Trusting the Media

watching TVIt is an unfortunate truth that the majority of Americans are poorly informed about national and world affairs. Newspapers are folding all over the country and even the major television networks are having problems attracting loyal followers. When people do become aware of certain issues it is largely through a few sound bites, video clips, or comments by celebrities that fail to provide much depth.

As Robert G. Kaiser, the former Senior Editor of the Washington Post, stated in an extended Brookings Essay this past summer,

Today’s young people skitter around the Internet like ice skaters, exercising their short attention spans by looking for fun and, occasionally, seeking out serious information.

Audience taste seems to be changing, with the result that among young people particularly there is a declining appetite for the sort of information packages the great newspapers provided, which included national, foreign and local news, business news, cultural news and criticism, editorials and opinion columns, sports and obituaries, lifestyle features, and science news.

The same can be said of televised reporting. Much of what does appear on the national networks is of poor informational quality. Yet it is quite revealing to see how much trust viewers place in the information presented by these broadcasters.

A Cooperative Congressional Election Survey done in 2006 showed that 77.5% of Republicans thought Fox News gave the fairest coverage of national news. CNN came in second with only 4.2%, and all others fared far below that. This shows either incredible trust by conservatives in Fox News reporting or incredible distrust of the other networks.

Independents, on the other hand split their favourability ratings between Fox News (30%), PBS (21.4%) and CNN (15.7%) while Democrats preferred PBS (29.5%) and CNN nearly equally (27.2%). MCNBC received much smaller rankings among both Independents and Democrats, and only 4.0% of Democrats trusted Fox News..

survey-foxA more recent survey done in June of this year by Brookings and the Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI), showed similar results. Their survey focused mainly on attitudes toward immigration reform, but included questions on the respondents’ news preferences. When asked which television new source they trusted most to give accurate information about politics and current events they answered as follows:

trust_in_television_news_sourcesWhat do these charts tell us? They basically confirm that most Republicans who tune into network news coverage favor Fox News over all other sources, while both Democrats and Independents tend to trust a broader variety of news sources. [It’s nice to have solid data to back up these things.]

tv cartoon 1A further question needs to be asked: Just how trustworthy are these news sources that shape voters’ opinions? This summer PunditFact reported on its latest fact checking of statements made by network news personalities and their guests on various television networks. The results are rather discouraging.

foxpunditOf the statements made by various pundits and commentators appearing on Fox News that they decided to fact check, they found 60% of those statements to be either False, Mostly False or ‘Pants on Fire’ False, while only 18% of statements were categorized as True or Mostly True. That’s what happens when political punditry substitutes for news content and “infotainment” replaces real news analysis.

On the other side of the political spectrum, MSNBC didn’t do a whole lot better.

msnbcpunditA full 46% of the statements they fact checked were found to be either False, Mostly False or ‘Pants on Fire’ False, while only 31% of statements came out as True or Mostly True.

CNN, on the other hand, came out much better with only 18% of the statements they fact checked being False, Mostly False or ‘Pants on Fire’ False, and 60% of statements being True or Mostly True.

cnnpunditNevertheless, these numbers overall are horrible. Is it any wonder, then, that a Gallup poll released this September reported that Americans’ confidence in the media’s ability to report “the news fully, accurately, and fairly” is at an all-time low of only 40%?

Gallup1That is the principle reason why I do not watch American (so-called) news programs.

On a related matter, Gallup notes that Americans historically have believed the new media as a whole to be “too liberal” rather than “too conservative.” But that is changing, as in 2014 Gallop recorded “the sharpest increase in the percentage of Americans who feel the news skews too far right since Gallup began asking the question in 2001.”

Gallup3When one breaks down the overall percentages by political orientation, it is found that 71% of Conservatives believe the media are too liberal, which might explain their distrust non-Fox News messaging. Liberals talk a lot about conservatives operating within a self-contained “media bubble” in which they only tune in to views that reinforce their own ideas. That can be true of some liberals too, but remember that they do not tend to lock themselves in to only one news source or one point of view.

Nevertheless, as Kaiser states in his lengthy essay cited earlier,

Surveys by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press show that increasing numbers of American get their “news” from ideologically congenial sources. The news media are fragmenting just as American society is fragmenting—by class, by region, by religious inclination, by generation, by ethnic identity, by politics and more.

tv cartoon 3Kaiser also laments the disappearance of the kind of balanced in-depth reporting that used to characterize the print and broadcast media.

“[F]or those who continue to want access to that kind of product, there is no right to reliable, intelligent, comprehensive journalism. We only get it when someone provides it. And if it doesn’t pay someone a profit, it’s not likely to be produced.”

Veteran CBS news anchor Dan Rather is another critic of present-day television journalism. In a recent interview with The Star he stated that,

[O]ver the last 15 to 20 years … [t]he standards of what is accepted as quality journalism have dropped precipitously. … There was a time when, if you were covering foreign news that meant you sent reporters to a place to actually cover it. Now, so often covering international news is, “Put four people in a room and have them shout at one another.”

Another very revealing exchange occurred recently when Dan Rather along with former MSNBC host Dylan Ratigan were guests on CNN’s Reliable Sources program. When Ratigan suggested that to keep audience share the networks should “play up more culture and less Washington,” Rather jumped in and said, “[N]obody is asking me but if I were running either one of these outfits, I would do away with a lot of money spent on graphics and in-house opinion giving, and do deep digging investigative reporting …” – at which point Ratigan interrupted and said, “That’s why they’re not calling you, Dan.”

It’s sad to see solid, probing, and fact-laden news journalism passing from the scene in this way and being replaced with celebrity commentators in the place of real news anchors.