Monday, September 24, 2012

The Decline and Fall of American News

(with apologies to the spirit of Edward Gibbon)

The latest edition of Gallup's examination of the American public's attitudes about news and media is out, and shows distrust of news media at an all-time high.

Further troubling news was when it came to paying attention to news about national politics, only 39% said they were following it very closely, down from the 43% who did so at the same point in 2009.

Partisanship & News -

The report shows and increasing differentiation in terms of following national political news by party affiliation - in 2008, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents clustered, with around 30% paying very close attention in 2008.  In the latest results there's a 9-point gap between Republicans and Democrats, and a 6 point gap between Democrats and Independents.  The likely surprise for those not following the Gallup trends, is that Republicans have lead Democrats in terms of paying close attention since 2009.
If you break down news media trust by party affiliation, you also get a strong trend of increasing partisanship...
If you think of these in conjunction, there are several interesting potential interpretations.  First, consider why Independents and Republicans have about half the trust in media reporting news "fairly" that Democrats do - and the possibility that that difference may be due in part to media bias.  If there is bias towards one group, it's natural for that group to have more trust - and for the out group to see the coverage as incomplete, inaccurate, and unfair.   What's interesting here is that for the last few years, that Independents largely share that perception of bias.
  Second, I wonder about the implications of Republicans greater interest in following national politics while showing very little trust in the ability of traditional mass media to provide "fair" coverage.  This would seem to suggest that those Republicans with a strong interest in national politics are likely to be going elsewhere for news and information about national politics.  And likely contribute further to the declining audiences for traditional news media.
  Gallup's own interpretation is not rosy, although they try to spin it a bit.
Americans are clearly down on the news media this election year, with a record-high six in 10 expressing little or no trust in the mass media's ability to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly.
On a broad level, Americans' high level of distrust in the media poses a challenge to democracy and to creating a fully engaged citizenry. Media sources must clearly do more to earn the trust of Americans, the majority of whom see the media as biased one way or the other. At the same time, there is an opportunity for others outside the "mass media" to serve as information sources that Americans do trust.
   The really bad thing is that I have seen very little effort on the part of "mass media" to try to restore trust among older consumers, or try to earn the trust of new generations of news consumers.  If anything, political news coverage has become increasingly trivial ( focus on horse race aspects, and gotcha moments rather than serious reporting and analysis of policies and impacts) and partisan - spin is blatant, overt, and in more and more cases, openly acknowledged.  These are not necessarily good things for news organizations struggling to remain competitive - not under the imprimatur of being news anyway.  Journalists have, over the years invested heavily in portraying news as objective, honest, and fair - as something very different from their image of PR "flacks" as spinning and distorting information to their clients' advantage.
  Do mass media really want to abandon those historic standards of "news" - and the perceptions of trust and credibility within the public sphere - to become just another promotional venue?  I would hope not, but that's just me.

Source - U.S. Distrust in Media Hits New High,  Gallup press release.

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