Finding the Middle of the Media Circus
News media is a commodity that’s more available to us now than it’s been during any other time in history. Cable news networks pump out content around the clock, and minute-to-minute updates on breaking stories can be accessed from our pockets with the tap of a finger.
Society has responded accordingly, demonstrating an insatiable thirst for more information. And yet, public trust in the media has reached an historic low. According to a 2020 Gallup Poll, six in 10 Americans say they have little to no trust in the media’s ability to report a story fairly and accurately. What’s more disturbing is the disparity between political parties. The same poll shows 73 percent of Democrats trust the media, while only 10 percent of Republicans do, though that imbalance might be due to Republicans believing “the media” doesn’t include conservative sources like Fox, One America News, or talk radio.
How did we get here?
It’s Not the First Time
Though Gallup has only been keeping consistent records on the subject since 1998, we’ve gone through numerous periods of media distrust, dating back before the invention of the printing press. But for brevity’s sake, let’s stick to the last century or so.
In the mid-1890s, newspapers battling for readership and advertising dollars resorted to what’s now called “yellow journalism”—sensationalizing news by overplaying scandal, relying heavily on unnamed sources, and backing claims with pseudoscience from un-vetted “experts.” Some even believed the tabloid-style reporting of the time contributed to the U.S.’s decision to enter the Spanish-American War.1 Sound familiar?
That era gave way to a more disciplined journalistic trend that became known as muckraking—what we’d call investigative or “watchdog” reporting today. Combined with increased reporter pay and the establishment of journalism schools, muckraking significantly improved the quality of content and re-established the public’s trust in media.
The 1930s and ’40s brought a wave of one-sided political radio shows that drew concern about the fairness of airing such subjective opinions without presenting the other side. Broadcasters such as Father Charles Coughlin, who shared his anti-Semitic and fascistic viewpoints on a weekly radio show in Detroit, had as many as 30 million listeners before being forced off the air by the Roosevelt administration at the onset of World War II.
In response, the FCC created the fairness doctrine, a regulation that required broadcasters to devote a percentage of their airtime to discussing controversial topics in an objective and accurate manner. While the required programming’s format varied, you probably know it best as the nightly news.
As a result, the accuracy of American journalism in the mid-20th Century skyrocketed. Investigative work like that of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein on the Watergate scandal, and nightly broadcasts from Walter Cronkite kept the media on its toes and in the American public’s good graces. But in 1987, under the guidance of the Reagan administration, the FCC voted to revoke the fairness doctrine, giving broadcasters free reign. The rationale for doing this at the time was to facilitate the growth of emerging information options.
And so began our descent into the information wars as an unintended consequence of government deregulation.
Profits Up, Objectivity Down
Prior to the removal of the fairness doctrine—and the invention of cable television—broadcast companies didn’t see news departments as profit centers but rather as a public trust. But as the number of channels expanded and competition between networks grew, big corporations realized how big of a moneymaker journalism could be.
Instead of producing content that would appeal to a broad audience, news networks began targeting highly specific demographics and packaging news and opinions that appealed to their niche audience’s perspectives and emotions, thus creating brand loyalty. With guaranteed eyeballs, networks were able to charge advertisers top dollar for airtime, turning what was once a public service into a multi-billion dollar industry.
To keep customers coming back, executives had to ensure the content was compelling enough. They did so by employing some of the same tactics utilized by yellow journalists in the 19th Century: playing up conflict, instilling fear and anger, and countering reasoned data with extreme opinions. If you have ever watched a BREAKING NEWS graphic swoop across the screen and stuck around for a few extra seconds to see what happened, you have experienced the media industrial complex at work.
No one’s happier about the media’s desire to line their pockets than political parties, who dumped $8.5 billion into advertising during the 2020 election cycle — a 108% increase from 2018. Regardless of party affiliation, the media’s willingness to accept this staggering amount of money reinforces politics as an industry — and, in turn, stokes division among Americans.
Big media companies have also all but obliterated the local news, which has proven challenging when it comes to an audience’s ability to evaluate the accuracy of what they’re watching. Local news created a higher level of trust in the media overall, because the stories it covered were happening in one’s own backyard and could thus be more easily fact-checked by the general public. But with major networks commanding a lion’s share of viewer attention, local outlets have either shuttered or been forced to cut back their teams significantly and source the majority of their content from national wire services like the Associated Press. The emphasis on national news—even at the local level—has further eroded the audience’s faith in the media.
In Between Tech and Control
Technology has played a significant role in the progression of journalism, from radio to television and the internet—increasing the speed at which information traveled along the way. That development has its downsides.
Today speed is often prioritized over accuracy. A piece of news that was once vetted by several editors before being published is now pushed out as it happens, often without sufficient context or consideration of its implications.
Further complicating matters are social media platforms. A 2021 Pew Research study found that 48 percent of adults get their news from social media. This presents a problem, because not only are social media platforms unconcerned with journalism ethics, their algorithms actively boost more contentious—and potentially misleading—content in the name of profit.
These business practices, along with the ease of use, has resulted in a stream of intentional disinformation coming from both foreign and domestic sources. According to a recent Forbes article, sophisticated disinformation organizations knowingly push out false information in an attempt to undermine public confidence or influence outcomes.
Breaking the Inflammatory News Cycle
How do we break out of the cycle of business-driven journalism?
I’d be reluctant to have the government wade into the fray as the arbiter of what’s true or fair. The founders’ idea in creating the First Amendment was that the freer the flow of information, the quicker the truth would get out to combat the lies. Letting politicians interfere with that process would be counterproductive.
Give the People What They Want
In some ways, the problem is part of the solution. As public faith in media continues to crater, it’s only a matter of time before audiences begin seeking information elsewhere. This is especially true of younger generations. According to Morning Consult, a data intelligence agency, Generation Z’s2 faith in the media is consistent with the rest of the country, hovering around 40 percent. But GenZ differs from other generations in its belief that it can create meaningful change. A recent Forbes article points out GenZers demand “commitment, transparency, and authenticity” from the brands they consume, and—accordingly—are pressuring media outlets to provide more objective perspectives. We’re seeing the shift with networks like Newsy, a news network geared toward the under-40 demographic that does just that. If outlets want to stay in business, they may soon be forced to adopt a strategy more in line with the public interest.
Until then, we can take steps to find objectivity in the media madness. Getting news from an abundance of sources is critical. While it may be hard to identify one network that tells the whole story, particularly outside of print sources, the truth is still out there. It just requires a little bit of extra effort. If I see something interesting on MSNBC, for example, I won’t totally believe it until I’ve read more about the issue from a variety of other sources that tend to have different takes. If I’m not familiar with a particular source, I’ll research them to glean their particular leanings or agendas.
Before leaping to any conclusion—hitting the “like” button or sending an article on to someone else—find five or six sources representing a breadth of perspectives. Check and verify. It’s more work, but it’ll equip you with the tools to discern between what’s accurate and what’s not.
What’s Your Take?
I’ve shared my perspective on the media, and I want to hear yours. How do you get your news and information? What steps can we take to tame the increasingly partisan and confusing information from today’s media?
This post is the first of a three-part series on the current state of our elections. The next installment will discuss money and politics, and the final post will address the election process itself.
Historians have debated whether yellow papers like William Randolph Hearst’s New York Journal had that much of an impact on the war. Most decision-makers dismissed the Journal as tabloid trash, similar to how most feel about trusting the National Enquirer today.