Friday, September 23, 2011

Distrust of U.S. news media continues

The various news media in the U.S. have been taking a beating lately.  On the business side, revenues are dropping due to increased competition.  It also took many news organizations much too long to recognize and adapt to the emerging digital networked environment that captured entire segments of advertising, expanded competition, and bypassed traditional gate-keeping.  The push for speed in being the first to report has encouraged a decline in editing and fact-checking.  But perhaps the most significant problem, for the long-term viability of journalism, has been how publishers, editors, and journalists have responded to changing conditions and increased competition.

The stress for speed and the need to cut costs has contributed to a culture of "reporting" as rewriting press releases and minimal effort given to investigation.  Large scale investigative reporting has all but disappeared (if you look, most "investigative" pieces today result from reporters being given information from partisans, rather than independent pursuit of stories). Yet a bigger consequence is that there is even minimal investigation of details, prior coverage, or historical context.  Between a lack of historical perspective, sloppiness in verifying information, and the presence of an Internet that not only allows outsiders to engage in the kinds of verification abandoned by journalism, but also provides a platform for bringing the increasingly embarrassing errors to the attention not only of editors but the wider public, journalists, editors, publishers and news organizations are increasingly embarrassed by errors in the news content they produce.

Another potential long-term problem lies in how many news outlets have responded to increased competition- to try to cater to perceptions of public tastes.  Placing more emphasis on what the public wants, rather than the traditional screed of journalism to provide the information the public needs, need not be problematic in itself.  The problem emerges when there is a growing disconnect between journalists and the public.  When publishers and editors react to competition by emphasizing what they think drives media consumption (conflict, gossip, celebrity, scandal, etc.) they start to move from informing to entertaining.  Modern political coverage, in the shift to "horse-race" coverage epitomizes this - coverage of issues, and investigative coverage of claims and past performance have given way to discussions of the latest poll results, speeches, press releases, or arguments and allegations handily provided by candidates' opposition research efforts.  The fact that only having to discuss what other people are saying is not very expensive, and does not require much commitment of time, effort, or financial support provides an added incentive to shift emphasis in that direction.

The problem is that the public increasingly recognizes that much of what is labeled news is not really news, but opinion and entertainment.  The public is increasingly exposed to the errors encouraged by over-hasty reporting, as well as the growing discrepancy in how reporters and news media treat information coming from "friendly" sources as opposed to the other side.  And all of this raises concerns about the "objectivity", "accuracy," and most importantly, the credibility of news and news organizations.  The insistence of many news organizations that they are objective, and in the arrogance of their reactions when "non-journalists" point out errors, when the evidence of their own content shows otherwise only increases the disconnect and the distrust of journalists and news organizations.

Trust in American news media has been falling for decades.  The latest in a series of Gallup tracking polls found that 55% had little or no trust in news media, while 44% indicated having a great deal or a fair amount of trust.
The bigger problem is that if you look at the full results, only 11% of the sample indicated that they had a great deal of trust that media reported the news "fully, accurately, and fairly."  (One third indicating having a fair amount of trust).  But the value of news, as news, derives from the credibility of its source - and most US major news organizations claim that all of their news is reported "fully, accurately, and fairly").  The vast majority of the news-consuming public disagrees.

The Gallup report is supported by a recent Pew Research Center for the People & the Press study tracking public perception of twelve core press performance measures.  The latest results showed that negative perception levels  reached or tied all-time highs in nine of the twelve measures.  The Pew report tried for a bit of positive spin by saying that there were other groups held in even less esteem.

Now, when you ask about specific media, rather than news media generally, trust and impressions improve.  Still, when asked about the news source they use the most, a full 30% responded that they felt that stories were often inaccurate - hardly a ringing endorsement.  A look at the recent responses on the core performance levels shows a press facing the potential of losing the trust of the public that is the main determinant of their perceived value as news organizations.  They show a growing perception as being sloppy (inaccurate), dishonest (covering up their mistakes), unconcerned about the people they report on, and immoral; as being influenced by powerful people and organizations rather than a by a concern for truth or the public; as letting favoritism and politics shape coverage and reporting.  As for the press's historically claimed role as an independent fourth estate protecting democracy, as many people believe that current press behavior harms democracy as feel that it helps democracy.

The Gallup study also showed that most Americans see the press as showing a political bias, despite a slight gain indicating they felt news coverage was "just about right." Moreover, despite all of the claims from Democrats and mainstream news organizations about the emergence and dominance of "right-wing" and conservative media, the public perception is that if there is bias, it is overwhelmingly seen as a liberal bias.
One emerging criticism of the public is that bias and favoritism in news content is driven by people wanting, and shifting their news consumption to, news sources that reflects and supports their view of the world.  However, while this is true to some degree, the poll suggested overwhelming preference (62%) for news presented with no particular point of view.  When looking for online sources (the focus of much of that criticism), the revealed preference for sources with no particular view was even stronger, at 74%.  (Another indication of the growing disconnect between journalists and the public).

From the perspective (bias) of this blog, the problem revealed by these studies is not the type of bias or the concern of the political or social impact of inaccurate, biased, reporting or concerns about outside influence.  From the business perspective, and for the future of journalism, the concern is, and needs to be, the growing public perception that journalists and news organizations are failing in their self-identified duty of objectivity, accuracy, and to borrow the NY Times' slogan, delivering "all the news" necessary to fulfilling their role as the Fourth Estate and providing the information a democracy needs. News media, and perhaps journalism, are seen as not delivering on their promises of value. As a result, the perceived value of their product as news is declining.
From a business perspective, organizations may be able to survive by replacing lost news value with value from serving entertainment or other information needs, but as the mix of news and entertainment shifts more towards news, organizations are likely to enter a death-spiral from a journalism perspective.  News, and journalism, is losing credibility.  And as it loses credibility, the value of news diminishes, and organizations become even more desperate to find replacements for that lost value.  Journalism needs to stop the death spiral - either by rededicating itself to its historic emphases that it still largely claims, or it needs to develop alternative arguments (if it can) for the existence of value (to the news consumer, the public, or society generally) in the kind of news product that it currently, or wants to, provide.

Sources - Majority in U.S. Continues to Distrust the Media, Perceive BiasGallup
Full Gallup report 
Press Widely Criticized, But Trusted More than Other Information Sources, Pew Research Report 
Complete Pew Research Report 

Edited - removed extraneous line feeds, cleaned up some typos and language.

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