I remember as a young child listening and watching while my grandfather and father sat in the living room every evening quietly listening to the news. It was the post-war era, and the radio broadcasters were Elmer Davis and Edward R. Murrow and eventually Walter Cronkite came along on TV. It’s where, by example, I learned to trust that what I was hearing about events in the nation and the world, based on facts or the best available evidence.
Gallup recently reported that polling today indicates about 40 percent of Americans trust the media. As a point of reference, a 1970s Gallup poll showed a trust factor of 70 percent. What’s changed and what does it mean for the country? Investigative journalism and trust in journalism has been essential to transparency in our society and confidence in our nation’s governance.
No doubt that American journalism today is under duress. The economics of its enterprise are unambiguous. Americans are going online for their news, and they expect that because it’s online it should be free. Traditional newspaper subscriptions are down and as a consequence their resources for investigative reporting are also down. Good reporting isn’t cost free. Symptoms of these problems are glaring in Ohio’s Columbus Dispatch. The prime real estate of the paper’s front section has as many pages of ads as it does of newsprint.
Then there’s the resurgence of what used to be called “Yellow Journalism,” aka, sensationalized journalism. In the fierce competition for clicks and eyeballs, gossipy and gotcha-type stories are the new normal to lure readers into the online world of information. The internet has been described as a firehose flow of facts, fiction, misinformation, disinformation, conspiracies, gossip and fraud.
For those of us who make the appeal, “Just give us truth and fact without the drama,” where do we go? Call me old-fashioned, but I find some comfort in places like The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio, The New York Times and broadcasts like NBC, CBS and ABC. But even in these venerated news venues, I’m often troubled. Margaret Sullivan, public editor for the Washington Post, cautioned that “21st century American media has some terrible flaws… It too often chases clicks and gossip over substance, turns minutiae into mountains and shamefully gives a platform to proven liars.”
Bret Stephens, a conservative columnist for the New York Times, addressed the problem this way: “Good journalism, like good science, should follow the evidence, not the narratives.” So, what’s happened since the days of Davis, Murrow and Cronkite?
On the competitive pitch for subscribership there’s an emerging tactic to appeal to the many by avoiding offending anyone. Sullivan calls it trying to equalize the unequal. It’s the ethical myth that truth and fairness lie in false equivalencies, equal time to both sides of issues no matter how shallow or sordid one side might be. For example, three minutes for Alexei Navalny and three minutes for Valdimir Putin. Unfortunately, this happens now with regularity.
And then there’s the rule of thumb as I understood journalistic practice that the story was never about the reporter or the network but always about the evolving news event. Yet it’s no longer uncommon to see stories on network news about a reporter’s personal pregnancy story, struggle with COVID-19, or personal struggle with mental health, as though there’s some intuition afoot that if viewers can make a personal connection to a reporter or news anchor that they’ll be more likely to stick with that network or channel.
Sensationalism can be manifest in behavior too, as evidenced in many of today’s news conferences. One commentariat put this succinctly: “You put a couple of reporters in front of a celebrity or an official and the situation quickly devolves into a competition between reporters… news leaders later will reward the reporters who get in the most licks or elicit the most entertaining responses… or the best ‘gotcha’ moments.”
In addition to these behaviors and challenges in journalism today: economic, digital, disinformation, diminishing revenues, and sensationalism in search of subscribership, it doesn’t help when journalists are accused of being “enemies of the people,” “scum,” and purveyors of “fake news.”
I’ve always admired the Washington Post’s raison d’être, “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” But there’s more at stake in today’s world of journalistic enterprise. In the chaotic, internet-driven, revenue-challenging, 24-hour breaking-news media environment, a scourge of fraud and misinformation has flourished, and trust in journalism has declined. From my perspective, journalism today is an American ideal desperately in search of solutions while trying to avoid tragedy and existential outcomes.
The need for our schools to teach skill sets that will enable our rising generation to fathom and penetrate the shadowy depths of this sea of information is essential to renew a trust in American journalism. Future generations must learn to read but verify. And then there’s the need for journalists and their producers to restore the people’s faith in their work. It’s of paramount importance to ensuring a well-informed citizenry that is so essential to a healthy democracy.
Bill Sims is a Hillsboro resident, retired president of the Denver Council on Foreign Relations, an author and runs a small farm in Berrysville with his wife. He is a former educator, executive and foundation president.