Monday, August 7, 2017

New sources feed the distrust of news media

During my 33 years as a newspaper editor, I was bothered by the distrust and even contempt many Americans felt for the news media. Journalists were perennially near the bottom of the "confidence" list, down there with used car salesmen and politicians.

As a child of what might be considered the golden age of print journalism, when most respectable cities had two or more newspapers, when many households subscribed to a morning and an afternoon newspaper, when it was claimed that a printing press amounted to "a license to print money" because newspaper advertising was so dominant and so profitable, when nationally syndicated columnists were closely followed, respected and even beloved nationwide, when Americans didn't believe news until they saw it in their newspaper, I embarked on what I thought was a secure profession. I watched as the Watergate scandal, ably and thoroughly reported by the Washington Post, New York Times and other newspapers, brought down a president.

The lack of confidence in the news media I saw 50 years ago has only gotten worse — much worse. Despite improved professionalism, strengthened professional standards, better journalism education, new codes of conduct and other efforts to improve journalism and the public's opinion of the media, things have only gotten worse.

Why? I've given this some thought through my days in the newsroom and since then about why the public so distrusts the news media. The election of a president whose favorite phrase is "fake news" and who excoriates the news media as "the enemies of the people" hasn't helped, but the problem goes deeper than Trump's tweets.

It seems to me that the advent of the 24-hour cable news format has been bad for journalism. CNN and its imitators have created new jobs in journalism, but they have also overwhelmed the public with information and analysis people have trouble digesting or accepting. Add to that social media and the internet-based news sites of varying degrees of professionalism, accuracy or factuaity. In that corner of the news business, "fake news" is a real thing — fiction created for (usually) political purposes. Beware the unknown "news" sources.

All news all the time requires an enormous amount of talking/writing. The 24-hour news cycle must be fed. "Dead air" cannot be tolerated. Someone must be saying something or showing something or shouting every second of every day 365 days of the year to feed these beasts. There is not enough "real news" of interest to most viewers to fill the 24-hour cycle, so the same news is recycled over and over, and guest commentators are offered to analyze the news and give their insight and opinions. This goes on forever, every hour, every day, every week, every year.

The result has been that cable stations have engaged in more partisan opinion in order to attract more viewers. The more slanted and more angry the commentary, the better for attracting viewers of a certain ilk. Like political candidates who have to "play to their base," cable stations seek out their right-wing or left-wing constituencies and feed them the slanted views they love. Finding opposing viewpoints requires switching channels. Fox News perfected this formula but is not alone in its use of the strategy.

Along with "Talk Radio," in which no claim is too outlandish and every claim evokes anger, cable news, social media and internet "news" sites have created a deeply divided American electorate. And these developments have created an even greater distrust of the news media. Both extremes of the political spectrum can complain about news outlets on the other side, leaving the journalism even more distrusted than ever before.

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