Forget Donald Trump. Here’s why the economics of journalism is to blame, and how the industry can regain the public’s faith.
(CN) — Trust in the news media is near its all-time low, and many people assume that this is simply a byproduct of the hyperpartisan hysteria of the Trump era.
Problematic for this theory, though, is that it was in 2015 when the number of people who say they have at least a fair amount of trust in the press hit bottom. The number has been rising since then, according to Gallup Inc., which has been polling people’s lack of trust for decades. That means that despite President Trump’s constant decrying of “fake news,” people believe the news more now than when he first descended the Trump Tower escalator to announce his candidacy.
And despite what many assume, the news hasn’t become more partisan as a response to people being angry and wanting to hear things that reinforce their own views.
When the Trust Project, an international consortium devoted to making journalism more transparent, conducted interviews with U.S. news consumers, “what we found is not so much animosity as anxiety, a fear of accidentally getting misinformation and sharing it,” Sally Lehrman, the group’s founder, said in an interview.
In other words, despite all the claims that people seek out news that confirms their views, most people really want unbiased reporting.
And most reporters do, too, experts say. While there are always a few bad apples, the vast majority of working journalists simply want to inform the public and hold the powerful accountable regardless of political affiliation.
And yet, while overall trust in journalism has risen from 32% to 40% since 2015, it’s still dramatically below its high-water mark of 72% in the post-Watergate era. Trust has been declining steadily for decades, and the real reasons have to do with economic and technological changes in the industry itself, not with a single controversial politician or fleeting partisan dispute.
In journalism’s heyday, successful local newspapers — many cities had more than one — pumped healthy advertising revenue into in-depth coverage while the three major TV networks as well as radio stations were required by the FCC’s “Fairness Doctrine” to present a balance of differing viewpoints on controversial issues. Growing up with these media, the public had a fairly good sense of the differences between reporting, analysis and opinion.
The first change to this model was talk radio, said Joy Mayer, a former journalism professor and director of Trusting News, a nonprofit dedicated to helping journalists improve their credibility.
In 1987 the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine and the following year Rush Limbaugh began his nationally syndicated radio show, combining news and opinion and blurring the lines between reporting and entertainment. His show was popular because, like Trump 30 years later, he struck a nerve with a large segment of the population whose attitudes were underrepresented. But his success encouraged others to imitate not only his views but also his formula, often showing a complete disregard for the objectivity model that was standard in the mainstream press.
Then in January 1991 CNN scored a coup by being the only network able to broadcast from Iraq during the early hours of the Gulf War, attracting over a billion viewers worldwide and eclipsing the three major U.S. broadcast networks. Cable news became a viable new information source, one that often broadcast live (without editors to carefully analyze copy) and that had to fill many hours a day rather than a single half-hour broadcast.