Editor’s note: The following is the first in a series of Western Journalism reports exploring the new challenges and opportunities impacting American news media.
Following a Donald Trump victory that flummoxed politicos and pundits on both sides of the aisle, commentators widely speculated the biggest Election Day loser was the nation’s mass media, not Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
It was in the press, after all, that Trump’s presidential bid was repeatedly — and inaccurately — deemed a failure before most Americans had ever cast a vote.
Advertisement – story continues below
In the weeks leading up to and following the election, some of the nation’s most venerable media outlets faced accusations of exhibiting an anti-Trump bias in their reporting. Around the same time, critics on the left and right began denouncing the dissemination of “fake news.”
Recent polling suggests all of this negative attention has resulted in Americans expressing record-low levels of confidence in the mass media’s ability to deliver accurate and fair news coverage.
Less than two months before the election, a Gallup poll revealed just 32 percent of respondents had either “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the media. Among Republicans, that number was a paltry 14 percent, less than half the level reported in a similar poll conducted the previous year.
Advertisement - story continues below
Media experts and critics agree the trend has been fueled by a variety of factors and presents a complex path forward to journalists hoping to restore trust to their profession.
Accusations of bias
Dr. Derigan Silver, an associate professor of media, film and journalism studies at the University of Denver, noted the public’s trust in mainstream media sources has experienced a protracted decline over the past several decades.
Advertisement - story continues below
“If you look at national-level surveys, trust in the media has been going down since the late 1970s,” he said in an interview with Western Journalism. “At the same time, there are particular journalists, individual journalists that people still have really good feelings about.”
Silver explained the dip in trust has largely corresponded with a “general distrust for large organizations and large institutions” over the same period of time.
“On top of that,” he said, “there seems to be a more specific distrust generally in the media and the media agenda. People who are generally politically conservative tend to think the media has a liberal agenda, that journalists are inherently liberal and want to advance a liberal cause. And if you look at very liberal people, they believe journalists are kind of slaves to the corporate entities that own media organizations.”
As the Gallup poll shows, however, the rate of declining trust in American mass media accelerated in the months leading up to the 2016 presidential election. Rich Noyes, research director of the conservative-leaning Media Research Center, cited several examples he believes contributed to the increased perception that mainstream news coverage was skewed in favor of Democrats.
Advertisement - story continues below
“In June, for example, a review of ABC, CBS and NBC evening news coverage of the primaries found four times more attention to Donald Trump’s controversies than Hillary Clinton’s scandals,” he told Western Journalism.
Compared to the belief of many conservatives that the media coverage of the outgoing president was far less critical, Noyes said a focus on Trump’s negatives has reinforced the existing perception of bias.
“The hostility to Donald Trump makes the media’s effusive coverage of Barack Obama seem even more of an act of bias,” he said. “If the media were consistently adversarial to those in power, their negative coverage of Trump and other Republicans would not seem biased. But the media’s approach to covering candidates and presidents seems to shift with the ideology of those in power.”
Whether by Democrats who blame Clinton’s loss on it, or Trump himself using it as an excuse to ignore a reporter’s questions, the term “fake news” has been roundly decried over the past several weeks.
Top websites including Google and Facebook announced shortly after the election their plans to combat purveyors of fake news. Though there is hardly a consensus regarding what qualifies, the backlash against such misinformation has served to further erode the public’s trust in media.
Eric Bolling, a co-host of Fox News Channel’s The Five, was one of few media personalities to consistently see a path to victory for Trump throughout election season. He told Western Journalism he believes many of his colleagues ignored signs of the New York billionaire’s popularity in favor of touting the results of the latest available polls.
“I’m a numbers guy,” he said, “and I was digging deep into the polls. And I could see how you could skew a poll to make it say whatever you like to within reason. And some of those polls were pretty biased against the Republicans.”
Instead of relying on poll results, Bolling said he chose to report what he witnessed on the campaign trail.
He described the “organic groundswell of support” on display at Trump’s rallies as a primary reason his analysis differed from so many others in the news industry.
“People were saying one thing and the polls were saying another,” Bolling concluded. “And I decided to stick with the people.”
Furthermore, Noyes said specific examples of falsified reports from serious news anchors and journalists can lead to wide-ranging credibility problems for the industry as a whole.
“Scandals such as that involving NBC Nightly News anchor Brian Whilliams, which showed him making false claims on talk shows, affects the reputation of all journalists,” Noyes said.
Fueled in part by the saturation of news content across cable networks and the Internet, mass media have seen their influence wane.
More than seven years ago, Bill Keller, then-executive editor of The New York Times, lamented the fact the “great flood that goes under the heading ‘news media’ has been poisoned by junk blogs, gossip sheets, shout radio and cable-TV partisans that don’t deserve to be trusted.”
He added that decreased ad sales, specifically among newspapers, led to tight budgets and often meant “facts don’t get checked as carefully as they should.”
More recently, as a large number of disaffected Americans denounced the political elite ahead of Trump’s electoral victory, Noyes said the credibility of many media figures also took a hit.
“There are other reasons beside ideological bias for the media’s decline in authority,” he said. “Highly paid TV news personalities seem more like celebrities or politicians than reporters working on behalf of the people. As the public grows dissatisfied with the Washington elite, the media elite are seen as part of the problem as well.”
The road to restoring trust
Thought it might seem simple on the surface, Noyes and Silver agree the potential to reverse course exists for news sources willing to return to the core tenets of sound journalism.
“The correct response is for journalists to do their job as fairly as possible, leaving aside the emotion of being criticized or pushed aside,” Noyes said. “Audiences, I believe, will respect good reporting and trust journalism that is fair.”
Silver pointed to genuine curiosity as a staple of good reporting, explaining those journalists and institutions “constantly serving as a check on power” have the best chance to build trust with audiences.
“That’s good for democracy,” he added. “You want people who are constantly exploring for information and getting information out.”
Western Journalism reached out to Media Matters for America, a left-leaning media watchdog organization, for comment. As of this article’s publication, we had not received a response.
What do you think? Scroll down to comment below.