The latest Gallup results continue the trend in declining confidence in our primary sources of news–newspapers and TV. Actually, I say primary and that is not so much the case any more as the switch to Internet as the primary source continues apace. Now, you would think wouldn’t you that with the growing presence of the Internet as a source of information, that trust in newspapers and TV would grow. After all, they have the professional journalists where few non-print or TV news sites do, they have their journalistic credibility and reputations at stake, and as everyone knows “you can’t believe what you read on the Internet.”
So, why is it that our trust in the media continues to decline?
Let me pose two reasons. One is the dying myth of objectivity. The second is rooted in the competitive nature of media.
Those of us in the Walter Cronkite era, who believed (however falsely) in the myth of media objectivity feel betrayed. The extremes on all positions so evident in the cacophony of our media environment make it clear that no one is objective, all have view points. We tend to favor those who support our own viewpoint and believe them to the most “fair and balanced” but since all media are lumped into one pile in an assessment of trust, we look at all the others as untrustworthy. So we now clearly understand they have an agenda–their opponents make that clear. But for the most part they pretend they don’t and with a few exceptions, declare they don’t. If someone tells you they have important information but you know they have an agenda that supersedes them telling you the truth, will you trust them? It’s why I think in many ways we trust Internet content more. One value that has been clearly established is to reveal upfront our economic ties, conflicts, and agendas. If we don’t, holy cow, watch out. And that is a good thing. The mainstream media, again with some exceptions, clings to the myth of objectivity and trust is lost.
The other, is the competitive environment. I suggest that the competitive environment is their primary agenda. Sell ads or die. Simple as that. What do they need to do to sell ads. Beat the million other guys out there trying to do the same thing. Every day. How? By getting attention. How? By playing on fear, uncertainty and doubt. Wouldn’t it be great to have a warning message on all newspapers that says, “Warning–our primary purpose is to get you to read this so our advertisers will be happy. And we will do just about anything we can do get you to read it.”
Speaking of media warning labels, it’s not an original idea. Here’s a few other warning labels the media might consider.
So, how does the competitive pressure play out in actual news reports. I could take a hundred stories and lay them out, but why should I when the Onion did a perfect job of parodying today’s typical coverage.
Let’s look at a few features:
– word choice–greatest environment disaster, dangerous crude oil, black toxic petroleum, unforetold damage.
-bring in the expert — they got to have someone to quote. Credentials don’t matter as much as if the words they use (easily manipulated by a good reporter) fits the flow, gist and angle of the story. I couldn’t believe all the stories in the spill featuring “experts” who were miffed because they weren’t being taken seriously by BP.
– urgency — “time is of the essence” says the expert
— government calls for an investigation — of course, what else would they do? Need to start drafting legislation right now
–appalled elected official — what elected rep isn’t looking for an opportunity to appear in some news story where they can be the white knight riding to the public’s rescue. “Shocked and horrified.” Hmm, sounds like Rep. Markey.
— citizen reaction — now don’t expect here some citizen to say “well I think the news reports are overblown.” No doubt they got that reaction, but that won’t get into the story.
– bad corporations — of course, there has to be a villain and so there is.
Well, of course the Onion story is a spoof, but if you compare their spoof with the stories about almost any major event like the spill, you will see definite patterns emerge. And the Onion pretty well nailed it.
Why don’t we trust the media? Because we want something they can’t seem to give us–and still survive. Wish I had an answer.