Yesterday Poynter.org posted an article with data from an Ipsos MORI poll that says only 21% of British adults trust journalists to tell the truth, and 40% of Americans trust media to report the news full, accurately, and fairly, which is a new record low. There are a lot of interesting and troubling ideas about this lack of trust from the people journalism is — idealistically — meant to serve and inform.
Differences & Problems
First of all, I think there is a pretty big difference between “trusting journalists to tell the truth” and “trusting the media to report fairly, fully, and accurately.” Were the British and the Americans in the poll posed different questions, or perhaps a series of different questions? Did Americans trust individual journalists to tell the truth? Would the data be different under that question?
The article does mention that journalists in particular fared better than people who sell insurance and cars as far as honesty and ethics go — which isn’t saying much as I imagine people consider the role of a salesman of things like cars and insurance more focused on making a sale (even if it means taking advantage of a customer’s lack of knowledge on the issue), so at least American don’t seem to think journalists will do anything to sell a paper. There were multiple aspects of the poll I think Poynter could have explained better or elaborated on, as the short article brought up a lot more questions than it answered as far as what this data means, and I will bring up these questions as I find them.
Before hitting home about American journalists, I was shocked by the low number of Britons who trust journalists to even tell the truth. Does that mean the vast majority of Britons think journalists are actually lying to them, on purpose? Having studied some of the differences between American and British journalism, I wonder if who Britons consider ‘journalists’ differs than the American idea. After all, the article goes on to mention TV anchors or “news readers” had 69% trusting them to be truthful.
Why the huge difference? Do the British consider news readers’ role to do just that — simply read the news — and not create it? Or do they think more highly of those types of journalists versus print/online journalists? (I cannot help but remember a line from V for Vendetta: “Our job is to report the news, not fabricate it. That’s the government’s job.”)
Part of what might explain this are two forms of news that exist in the UK that are rather different than what we have in the US. One is the tabloids, which seem to look like newspapers, but employ the practices of constant huge, bold, underlined headlines with huge pictures and very little content, making People Magazine (in my opinion) look professional in comparison. The Sun has even featured a profile of a woman on page three (who by the way, in the picture is always topless, except perhaps on Sundays). It would not surprise me if Britons did not trust that kind of journalist. On the other hand, there are government run news organizations like the BBC — a concept I think Americans would have a hard time swallowing in the US — that seem well respected, trusted, and legitimate. I would not be surprised if Britons simply trusted broadcast journalists more because the greater quality of journalism they experience from broadcast, while print (although having better sources like The Guardian) includes tabloids who have faced problems like the phone hacking scandal.
In the States: “the media” vs. journalists
If the British have the phone hacking scandal in recent memory to lower their trust in journalists, Americans have the recent election as a reminder of the bipartisanship reflected in the media that would lower their trust in fair, accurate, complete reporting. With the rising popularity of obviously slanted news organizations like Fox News and MSNBC (whether or not they admit to be so), Americans might trust the media to give niche audiences what they want and spin the facts and the truth in a way that is incomplete and unfair. It makes sense that even if that is a capitalist view, it’s at least better than car and insurance salespeople — there is some value in having both sides of the story told, even if it’s by competing or different news sources. But that doesn’t mean American expect any given news source in the big concept of “the media” is going to be telling them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help them God.
What the Poynter article also fails to mention is what Americans thought of their “news readers,” those broadcast anchors, who are often also reporters. Do Americans put greater trust in certain forms of journalism than others? (It is impossible to go through journalism or television classes without hearing that Walter Cronkite was once “the most trusted man in America.”) Not trusting to get the fair, accurate, complete truth from “the media” seems to paint a general skepticism of news sources across the board, but is different faith put into The New York Times versus CNN? What about print versus online articles? In reference to the British skepticism, Poynter uses the following quote:
“Media-watchers believe, however, that in an era of rapid technological change, the trust issue goes wider than the morally dubious practices of some of the red-top newspapers in Britain.”
But what do the rapid technological changes mean for media consumption and trust of the truth of the reporting? The article doesn’t elaborate. Some context to other similar articles is given by links at the bottom, including Pew: 75% of Americans say journalists can’t get their facts straight, Gallup: Americans mistrust media more than ever, and 24% of the public gives journalists ‘high’ ethics rating, which can give more context and light on the subject of America’s ongoing trust/mistrust of the media.
Is there one? Can the strength of any individual journalist, news organization, or even a change for the better in the entire industry of “the media” undo the mistrust instilled in Americans (and Britons)? If the audience we as journalists cater to don’t trust what we say is true, how effective or worthwhile is our work for those of us who consider journalism to be an enlightening and informative force in society?