A new Gallup Poll finds that confidence in newspaper and television reporting has reached an all-time low. The survey conducted last month found that just 16% of U.S. adults say they have “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspapers and 11% in television news. Both are down five points from last year.
Americans have always had doubts about the veracity of what they read and hear in the news, but the problem has gotten worse. Once upon a time — 1979 to be exact — half of Americans (51%) had confidence in newspapers. The high for television news was 1993 when it was 46%.
But steady declines have followed, and now 46% say they have “very little” or “no confidence” in newspapers, while 53% maintain the same doubts about TV news.
“Taken together, these data suggest that the media have a long way to go to win back the public’s confidence,” Gallup reported.
What has gone wrong here?
The free press is so important to our country that the Founding Fathers included a guaranteed protection for it in the First Amendment. Thomas Jefferson famously said that if given the choice of a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, he would choose the latter.
But Jefferson still had his issues with the press. He also said during his time in office, “As for what is not true, you will always find abundance in newspapers.”
The media must accept its share of the responsibility for the rock-bottom confidence levels. Journalism is more art than science, meaning subjectivities, biases and simple mistakes are part of the equation. Deadlines and competitive pressures complicate the inherent desire to make sure stories are fair and accurate.
Additionally, many news outlets have made the conscious decision to engage in more advocacy journalism. That can take the form of investigations that achieve a public good, but it can also border on propaganda that advances a particular cause.
The blending of news and opinion has also contributed to the decline in confidence. CNN and Fox often cover the same stories, but with very different approaches. Viewers migrate to media outlets that more likely reflect their views, so it is predictable that Fox viewers distrust CNN and vice-versa.
The nationalization of news is a problem. Too much coverage revolves around Washington and politics. The tribal nature of our politics — the other side is not just wrong, it’s evil — fosters public anger that is reflected in a media feedback loop.
The Washington press corps should get out more and see what is happening in flyover country. They would find enlightening and inspiring stories about our country.
These and other factors have contributed to the decline of confidence in the media, but these journalistic shortcomings do not represent the totality of what the media provide. On any given day, at any moment, there is some excellent journalism out there, and you don’t have to look far to find it.
The media are far from perfect, but they are not the enemy. For every story that contains bias or inaccuracies, there are a dozen more that contribute to an informed public, which is essential to a healthy democracy.