Recently a survey came out which, among other things, showed that only 36.4% of Coloradans polled trust journalists to quote “do the right thing?” This seems to have touched a nerve among some Colorado reporters because journalistic social media lit up. A notable response was that of media commentator and Colorado College Journalism Institute co-director Corey Hutchins writing in his December 15th newsletter, that responses to Colorado Sun reporter Jesse Paul’s tweet on the topic ” … show just how little understanding exists among some about the role of journalism in society.”
Obviously there is a mismatch between where those in the media put the problem vs. where those in the general public do.
Words can be pretty slippery. Language is not a one-to-one transfer of concepts out of one human and into another. My whole point here is based on the idea that before anything else we need to understand what others mean by “the role of journalism in society” and “trust”.
I reached out to Mr. Hutchins to see if he could flesh out for me what he meant by a misunderstanding of the role of journalism, specifically what he (and likely many others because he’s not only worked in the field but studies it as a professor) meant by the role of journalists. He told me in an email that, “In short, I believe the role of journalism in society is to illuminate for the many what is known by a few through a process of verification, done independently, in a way that provides people with the information they need to be free and self-governing and to make decisions in their lives.” Pushed by me to explain how this intersects with replies to Mr. Paul’s tweet exhibiting a misunderstanding, he followed up with, “I’d have to go back and scan, but I seem to recall some people saying they didn’t think they needed journalists to help them make decisions and others thinking journalists were lying on purpose or not correcting stories if there were inaccuracies.”
That definition is a sound one and I don’t disagree. At its best this is exactly what we the public could hope for. I also think that there are plenty of people who genuinely believe that some or all in the media lie, take little to no care to get their facts right, and don’t bother to fix it when they do. In my experience (consuming more media than is probably healthy for a human), I know that those things do happen, but I don’t think it’s widespread. Most journalists and news outlets (even those I disagree with) do a good job of vetting and reporting facts in their articles. When they do make mistakes, they are quickly, and publicly fixed.
And yet I, like 63.6% of the survey responders, do not entirely trust the media. I do not trust them for the reasons Mr. Hutchins cites, however. Most people, even if they couldn’t reproduce Mr. Hutchins’ textbook definition, have an intuitive sense of the role of journalism. They know what good reporting is and they hold what they’re actually getting in their hands, weighing it against that standard where it comes up short.
Put another, perhaps cruder way, people don’t trust the media because they don’t like it when someone pees down their back and tells them it’s raining.
From the same news sources that tell you how critical they are to a functioning democracy, you’ll get continuing, breathless updates on Lauren Boebert’s bombast and outlandish behavior, but nothing at all about how Gov. Polis’ husband Marlon Reis publicly berated Fence Post reporter Rachel Gabel. Or, you’ll get the reverse from a conservative outlet.
You’ll get articles where “nonpartisan” sources are clearly anything but (a neat little semantic trick on the part of reporters who use that in the sense of “not affiliated with a political party” as opposed to likely more commonly-used meaning of “neutral” or “unbiased”). Similarly, in articles where “experts say” something, you’ll only hear from the experts that say what the reporter wants.
The list of examples could go on, but I think you get the idea.
Trust means different things to different people. Of course, it can mean that I feel you won’t lie to me, but this standard is not enough. Look at my examples above and note that none of them require lying on the reporter’s part. They are all “true” in that sense.
As I note above, however, people are not dumb and when they put words next to actions and see a mismatch, they do not trust. They (rightfully) believe that they’re not getting a fair and full picture.
If this problem is going to get fixed, it will require the news media to do two things. One, bring their actions in line with their rhetoric about themselves. Two, it will require doing the hard work of asking and listening to those that don’t currently like or trust them.
I sympathize here because this is difficult. As a college instructor, every semester I go through the ritual of doing course evaluations and the results can sometimes be tough to read because they directly conflict with the image I have of myself as a teacher. Still, if improvement is the goal, doing this is vital.
Until our media learns to stop shielding (and soothing) themselves with the notion that the problem solely exists with news consumers and our lack of understanding, they will likely continue to face the kind of lack of trust they are seeing right now.
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