The New York Times recently implemented what may be an unprecedented move for a newspaper. It hired a fact checker to backstop the reporting in the D.C. bureau.
Aside from cutting down on errors, the nation’s most prestigious paper was also sending a message about its desire to earn and maintain the public’s trust in its work.
These days, fact checkers may not be enough.
Public trust in the news media seems like a depressingly scarce commodity in an era when the phrase “alternative facts” has entered the vernacular and when people increasingly herd themselves into dueling information silos that validate their particular beliefs.
“We are operating in completely different information universes,” no less a media critic than Barack Obama recently observed to David Letterman. “If you watch Fox News, you are living on a different planet than you are if you…listen to NPR.”
For anyone who cares about the health of our democracy, this is scary stuff. How can we make informed decisions based on shared truths if so many are willing to shoot the messenger?
Any effort to answer that difficult question should probably begin with examining a few hard and sobering truths.
First, eroding public trust in the media is hardly a new phenomenon. It’s been building for decades as illustrated by the work of the late pollster Andy Kohut, who had tracked public attitudes about the media since the 1980’s.
For example, from 1985 to 2013, the percentage of respondents who said news organizations get their facts straight declined from 55 percent to 26 percent; those who believe they deal fairly with all sides tumbled from 34 percent to 19 percent; and citizens who are convinced news outlets are politically biased rose from 45 percent to 58 percent.
The data show that those attitudes have been steadily worsening for a while. But let’s face it, those baseline mid-’80s responses are nothing to brag about either.
Some of these numbers reflect the fact that elements of a major political party have made mistrust of the mainstream press a significant tenet of its philosophy. An important moment in that movement was the 1986 publication of “The Media Elite,” written by S. Robert Lichter, Linda Lichter, and Stanley Rothman.
“The Media Elite” was a book of some scholarship that painted a portrait of a privileged corps of mainstream journalists whose liberal bias infected their work. For many conservatives, that book codified what they felt in their gut. And in many instances, those feelings have found a very public voice.
In the ’90s, there was the pitched battle to defund public broadcasting after conservatives accused it of an unrelenting liberal slant. In 1996, Rupert Murdoch launched the highly successful Fox News Channel, which pitched itself as the antidote to pervasive liberal media slant with slogans such as “Fair and Balanced” and “We Report, You Decide.”
At the 2008 GOP National Convention, delegates derisively chanted “NBC” as press-bashing vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin spoke. Most recently, the president of the United States called journalists “nasty,” “vicious,” and “fake” before an international assemblage at the 2018 Davos World Economic Forum.
In fairness, the tone of Donald Trump’s critiques of the media has alarmed some of his fellow Republicans. But he clearly believes it is playing well with his conservative base.
Several years ago, a Pew Research Center survey asked people about their attitudes toward 36 different media outlets that they reported having heard about. For “consistent conservatives,” 24 of these 36 news sources were more distrusted than trusted. In stark contrast, for “consistent liberals,” 28 of the 36 were more trusted than distrusted. (Disclosure: I was the associate director of the Pew Research Center’s Journalism Project from 2006-2014.)
So where, amid these dark clouds, are the silver linings?
For one thing, polls about national news sites often overlook journalism’s version of “congressional syndrome.” While everyone says Congress is a broken institution, individual incumbents keep getting re-elected. When you compare how people feel about the media as an institution with their views of the individual news outlets they use, things tend to change.
So while someone may curse CNN or The New York Times, he or she can be a satisfied consumer when it comes to such mainstream media staples as their hometown newspaper and the local 6 p.m. TV newscast.
The search for good news also leads to the outlier in Kohut’s polling data. In one period over the three decades, there was a significant positive spike in the public’s assessment of how journalists did their job.
That occurred in November 2001, with the nation still immersed in the shock and trauma of 9-11. And it suggests that mainstream journalism can sometimes reprise its old—and trusted—role as national hearth.
But short of another national emergency, there are other ways for the journalists to work to reverse this dangerous trust deficit, some of which we’ll examine in future columns.
For now, it is fair to say that The New York Times is on to something. Taking tangible steps to improve accuracy—particularly in the volatile political arena—not only produces a better product. It helps deprive some critics—those who seize on inevitable reporting mistakes to try and de-legitimize an entire industry—of a crucial cable-news talking point.