Who Do You Trust?

In March 2012 we at Headlines were intrigued by an interview Craigslist founder Craig Newmark gave GigaOm in which he said the next big problem the Internet needed to solve was trust. In an election season, in any political season, really, trust plays a huge role. For Newmark, the issue is management of our online relationships and reputations. For our purposes today, we start with the opening of a Marketplace story on how Americans feel about the news media: “Unless you follow political rallies around like the Grateful Dead, this election season a big chunk of your news is bound to be filtered through the news media.” So do people trust the media as they decide on who to elect in November?

On September 21, Gallup reported that Americans' distrust in the media hit a new high this year, with 60% saying they have little or no trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly. Distrust is up from the past few years, when Americans were already more negative about the media than they had been in years prior to 2004. (For sake of comparison, trust in the media was much higher, and more positive than negative, in the years prior to 2004 -- as high as 72% when Gallup asked this question three times in the 1970s.)

Gallup reports that this year's decline in media trust is driven by independents and Republicans. The 31% and 26%, respectively, who express a great deal or fair amount of trust are record lows and are down significantly from last year. Republicans' level of trust this year is similar to what they expressed in the fall of 2008, implying that they are especially critical of election coverage. Independents are sharply more negative compared with 2008, suggesting the group that is most closely divided between President Barack Obama and Republican Mitt Romney is quite dissatisfied with its ability to get fair and accurate news coverage of this election.

Gallup Editor-in-Chief Frank Newport suggested two theories about the troubling trends concerning trust and the media: 1) we are a more polarized nation politically and more distrustful of “the other side” and 2) because we have so many media outlets, when answering this poll, people may be thinking of “the other guy’s media” that can’t be trusted.

Of course, these aren’t the only reasons news consumers could point to. On September 16, New York Times columnist David Carr wrote a scathing piece about recent revelations that journalists covering politics and government are agreeing to quotation-approval as a condition of access. (1) Carr writes, “[I]t’s tough not to see the pageant of democracy as just that: a carefully constructed performance meant to showcase the participants in the best light.” Carr admits that even journalists covering business have had to agree to the same practice (so… so much for letting the market decide). Carr writes that the practice “would have been unthinkable 20 years ago.”

Carr understands that quotes can often be an approximation of what was actually said, but fears something else more modern and insidious is under way. “In an effort to get it first, reporters sometimes cut corners, sending questions by e-mail and taking responses the same way. What is lost is the back-and-forth, the follow-up question, the possibility that something unrehearsed will make it into the article. Keep in mind that when public figures get in trouble for something they said, it is usually not because they misspoke, but because they accidentally told the truth.”

Carr colleague Roger Cohen offered another take on modern journalism on September 17. He writes, “A colleague from a TV news network was telling me the other day that its informal slogan was now ‘Never wrong for long.’ News goes on air as it emerges in a furious competitive scramble, and then if it proves inaccurate it is supplanted rather than corrected.” He continues, That, I guess, is what is meant by the new ‘churnalism.’ So intense is the churn that nothing has much weight. Accuracy sometimes seems a quaint journalistic concept. As for truth, it belongs to a distinct moral universe.” He laments “mainstream media’s” role in helping new media content going viral.

And it is not hard to see what mainstream journalism’s role should be during an election cycle. This week, Tharon Giddens wrote in the Columbia Journalism Review about the influx of ads (2) in the Virginia US Senate race between Democrat Tim Kaine and Republican George Allen. Giddens admits it is a lot to keep up with but laments that many newsrooms in the state are lagging in their efforts to bring perspective and scrutiny to the ad blitz, and sometimes doing little more than amplifying the messages coming from the campaigns. Giddens writes:

The standard format for covering the Senate ads is one that has become common across the industry—a short article or blog post that features video of the ad, a description of its content, and a note about how it fits into the campaign’s strategy. For balance, a retort from the opposing campaign is often included.

What’s missing are attempts at vetting either side’s assertions. Giddens concludes:

[T]oo often, these ad write-ups read like the work of journalists on the hamster wheel—a short summary and a stray thought on the latest campaign message, posted quickly so reporters can keep fresh copy on the site and move on to writing up the next campaign message. It’s hard to hop off that wheel and take a moment to think and plan a more nuanced report when your editor wants you to spin it ever faster, but news consumers deserve more. They can read a press release or watch a commercial on their own. They’re counting on the reporters to help bring it into perspective, keep the campaigns honest, and make sense of it all.

This month Media Matters for America has also revealed a disturbing trend in media: outlets using campaign operatives as analysts of the campaigns they play a role in. Four Fox News contributors are serving as surrogates or advisers for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign, Media Matters reports. In many instances, Fox News has failed to disclose its employees' ties to the Romney campaign while hosting them. In addition, the Wall Street Journal has published op-eds from nine writers without disclosing their roles as advisers to Mitt Romney's presidential campaign. The op-eds attack President Obama and his administration or discuss Romney on a range of topics like the economy, health care, education and foreign policy.

Finally, there’s also the issue of the lack of diversity in journalism. This week, the National Association of Black Journalists released a report finding that people of color fill only 12% of the newsroom management positions at 295 stations owned by ABC, Allbritton, Belo, CBS, Cox, Fox, Gannett, Hearst, Journal, Lin Media, Media General, Meredith, NBC, Nexstar, Raycom, Sinclair, E.W. Scripps, Post-Newsweek and Tribune. The company with the highest diversity percentage is NBC at 27%, followed by ABC (20%), Belo Corporation (19%) and Raycom Media (17%). At the other end is Sinclair Broadcasting (3%). Media General and Journal Broadcasting are only slightly better at 5%. More than half (153) of the television stations in the report have no one of color in management, despite being located in cities with significant diversity such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, San Antonio, Atlanta and Little Rock. In fact none of the four television stations in Little Rock, where 30% of the population is non-White, has any diversity in management. Another 86 stations each have only one person of color in management. This includes stations located in other cities with large minority populations including Dallas, Houston and El Paso. Out of a total of 1,647 managers, 1,447 (87.9%) are White, 115 (6.98%) are Black, 56 (3.40%) are Hispanic, 27 (1.64%) are Asian and 3 (.12)% are Native American. One-thousand-twenty-nine (62%) are men, 618 (38%) are women.

Not all the news was bleak this week. There were also some signs of solutions or, at least, proposals:

  1. The National Association of Broadcasters asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to delay hearing an appeal of the Federal Communications Commission's political file online posting requirement, suggesting that experience gained from this election cycle will help it determine how, and if, to proceed. That means that for the rest of this year, at least, people will be able to determine who is buying political ad spots on local, broadcast TV stations.
  2. The New York Times adopted a new policy: “Reporters should say no if a source demands, as a condition of an interview, that quotes be submitted afterward to the source or a press aide to review, approve or edit.”
  3. In an New York Times op-ed, former Obama Administration official Cass Sunstein offered a remedy for easing polarization: “surprising validators.” People tend to dismiss information that would falsify their convictions. But they may reconsider if the information comes from a source they cannot dismiss. People are most likely to find a source credible if they closely identify with it or begin in essential agreement with it. In such cases, their reaction is not, “how predictable and uninformative that someone like that would think something so evil and foolish,” but instead, “if someone like that disagrees with me, maybe I had better rethink.”

These developments offer some light, but we end with a warning offered by David Carr:
Journalism in its purest form is a transaction. But inch by inch, story by story, deal by deal, we are giving away our right to ask a simple question and expect a simple answer, one that can’t be taken back. It may seem obvious, but it is still worth stating: The first draft of history should not be rewritten by the people who make it.

1. The New York Times broke this story in mid-July. See Latest Word on the Trail? I Take It Back
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2. Of course, this is just a small slice of the campaign ads airing around the country. Kantar Media estimates Americans will see about 43,000 ad spot occurrences per day for the rest of the election cycle.
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By Kevin Taglang.