpose is that he is attempting to provide the REAL story that gets beyond the *media spin and perceived (and actual) media bias.* (Again my italics) Jon Stewart is simply the advocate of the news-hungry viewer.”

A key part of the problem here is that journalists too often don’t see the people they report on as people, but as content – as 10 inches of filler in tomorrow’s paper, or the subject of a series of tweets this afternoon, or 90 seconds on the evening newscast. And then after the story has been published, we just forget about the subjects and move on to the next piece of “content.” We sometimes forget that the subjects of our stories have to deal with the consequences of our reports long after we’ve moved on to the next shiny thing that has attracted our attention.

Frequently the media shapes a story to fit what it see as the narrative that it has decided that the story must fit. Anything that disproves or undermines that narrative is tossed aside. I had some experience with this once years ago in Canada, when a CBC editor asked me to cover a story from a particular angle. When I returned to tell her that what she thought was the story was incorrect, she told me to drop it because she wasn’t interested in that story.

It’s not all journalists fault. We live in a day and age when anybody and everybody can be a journalist, when Internet sensations come and go like waves at the shore, when mega-corporations that own media outlets care little about the actual reporting as opposed to the bottom line and see their news media holdings not as an essential part of a thriving democracy but as units in their collection of holdings that either make money or get written off.

Democracy cannot exist without a free press. One only has to look a country like Turkey or Egypt, where megalomaniac dictators-in-training are in the process of beating the news media into submission and stamping out any vestige of a real news media that questions their power in any way.

But a free press also cannot exist without the support of the public, or at least with an understanding of the importance of what we do. And we journalists have to help create that understanding, and not undermine it with our own actions.

Copyright Tom Regan 2015

Contact Tom Regan:  motnager@gmail.com

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References and Links:

Missouri race protests: Why was the university president forced out? BBC report: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-34772080

Americans’ Trust in Media Remains at Historical Low, Gallup: http://www.gallup.com/poll/185927/americans-trust-media-remains-historical-low.aspx

Why journalists have the right to cover the University of Missouri protests, Columbia Journalism Review:

Journalists on Mizzou clash: Photojournalist Tim Tai ‘clearly escalated the situation’, Washington Post: https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/erik-wemple/wp/2015/11/12/journalist-on-mizzou-clash-photojournalist-tim-tai-clearly-escalated-the-situation/

There’s a good reason protesters at the University of Missouri didn’t want the media around, Washington Post


Tom Regan Tom Regan has worked for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and with the National Film Board in Canada, and in the United States for the Christian Science Monitor, Boston Globe, and National Public Radio. A former executive director of the Online News Association, he was a Nieman fellow at Harvard in 1991-92.






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