The fact that Americans generally don’t trust the press is not breaking news. Confidence in the media has been slipping for decades. And as a new poll from the Columbia Journalism Review demonstrates, we have a long way to go if we’re going to reverse that troubling trend nationally.
The CJR poll, conducted in partnership with Reuters/Ipsos, surveyed over 4,200 people from around the country to gauge their confidence in the press and their impression of how the process of reporting actually works.
By any interpretation, the results are not good. The press is at the bottom of the barrel, right behind Congress, in terms of institutions in which people have “hardly any confidence at all.”
The partisan breakdown also stands out: 42 percent of the 1,657 people in the survey who identified as Democrats said they do not believe the media has a partisan bias. Of respondents who identify as Republicans, on the other hand, only 10 percent believe the media does not have partisan bias.
That difference is stark and clearly bears reflection, but it’s actually not the most concerning number in the poll. The most worrisome figure cuts across both parties, with 60 percent of all respondents (54 percent of Democrats and 70 percent of Republicans) believing that reporters pay their sources sometimes or very often.
If a majority of Americans think all media operate like the National Enquirer and pay for information, then we have a serious problem. And it’s our responsibility to help correct that misunderstanding.
These poll results, more than anything, show that we as journalists need to do better at explaining our jobs.
In an ever-changing digital landscape, where information and misinformation can spread almost instantly on social media, members of the media also need to reflect on the role we must continue play as a backstop for truth. That requires us to take some responsibility with stories like those involving Jussie Smollett or the Covington Catholic students, where the rush to jump on a story perpetuated incomplete, misleading or false narratives.
Certainly, chants of “fake news” and hostility toward the press don’t help the situation, but those attacks undoubtedly resonate with people in part because we’ve allowed a vacuum of trust and understanding to grow over the years.
Do members of the press at times face anger and violence for simply doing their job? Undoubtedly yes. But our response as an industry shouldn’t be to feel victimized or to retreat from the public. The opposite is the case. In the face of rising distrust, the media more than ever must better engage and educate people about how we report the news, the journalistic rules and ethics we follow, and even the terms we use.
News organizations, journalism schools and other groups are increasingly working to address the breakdown in media trust — and to better understand why that gulf exists. And it’s not all bad news.
In 2018, for example, the Poynter Institute for Media Studies found that over 70 percent of Americans have trust in the local TV news and local newspapers. So even as trust erodes nationally, there’s hope at the local level.
Local journalists are your neighbors. We’re not perfect, but we do our best every day to help people understand the world around them. And clearly we need to do a better job helping people to understand the world of journalism, too.