News media “useful as a parka at the equator”
Mason Beasler
AFA Journal intern

May 2019 – “If you don’t read the newspaper, you’re uninformed. If you read the newspaper, you’re misinformed.” This caustic comment, most often attributed to Mark Twain, unfortunately seems to reflect an opinion shared by the majority of today’s American news consumers. Studies, polls, and published articles affirm that cynical conclusion: Confidence in U.S. media is on a steady downhill slide.

One Gallup poll reports that in 1976, 72% of Americans had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in the media. By 2017, that number had fallen to 32% of Americans.1 A similar poll from Poynter in 2017 asked 2,100 adults about their opinions of the news media in America. According to this survey, less than half of Americans (49%) trusted the media to report news “fully, accurately, and, fairly.”2

These two studies offer compelling evidence that trust in the media is at an alarmingly low level. Since the 1976 apex of media trust recorded by Gallup, the people’s confidence in the media has slowly declined, begging the question: What caused the public to start doubting the news? Three dominant truths emerge.

Pursuit of speed
One top reason for this decline is the increasingly rapid delivery of news. News in the 21st century reaches the eyes and ears of consumers faster than ever before. This acceleration matches the growing expectation for immediacy in American culture. The generation of young adults who are now becoming college students, graduates, and new members of the workforce has often been labeled the “microwave generation.”

It’s an apt metaphor. Earlier generations prepared food on a stove or in an oven. This generation grew up with microwaves, considerably reducing the time needed to prepare food.

“We want everything right now,” writes marketing analyst Steffany Winkelmann. “We can’t wait, and instantaneous results are what get us most excited.”3 Unfortunately, many Americans want their news like they want their fast-food dinners – fast and easy. Just as some have abandoned other appliances for the microwave, some have replaced old news platforms with – you guessed it – social media.

One report from Pew Research Center shows that, in 2018, 68% of American adults consumed news on social media at least sometimes. The same survey reports that for these people, the most attractive quality in social media news is the convenience it offers. Additionally, 57% of these adults expect the news they view on social media to be “largely inaccurate.”4

Reporting too quickly often leads to inaccurate reporting, although it is not exclusive to the age of technology. One historic example is the November 3, 1948, Chicago Tribune headline that boldly declared “DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN.” Before all votes were counted, the Tribune reported that President Truman had lost reelection. But Truman went on to win the race, leaving the Tribune headline to live in infamy.

This speed-over-accuracy compromise has become all too common in the 21st century. Another high profile example is the botched reporting by National Public Radio on the January 8, 2011, shooting of U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ).5 Giffords was hosting a morning event in Tucson, Arizona, when a man entered the event and opened fire with a handgun, injuring several people including Giffords.

By 1:01 p.m., the Newscast unit at NPR had reported that Giffords was dead. At 2:01 p.m., NPR newscaster Barbara Klein reported that Giffords had been killed in the shooting. At 2:12 p.m. Andy Carvin, NPR’s social media editor, tweeted to NPR’s two million followers that Giffords had been killed.

By 2:30 p.m. – 4 hours and 20 minutes after the shooting – NPR received word that Giffords was, in fact, alive and in surgery. NPR quickly began airing a different report, using the word shot instead of the word killed. Fortunately, of course, Giffords survived the attack.

This erroneous style of reporting, although later corrected, illustrates a frequent contemporary media failure. When getting the story first takes precedence over getting the story right, confusion, misinformation, and even tragic mistakes may occur. The result is more distrust of media generally. “The upside of having information first is fleeting,” says Robert Garcia, the executive producer of NPR’s Newscast. “The downside is enormous, painful.”

Polarization of culture
Another reason trust in the media as a whole has dropped is the extreme political polarization of America. The battle between Republican and Democrat, conservative and liberal, rages every day, and it seems to reach into every area of life. Forbes writer Brett Edkins says, “America’s media environment is more polarized than [that of] any other Western country.”6

University of Southern California newswriter Laura Paisley concludes that “Political polarization [is] at its worst since the Civil War.”From abortion to taxes to immigration to gun control, the political divide in the U.S. appears limitless, affecting the trust placed in the media by people on both sides of that divide.

A Pew Research Center study found that from 1994 to 2004, the polarization between the average Republican and the average Democrat stayed relatively the same. By 2014, however, the gap was wider than ever in the previous 20 years.8 Naturally, the gap between political leanings has been mirrored by the gap between preferred media sources.

In another study, Pew states, “When it comes to getting news about politics and government, liberals and conservatives inhabit different worlds. There is little overlap in the news sources they turn to and trust.”9 The study found that liberals use news sources such as CNN, MSNBC, and the New York Times, while conservatives mainly cluster around Fox News, with neither group crossing the aisle very often.

Referencing a study done by The Media Insight project, the American Press Institute states, “On many fronts, Americans are skeptical of ‘the news media’ in the abstract, but generally trust the news they themselves rely on.”10 Chalk it up to human nature. Politically, people on the right distrust the media preferred by those on the left, and conversely, those on the left distrust media favored by the right.

Anonymity of sources
A third reason for the decline in trust is another byproduct of the age of technology: anonymity. With the advent of social media, texting, emailing, and instant messaging, much of the modern world’s communication has been made remote, removed, distant, and intangible.

Gone are the days of physical letters and memos operating as the main source of communication between two parties. The coupling of the Internet with additional technology has made it easier to communicate, share ideas, and pass along information remotely, and more importantly, anonymously. Now, people use social media apps such as Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat to 
communicate.

Many aspects of social media, such as fake accounts and profiles, allow people to say and post whatever they want without any real repercussions. People can leave anonymous comments on online articles, sometimes inciting heated arguments on political positions.

According to a Social Media Today article, Facebook removed 583 million fake accounts just in the first three months of 2018. Yik Yak, a former app for the iPhone and Android, allowed users to post completely anonymously on message boards for anyone in a five-mile radius to read. After multiple schools were sent into lockdown due to violent, anonymous messages posted there, this app came under heavy fire and was eventually shut down.11

One of the most egregious examples of media using anonymous sources is a September 5, 2018, New York Times article. The Times published an op-ed piece in which an anonymous source claimed to be working inside the White House as part of a group resisting the agenda of the president.12

The Times defended its action: “The Times is taking the rare step of publishing an anonymous op-ed essay. We have done so at the request of the author, a senior official in the Trump administration whose identity is known to us and whose job would be jeopardized by its disclosure. We believe publishing this essay anonymously is the only way to deliver an important perspective to our readers.”

The assertion that the writer’s job would be on the line if his/her identity were to be revealed is a weak argument according to Gary Abernathy, a Washington Post writer. Abernathy argues that with anonymity, there is no accountability requiring the newsmaker to stand behind his words, written or spoken.

“The risk of retribution,” Abernathy writes, is that “lawsuits, advertiser boycotts, ridicule, harm to reputation – is what keeps, and has always kept, expressed opinion somewhere between the lines of responsibility.”13

Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein issued a general media warning to the American people: “Americans should exercise caution before accepting as true any stories attributed to anonymous ‘officials. … ”14

Associated Press managing editors surveyed 1,611 readers in 42 states concerning their opinions and level of trust in anonymous sources. Although many say anonymity should be available to reporters to use, 44% of those readers replied that if a reporter does use an anonymous source, the reader is less likely to trust the story.

According to Ryan Pitts, a Poynter online writer, many of the readers call it a double-edged sword. On one hand, anonymity opens the door to expose the truth in areas otherwise unavailable.15

However, others, such as Bruce Fritz, one of the survey respondents, assert that there is a possibility for false claims when using anonymity. “The use of anonymous sources makes the media a dupe for putting out unreliable stories,” said Fritz. The use of anonymous sources, for many readers, is the difference between trusting and distrusting a news story.

No doubt, other factors affect the extent of distrust the average citizen feels toward the American media, but these three – speed, polarization, and anonymity – arguably have had the most profound impact. One thing is clear: Confidence in U.S. media has eroded immensely in recent decades. The multiple polls, studies, and reports cited above bear out that truth.

A sad irony catches one’s attention when considering the Society of Professional Journalists’ superbly worded and lofty official code of ethics. It is admirable and strong.

Yet on the SPJ website, a position paper observes, “The most important professional possession of journalists is credibility. If the news consumers don’t have faith that the stories they are reading or watching are accurate and fair, if they suspect information attributed to an anonymous source has been made up, then the journalists are as useful as a parka at the equator.”

Sad irony, indeed.   

This story is a condensed version of Mason Beasler’s senior paper as a May graduate in journalism at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Mason has worked as an intern at AFA Journal since June 2018.

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ENDNOTES
1. news.gallup.com; 9/14/16
2. poynter.org; 12/22/17
3. linkedin.com; 2/17/17
4. journalism.org; 9/10/18
5. npr.org; 1/11/11
6. forbes.com; 6/27/17
7. news.usc.edu; 11/8/16
8. journalism.org; 10/21/14
9. people-press.org; 6/12/14
10. americanpressinstitute.org; 5/24/17
11. socialmediatoday.com; 5/16/18
12. nytimes.com; 9/5/18
13. washingtonpost.com; 9/20/18
14. spj.org/ethics-papers-anonymity.asp
15. poynter.org; 6/16/05