Almost 40% of Americans have “no faith” in the media

By Caitlin Kelly

From a recent conference held in New York, with some of the industry’s top leaders…

Typical of such summits, the people speaking were largely white, upper middle class and already perched high in the industry…not necessarily the best place from which to enact meaningful change. By the time you’ve hit the heights, so to speak — like any industry, really — you’ve climbed the greasy pole and know how many ways you can slip back to the bottom: pissing off your advertisers or publisher, to start with. I’ve been working in journalism since I was 19, freelance and staff — a senior editor at three national magazines and a reporter and feature writer for three big dailies. I enjoyed my career, but I’m mostly out of it now, and not subject to the exhausting chase for clicks and views. The Washington Post recently hired a social media coach (!) to work with their reporters. This is, for me, a fresh hell. Not enough any longer to produce terrific stories…

An excerpt from that conference, as reported by The New York Times:

“The media” pops up on your smartphone and is thrown onto your front porch. It is transmitted on television sets and is featured in glossy magazines. It’s so varied in so many ways but is similar in one respect: Many Americans don’t trust it.

According to a recent Gallup poll, trust in mass media has hit a near record low: Only 34 percent of Americans have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of confidence in the media, while 38 percent of Americans have none at all...

“We do need some level of news, but there are so many people that just need basic information,” argued Sarah Alvarez of Outlier Media, a news organization focused on low-income Detroiters.

“You can’t do a big investigation if you are not covering the city council every day,” said Sara Just of “PBS NewsHour.” You can’t find out who the corrupt mayor is if you are not there every day.” The disappearance of that kind of local journalism, she said, is what “worries me the most. That’s not going to be the for-profit center, but it is how we find out what’s going on.”

Jeffrey Goldberg, whose publication, The Atlantic, put up a paywall shortly before the pandemic, argued for a subscriber-funded model: “Our industry made a mistake 20 years ago by giving away quality journalism for free — we trained readers to expect something that took work, time and energy and funding and we gave it away. And we have to stop doing that.”

As some of you may know, George Santos — a lying sack of garbage — not only recently got elected as a Republican Congressman from Long Island, despite a barrage of lies about his work, education, life and but now sits on two committees.

Only one small local newspaper noticed what a grifter he is but there was no other media interest in following up.

I found this analysis by Dame insightful and, sadly, spot-on:

We live in a golden age of national media startups. Every week another group of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed media personalities launches another cleverly branded news site to solve all of American journalism’s problems.

So why do all these sites sound the same?

Why do political news sites, begun with lots of fanfare about how different and innovative and disruptive they plan to be, end up covering the same stories covered by every other established media source?

Why are they all obsessed with whatever Donald Trump spews onto his private social accounts? Why do they listen every time GQP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene speaks? Why do they report on what senators say on Tucker Carlson’s show, on each other’s podcasts, on Chuck Todd’s Status Quo Fetish Hour?

Why do they all move in a pack, chasing the same ball, like 5-year-olds playing soccer for the first time?

Because — as any honest journalist knows — the few who rise to a position of any power or influence, let alone a job with a liveable salary – has already been co-opted. When a year at one of the fancy journalism schools will cost more than a year’s salary and the industry is already highly insecure, only a brave (or trust-funded few) can even still afford to buy entree to the industry or stick around very long.

So those who become staff journalists can start to look and sound the same….as does their reporting.

Pack journalism dominates — one person chasing all the others to match a story (no matter how tedious!) for fear their managers (as as they will) ask why they aren’t covering it?

Not IF they should at all!

It’s lazy and easy to sneer “fake news” when you dislike what you hear or see.

I rarely see anyone ask…what’s the upside for this worldview?

It’s also pretty obvious that those sneering “fake news” have rarely, if ever, even met or spoken to anyone, anywhere, who actually works in journalism — bringing any genuine curiosity about what it’s like to produce news or features.

We all have some idea what doctors or lawyers or cops or teachers do all day but few of journalism’s most toxic and virulent critics really have a clue about the ecosystem of news production — which is why such attacks leave me unmoved.

I agree that mainstream American journalism needs to be a lot better, but few wake up in the morning determined to print or broadcast something they know to be false.

Believe it or not, like many journalists, I’m disappointed by too much of it every day.

Not because it’s “fake news” but because it’s:

  • repetitive
  • overly focused on crime, violence, sentimentality and military
  • boring
  • ignores most of the world beyond the U.S.
  • rarely addresses the roots of complex issues like poverty and homelessness
  • doing a lousy job covering and explaining the urgency of climate change
  • sucking up to corporate interests

I have no illusion all journalists are good guys! Some are inevitably lazy, unethical, rushed, underfunded, poorly trained and edited.

But it doesn’t mean journalism is unimportant to democracy, regardless of its flaws. If you can’t access basic, verifiable, mulitply sourced facts about corrupt politicians or dangerous medical issues, to name only two key issues affecting us all — good luck!

A few more thoughts about our responsibilities:

Untrue assertions make their way to mainstream news consumers in several ways. Common tactics sources use include false equivalence, whataboutism, bothsidesism and good old-fashioned lying. Well-meaning journalists play a role by allowing sources to give “their side” of an argument — true or not — out of a belief that fair, ethical journalism requires them to do so.

False equivalence refers broadly to situations where a source makes an assertion that two things that share some similarities are equal despite significant differences between them. Comparing Trump supporters’ Jan. 6, 2021, protest in Washington, D.C., to protests following the death of George Floyd is an example. The Floyd protests didn’t turn into a deadly riot that overtook the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to overturn a presidential election.

Whataboutism is a form of false equivalence in which a source responds to an allegation by claiming that someone else did something similar or worse without addressing the substance of the allegation.

Two journalism films are worth your time no matter how much you want to dismiss my defense and protestations, the 2015 film Spotlight, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, about an investigation by the Boston Globe investigative team of three reporters that uncovered 249 abusive Catholic priests and 1,000 victims….many more exist worldwide, as evidenced by the long list in the film’s final credits, from Igloolik, Canada to Argentina.

At its best, this is what journalists do.

Also, the 2022 film She Said, about two New York Times journalists who uncovered decades of abuse by former movie mogul Harvey Weinstein — now in prison for those crimes.

Both are slow moving and procedural but also show the internal hierarchies of power at each paper and how they impeded or helped the reporters and the emotional and physical toll that such reporting on difficult issues affects us.

Because it does.

How cynically — if you even consume news or journalism — do you view the industry?

15 thoughts on “Almost 40% of Americans have “no faith” in the media

  1. I live in a small town where we still rely on a community paper to know what is going on. Our paper is headed by one man with integrity. In a neighbouring town, the editor doesn’t care and has published many false stories. We need accurate information on which to base our decisions, or at least to be compelled into further investigation. Too many people now accept Social media as ‘news’ and we know how rife that is with falsehoods. Journalism, solid journalism, is essential to a progressive society.

    1. Agree. Staffs have been cut in many places; journalists come and go and only the biggest outlets pay enough to stick around — but may not do enough of the work we crave. I find network TV news by far the most disappointing given their budgets and global reach,

  2. What an interesting blog post. I do think there’s been a tremendous decline in good journalism in the last several years. I appreciate Ari Melber on MSNBC as I believe he has integrity. I watch his show most weeknights and appreciate that he will not hesitate to call out liars (Peter Navaro being one). I read NPR online daily as well and feel like I get a lot of solid information there. Especially about what’s going on beyond our borders. What about what is going on with Rupert Murdoch now? I am hoping that Faux News gets completely annihilated as a result of this lawsuit.

  3. I think, finding credible and wide ranging stories gets harder all the time. As well as following up, on those stories. Many times I go hunting myself for some of the ideas or background to comments and quotes used for a purpose within a story. But most outlets have some sort of agenda, however knowing this can also help in finding the stories. A book called The Filter Bubble helped me understand how I was narrowing my searches. Looking outside my own group to see a story with different eyes.

  4. Jan Jasper

    Caitlin, you make some good points about the failings of even credible new outlets, but overall I still respect the NY Times, Washington Post, The Guardian, etc. When I hear people complain that they don’t like paywalls and they expect their news to be free, I try to educate them about what it costs to do journalism. I’ve heard that CraigsList was the start of the problem, because they decimated newspapers’ revenue from paid classified ads. The scary situation now is that many people cannot distinguish anecdote (or opinions on social media) from journalism.
    When I saw Spotlight it was very moving. I was close to tears of awe and gratitude during that scene when they showed the newspaper coming off the presses the day the news broke. I have not yet seen She Said, maybe because I felt I knew the story. But I read recently that it lost money, so now I should watch it – I assume they get something when we view it on Netflix.
    The decline in local newspapers is very concerning. Who will report conflicts of interest and malfeasance in municipal governments?
    Thanks for a very important post.

  5. Scott

    I wondered lately if today’s media leadership would have to guts to publish something on the level of the Pentagon Papers or the Watergate reporting. We don’t have newspaper leaders like Katharine Graham anymore, and they don’t think like her anymore. Would Bezos have the guts to greenlight that kind of investigative journalism if editorial leadership came to him to get his approval? If the WaPo automated/AI internal system determined that the story would get enough “likes” on social media, with a key celebrity tie-in, maybe he would.

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