Politicians frequently rail against the news media, but rarely has the criticism been as harsh as it is today. President Donald Trump has made little effort to conceal his contempt for the press, calling unfavorable stories “fake news” and the mainstream media “the enemy of the people.”
Research reveals that most Americans’ trust in the news media has declined, and conservatives and evangelicals show a marked lack of trust. But it would be a mistake to attribute the recent drop to any one institution, individual or event. “The conservative skepticism of the media runs deep,” CNN’s S.E. Cupp wrote. “Believe me, President Donald Trump didn’t invent it.”
Digital innovations have revolutionized the way the media distributes and people consume the news, often with unforeseen consequences.
“This has created confusion for users who are looking at ‘news’ on their phones — often sharing it blindly with their networks without knowing the source or where it came from,” said Jennifer Preston, Knight Foundation vice president for journalism. “It has also destroyed the traditional business model that has long supported the production of local journalism and news, leaving many people with fewer reliable local sources. At the same time, it has produced myriad opportunities for engagement — in fact, digital and mobile technologies are essential to engagement in the 21st century.”
The better you understand how the media landscape has changed, the better equipped you will be to separate the wheat from the chaff in this information age.
Growing public mistrust in the news
Fifty years ago, many medium-sized towns had two newspapers, one in the morning and one in the evening, as their main sources of local news. There were three major television networks, ABC, CBS, and NBC, with local affiliates, plus radio stations up and down the dial. For beautiful pictures or perspective on the news, people read weekly magazines such as Life and Time. With relatively few sources of news, most media outlets aimed to reach a broad audience with objective reporting.
But Vice President Spiro Agnew said too much power was concentrated in “a small and unelected elite” at the television networks and major newspapers such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. In two speeches in 1969 and 1970, Agnew said that they “allow their biases to influence the selection and presentation of the news.”
He immediately struck a chord with the public, particularly in his criticism of the networks. “The vast majority of the American people agreed 100 percent with us,” Pat Buchanan, who wrote the speeches as a member of the Nixon White House, told PBS. “The networks were inundated with telegrams denouncing their bias.”
Later, of course, the media exposed the Watergate scandal—a reminder of the need for an independent press—but public mistrust of the news media has grown since then.
A Knight Foundation and Gallup poll released last year found that 69 percent of adults—and 95 percent of conservatives—said their trust in the media had declined in the past decade. Although almost 70 percent of Americans said their trust could be regained, more than one-third of conservatives said it had been permanently lost.
And a Pew Research Center report released in September found that evangelicals lagged 10-15 percentage points behind the average adult in their trust of journalists. Of course, Christians believe in absolute truth; journalists, in their quest for fairness, have to tell both sides of a story, or even all sides of a complicated one.
“There is a mutual suspicion between secular journalists or secular newspapers and faith-based readers,” said Tim Morgan, director of the Journalism Certificate Program at Wheaton College and a former senior editor at Christianity Today. “Although church attendance has gone down, there are still many people who have a Christian worldview. Journalism attracts a lot of people, agnostics, atheists, and others who are not interested in religion. Religion is treated like a sideshow at the major papers.”
Americans trust local media over national
In the fifty years since Agnew first targeted liberal bias in the news media, the internet and social media have threatened to make newspapers extinct.
Not only has most advertising migrated online, information is often outdated by the time print newspapers are delivered. And many of the unique features that newspapers could provide, such as box scores, stock tables and movie listings, are now available on the internet.
Penny Abernathy, a journalism professor at the University of North Carolina and the author of the 2018 report “The Expanding News Deserts,” said that about 2,100 newspapers, the vast majority of them weeklies, have closed in the past fifteen years. Staff cuts have become the norm at metropolitan newspapers, and some have folded or cut the number of days a week that they publish. Giants such as the Washington Post, owned by Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos, and the New York Times remain prosperous.
Interestingly, studies have shown that Americans have more trust in their local sources of news, primarily television stations and these endangered newspapers, than the national media.
“We now have what amounts to the biblical Tower of Babel: Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of news sources, many of which are simply repeating whatever they think might get readers or viewers to click,” Mathew Ingram, an expert on the news and technology, wrote in Fortune. “The click economy has driven even traditional, mainstream media outlets to focus on quick hits and ‘viral’ stories, even if they have little truth to them.”
Is objectivity possible?
In today’s 24-7 news cycle, more information is available, faster than ever before, but accuracy, complexity, and objectivity have suffered. The line between news and advertising, once as sacred in many secular newsrooms as the separation of church and state, has blurred because of new financial realities.
RealClearPolitics executive editor Carl Cannon, discussing public disenchantment with the news media, told Hill.TV, “What people hold against us is that we pretend to be objective and we aren’t. This is a big systemic problem. This exists in a business environment where the old AP [Associated Press] just-the-facts model doesn’t necessarily sell. You have a fiduciary responsibility to your publisher to be outlandish.”
In the digital age, anyone can be a reporter, with no formal training or ethical guidelines or editor to serve as a filter. Mistakes spread over social media, and sensational stories tend to get shared more often.
Against this backdrop, journalists struggle with ethical questions. At a meeting in August, New York Times staffers discussed whether it’s best to use words like “racist” or “lie” or just describe the behavior behind them and let readers decide for themselves. “The best way to capture a remark, like the kinds of remarks the president makes, is to use them, to lay it out in perspective,” Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet said. “That is much more powerful than the use of a word.”
Journalists have reevaluated traditional ideas of objectivity in the Trump era. “The belief that objectivity required giving equal weight to differing points of view began to erode,” former Times Executive Editor Jill Abramson wrote in her book, Merchants of Truth. “The ‘on the one hand, on the other’ style of reporting did damage by creating a false equivalency of arguments, especially when Trump was purposefully undermining the truth.”
The Washington Post runs a feature called “Fact Checker,” an “ongoing database of the false or misleading claims made by President Trump since assuming office.” Fact Checker also recently called out House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff for making a “flat-out false” statement on MSNBC.
Politicians vs. journalists vs. the public
Tension between politicians and the media is nothing new, but the public has been an unfortunate casualty of these wars of words.
“I complained plenty about Fox News — but you never heard me threaten to shut them down, or call them enemies of the people,” Barack Obama said in a speech before the 2018 mid-term elections. However, the Obama administration excluded Fox from interviews and a spokesperson told the New York Times, “We’re going to treat them the way we would treat an opponent. As they are undertaking a war against Barack Obama and the White House, we don’t need to pretend that this is the way that legitimate news organizations behave.”
Viewers tend to pick the TV networks that match their political biases, e.g., Fox for conservatives and MSNBC for liberals.
“Often they aren’t even reporting the same stories,” Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse wrote in his book Them: Why We Hate Each Other—and How to Heal. “When they do, the coverage is so different that it is hard to believe they are describing the same set of facts.”
Most thoughtful journalists admit it’s impossible to avoid bias completely, if only in choosing which stories to cover and which facts to include.
How to detect bias in the news
But if you want to be well-informed, be wary of signs of bias in the news.
For example, does a news outlet interview people on both sides of a political story, Democrats and Republicans?
Do journalists make conclusions without facts to back them up?
Is a journalist’s choice of words a subtle indication of bias?
The Media Awareness Network, in a handout called “How to Detect Bias in the News,” noted that terms like terrorist and freedom fighter could be used to describe the same person, depending on your perspective.
Reporters usually don’t write the headlines on their stories or determine where they are played. Does the headline match the story, or does it seem sensationalized to grab your attention?
Do media outlets tend to put negative stories on the front page of the newspaper or website or near the top of a newscast? Journalists tend to emphasize the negative, figuring that most of the time when something positive happens, it’s expected and not news.
Ask questions like these, and don’t just follow the news on media outlets that agree with you. Be open to new ideas. That way, you’ll be able to thoughtfully take positions on the issues of the day.