Today’s topic is journalism, and the news is not good.
(I’m not referring to the one-man effort I launched a few years ago to save the newspaper industry by buying shares of stock. That’s going well, thank you, especially since Warren Buffett joined in. I buy a few shares; he buys a few companies. I’m now the proud part owner of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Kansas City Star, Springfield News-Leader and New York Times. I just checked, and I made $144 yesterday.)
The news I want to examine comes from a recent poll of public attitudes toward news organizations.
The poll, done by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, shows that the public’s trust in journalism has taken another dip. Researchers asked how believable is each of 13 news providers. The average response was that only 56 percent have a positive attitude and 44 percent a negative one. When Pew first did that survey, in 2002, the positive rating was 71 percent.
The most trusted source is local TV news, at 65 percent positive. The least trusted is a tie between Fox News and USA Today, both with 51 percent negative. The “daily newspaper you know best” is rated positively by 57 percent, NPR positively by 52 percent, The New York Times by only 49 percent.
With the campaign season in full cry, and with good citizens largely dependent on journalism to tell us the ongoing story, those are worrisome numbers.
Especially striking is the sharp partisan divide in attitudes. Republicans are far less positive toward nearly all sources than are Democrats. In fact, the only source that Republicans believe more than Democrats do is, not surprisingly, Fox News (Republicans, 67 percent positive; Democrats 37 percent positive).
When it comes to newspapers, the divide is not quite as wide, but the numbers are reversed. Democrats are 16 points more positive than are Republicans about the "daily newspaper you know best" (65 to 49).
Earlier this year, Jay Rosen, a New York University professor of journalism, pondered in his blog, pressthink.org, several possible explanations for the overall decline of trust. He posited several suggested by professional journalists and advocates from right and left and added a couple of his own. Among them:
- All institutions are less trusted, from religion to Congress. Journalism just follows the trend.
- Journalism is unfairly lumped in with “the media” more broadly and therefore suffers in credibility from the excesses of talk radio, extremist bloggers and other sources far outside the main stream of news reporting.
- Liberal bias is the favorite explanation of conservatives, who especially despise and distrust The New York Times.
- Journalists have become too much a part of the established power structure they claim to cover objectively.
- Rosen’s own vague notion is that somehow journalists have lost touch with the real concerns of real people as we’ve become more professional.
My own take is that there’s probably a little something to all those explanations. I have another possibility to add. I’ve offered in this space once before the Kennedy Theory of journalistic bias. Briefly, here it is again:
There are many biases in American journalism. We seldom admit it, but we’re biased toward conflict, toward sensation, toward celebrity, toward oddity. As evidence, consider coverage of the political campaigns so far. For example, we’ve reported and analyzed exhaustively what Todd Akin said about rape, but what have we learned about his policy positions and his record?
Journalists have another less obvious but more important bias, too. I suspect it accounts for a good deal of the partisan divide in attitudes. It’s hidden in plain sight in our very job description.
We describe ourselves as watchdogs of the powerful, voices of the voiceless, surrogates for ordinary citizens. Our most cherished cliché is that we intend to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We pride ourselves on our skepticism, our critical examination of institutions and individuals.
Does that summary strike you as more liberal or more conservative?
It is, it seems to me, a liberal bias that has little or nothing to do with partisan politics. It is also, it seems to me, a very good thing for the democracy. Suppose we didn’t try to fill those self-assigned roles. Would the country be better or worse off?
If we were more open about our definitions of news, more transparent about our methods, more honest about our shortcomings, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t silence our critics. I suspect, though, that we’d be at least a little more credible.
George Kennedy is a former managing editor at the Missourian and professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism. Questions? Contact Opinion editor Elizabeth Conner.