The media’s trustbusters

Partisanship, scandal run perception aground

by Marlena Chertock, September 22, 2009

The Pew Research Center has found the public’s trust in the accuracy of news stories to be at a 20 year low.

But in an age when more students are going into the field of journalism and communications, according to an article by the Washington Post, and with new methods to deliver information, why should there be such lack a of trust?

“Our survey shows that the public views of the accuracy of news stories — not overall trust in the press — is at a two decade low,” said Carroll Doherty, associate director of the Pew research center. “The proportion saying that news stories are often inaccurate has been below 40 percent for quite some time and now stands below 30 percent.”

David Copeland, associate professor of communications, said he is not surprised by the findings.

“The media has become the scapegoat for everything,” Copeland said.

This runs counter to the journalistic ideals of truth, accuracy, impartiality and reliability. The core journalistic ethics are to remain objective, give all sides a fair presentation and report only the truth.

But obviously, not everybody agrees with this. Changes in the past two decades have acted as catalysts for this loss of trust in the press.

“In the 24-hour news cycle, the rush to be the first one to get the information, the story out, (journalists) don’t always verify information,” Copeland said.

Doherty echoes this.

“As we note in the report, more Democrats now question the accuracy of news stories, which factored into some of the decline between 2007 and 2009,” Doherty said. “Moreover, there is considerable public frustration with the press’ performance — and this is seen in declining views of accuracy and other measures.”

Journalists Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass’ fabrications of portions of stories also contributed to this frustration.

Additionally, the media is increasingly driven by entertainment.

“Even in 9/11 reporting, (there was) the need for a logo for news, for a music theme, to package as entertainment. (This makes people) start to question if it’s true or not,” Copeland said.

When everything is shown in an entertaining way, the result is a media that is not as accurate as it would like to be. This focus on entertainment value instead of quality journalism, in turn, affects the public’s trust.

“There is greater polarization in news audiences — especially for cable news outlets — and as our report shows, there are sizable partisan divisions in favorable opinions of cable news outlets,” Doherty said. “There also is more scrutiny generally of press performance — some of this probably has been positive in that it cast light on errors … but some of the criticism clearly is rooted in partisanship.”

Copeland said there used to be a collective voice.

“Years ago, 50 to 75 million people watched the nightly news,” Copeland said. “Twenty-five million watch it today. (America) used to get news collectively, when we get news fragmented, it helps us to perceive that there’s error and bias in what we’re receiving.”

But there is a light at the end of the tunnel.

“The public’s dim view of press performance has not caused more people to turn away from the news entirely,” Doherty said.

Audiences instead access a variety of news sources, not just one.

This is an important change, and instead of merely accepting the bias, the public must research, and reflect to find the most trustworthy media sources on ethical merits.

There is still hope the media can regain the public’s trust, despite Copeland’s reticence to look to the future with optimism.

For the media, admitting mistakes is the first step. The next is persisting with dignity and the journalist’s code of ethics, and hoping that the public catches on.