W. Joseph Campbell

On the high plateau of media distrust

In 1897, Debunking, Hurricane Katrina, Media myths, New York Times, Newspapers, Yellow Journalism on September 30, 2010 at 10:22 am

A Gallup poll released yesterday suggested that distrust of the news media has reached a high plateau among American adults.

Fifty-seven percent of Gallup’s respondents, the most ever, said they had little or no trust in the “mass media … when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately, and fairly.” A year ago, the little-to-no trust response rate was 55 percent; in 2008 it was 56 percent.

As Andrew Malcolm noted at his engaging Top of the Ticket blog, the new “record high” in media distrust was reached “by one lousy percentage point.”

Even so, there’s little comfort in having reached such a plateau. And the factors accounting for a pronounced level of popular distrust are several–and hardly unfamiliar.

Surely one reason is that it’s commonplace to bad-mouth the news media as unreliable and unfair. Media-bashing has long been in fashion–and the news media are prone to beat up on themselves, and their rivals.

A commentary posted yesterday at the Atlantic blog put it well in saying that “media voices increasingly distinguish themselves by telling us not to trust the rest of the mainstream media. Think about all of the mass media today that tells us how stupid mass media is.”

True enough. That has to have an effect.

But the news media have long indulged in aiming brickbats and insults at one another. For the news media, media-bashing has long been an irresistible pasttime.

The ever-appealing and often-invoked epithet “yellow journalism” dates after all to 1897–and the efforts of a New York newspaper editor to find a pithy and imaginative way to denigrate what then was called the “new journalism” of William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer.

Traditional and new, the media are everywhere these days and their ubiquity no doubt fosters some disdain and contempt. A hint of that contempt can be detected in the recent Pew Research Center’s news-consumption survey, which reported that 17 percent of American adults go newsless on a typical day.

Although the news media are everywhere, a sizable portion of the population has little use for them.

Going newsless can’t be easily accomplished, given the variety of readily accessible platforms by which news is delivered. But the going-newsless option is especially pronounced among American adults younger than 30: Pew’s report said 27 percent of that cohort gets no news on a typical day.

The prominent and well-documented fabrication scandals of several years ago doubt have contributed to the plateau of media distrust. The journalistic fraud committed by Jayson Blair of the New York Times and Jack Kelley of USA Today, among others, surely has left a bad taste for the media among many news consumers.

The inclination to distrust the media surely was reinforced by the highly exaggerated news coverage of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans in 2005.

As I write in Getting It Wrong, my new book that debunks prominent media-driven myths, the Katrina coverage was “no high, heroic moment in American journalism. … On crucial details, journalists erred badly, and got it wrong. In the days following Katrina’s landfall, news reports described apocalyptic horror that the hurricane supposedly had unleashed.”

And that reporting was steeped in error.

The fifth anniversary of Katrina’s landfall was an occasion to revisit just how shoddy the news coverage was in the storm’s aftermath. And that anniversary fell shortly before Gallup conducted its annual media-trust survey.

Gallup said 1,019 adults were interviewed by telephone in a random survey conducted September 13-16. (The sampling error was plus or minus four percentage points, meaning the level of distrust could be as great as 61 percent, or as narrow as 53 percent.)

Mundane factors probably contribute to the plateau of distrust as well. Staff cuts at many U.S. newspaper, including the unsung heroes manning copy desks, have been blamed for an increase grammar, spelling, and factual errors.

It’s not that newspapers ever were mostly free of such lapses. Anecdotally at least, they seem more frequent and conspicuous. The ombudsman, or reader’s representative, at the Washington Post suggested as much last year in writing that growing numbers of readers were calling on him “to complain about typos and small errors” appearing in the newspaper.

And it’s become a cliché to say that such small-bore errors undermine credibility–or, perhaps more accurately, encourage media distrust.

And then there is the matter of limited viewpoint diversity in American newsrooms, a point I raise in Getting It Wrong.

Few journalists for mainstream national media “consider themselves politically conservative,” I note, referring to surveys conducted in 2004 and 2008 for the Washington-based Committee of Concerned Journalists. The surveys found that the overwhelming majority of national correspondents for U.S. news media considered themselves to be politically “moderate” or “liberal.”

Interestingly, Gallup reported that “Democrats and liberals remain far more likely than other political and ideological groups to trust the media and to perceive no bias.”

Viewpoint diversity in newsrooms “is an issue not much discussed in American journalism,” I write in Getting It Wrong. “But it is hardly irrelevant.”

Especially when distrust of the news media has found such a high plateau.


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