I don’t trust you, either

By Jack Shafer
September 29, 2011

As long as the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press continues to insist on conducting opinion polls about “trust” and the media, I’ll continue to insist on writing columns like this one.

I’m not knocking Pew. As collators of public opinion go, it’s not a bad organization. But you’ve really got to break the spines on Pew’s trust-in-the-media reports to glean the higher truths about how the public really feels about journalists and journalism.

Pew’s latest survey, released this week, reports that negative opinions about news organization performance have reached new highs, based on many of the measures it has tracked since 1985.

More respondents than ever believe that overall, media stories are often inaccurate (66 percent), news organizations unfairly tend to favor one side (77 percent), and news outlets are often influenced by powerful people and organizations (80 percent). (See the chart from Pew.)

Pew’s respondents are far from being connoisseurs of news. Instead, they appear to be slaves to their televisions, with 66 percent of them claiming to get most of their news from TV. Now, I’ve got nothing against television. I own two and keep one in my office. They are wonderful devices. But as dispensers of news, they’re not sufficient to the task.

Let’s say you get your world and national news from ABC’s, NBC’s, or CBS’s half-hour nightly newscasts, each of which is still more popular than anything on cable. Let’s say you watch every night. More nourishing on one level than the politics/current event shows featured on cable, the nightly broadcasts are still a stingy news meal. As Andrew Tyndall of the Tyndall Report points out, the news hole for a 30 minute newscast is between 18 and 19 minutes after you delete commercials, “openings, closings, teases, promos and logos.” After you shave the transcript for last night’s CBS Evening News to its essence, you’re swallowing about 3,111 words describing seven main stories.

Even if you’re a slow reader, you can probably read 7,000 to 8,000 words from 15 or 20 newspaper stories in the 30 minutes it takes a nightly newscast to unwind. Unless there is remarkable video or superb drama in the telecast, there’s no way that TV’s nightly news can deliver as much information as a newspaper in the same time. A TV viewer is, by definition, news challenged compared to a newspaper reader. He may absorb a lot of headlines by watching the news ticker at the bottom of the screen or by channel surfing, but it’s an exercise in wading in the shallows. If you’re one of the respondents who gets most of your news from television, then I’m going to assign you two hours of TV news a day, including blocks from BBC and PBS telecasts, before I let you into my news clubhouse.

The media assessments of the TV-favoring Pew respondents are about as valuable as the restaurant advice of that guy who has eaten 25,000 Big Macs. When Pew respondents say (over time) that news is increasingly inaccurate, increasingly one-sided, and more than ever is influenced by the powerful, they’re mostly telling us about the television news they watch, right?

One way to understand the increase in negative opinions about the press is to go back to 1985, when Pew started these surveys. Back then, there was no Fox News Channel and no MSNBC. Cable penetration was only about 42 percent of households, with only a smattering of satellite viewers. Today, more than 90 percent of households subscribe to cable or satellite. I reckon that Pew is actually measuring an increase in TV news consumption—probably of the cable variety—and less a decline in underlying media trustworthiness.

Not that the media should be trusted. Remain wary of all institutions of power at all times is my advice, advice that Pew’s respondents seem to live by. They don’t seem to trust anybody. They have less “trust” for government—state, federal, the Obama administration, and Congress (all measured separately)—than they do for national news organizations.

Where does government/media distrust come from? Some is organic, rising naturally from the soil. Some is encouraged by politicians following in the footsteps of such strategic haters as George Wallace and Richard Nixon. And some of it is piped in by news outlets like Fox, which coaches its viewers to distrust other media for commercial reasons. As a professional skeptic, I approve of all distrust, even if the underlying goal is to win political office or turn a media buck. From doubt comes knowledge.

But Pew’s respondents are not my sort of doubters, if only because they don’t have the courage of their convictions. Having trashed the press in general, they rate the trustworthiness of local news very high, with 69 percent saying they trust it a lot or some. And when asked to rate their main sources news—TV, radio, newspaper, magazine, website or app—62 percent of respondents say their main sources get the facts right.

This is the Big Mac eater’s way of saying, “I like the burgers that I like.”

******

Back in my Slate days (was it really that long ago?), I declared my lack of trust in Pew respondents and in Mr. Trust himself, Walter Cronkite. Earlier this week, I chatted about trust with Craig Silverman and Mallary Jean Tenore at Poynter. Send your trusting correspondence to Shafer.Reuters@gmail.com and subscribe to America’s most trustworthy Twitter feed. (This RSS feed rings every time a new Shafer column goes live. This hand-built one rings every time a correction is filed.)

PHOTO: A KNBC-TV news van nears the main entrance to the NBC television network studios in Burbank, California, October 11, 2007. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

13 comments

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i’ve never trusted anything said by a libertarian, and see no reason to change…

Posted by slangwhanger | Report as abusive

I think attacking the respondents here is somewhat wrong. Whether you may believe some of their mistrust to be justified, much of it is earned. Like it or not, stereotypes often exist because there was some basis for it in the first place.

For example, I personally complained/wrote to the AP about two weeks ago about an article titled “French Nuclear Blast Wounds 4, Kills 1″. In reality, this was an accident at a nuclear site, not a nuclear blast (obviously). But, the title was either written out of ignorance, or more likely, a hope to generate ‘hits’.

Incidents like the one I am referring to, which in this case was in fact from non-TV sources, still goes to undermine all journalistic integrity– either that, or shows a lack of intelligence, either way it hurts “the media” on the whole. While that may have been a one-off, the fact still remains that stuff like this does occur.

When people think of “the media” on the whole, all sources are inevitably linked. Just as, with your argument, all ‘mistrustful people’ are linked. By saying that all respondents are misguided with their mistrust, is falling into line with the very people you criticize for saying that all media can/can’t be trusted.

Thanks and be well.

–A

PS – No, I was not polled in said survey :)

Posted by aheintz | Report as abusive

I’m sad to say but I believe a majority of Americans DO get there information (news) from TV (or internet sites that parrot their preconceived notions).

This is, perhaps, more pronounced as one moves from the East and West coasts toward the middle but it’s also very prevalent in these areas as well. TV as primary source is also tied to education level with the more educated reading more and city-rural with those in the backwaters using TV more but there’s also a lot of TV only in the inner city – they however benefit from cultural immersion (talk on the subway) whereas those in homogeneous country cultures do not.

The simple fact is less people read, more watch.

Why do you think students at universities and colleges become sources of protest? One reason is that it’s the first time in their life they’re really reading or considering alternative sources f information.

People come home from work. Plop in front of their couches eat a little dinner, watch a little evening news, get angry, go to cable FOX (to get soothed – if they have cable); then turn on the ballgame or American Chopper or whatever; then go to bed at 9pm because they have to be up at 5am to begin the grind again.

Read? Read? They have neither the interest or time.

Posted by FoxxDrake | Report as abusive

And now, turning to page three more on the continuing saga of Rupert Murdoch.

Posted by zhmileskendig | Report as abusive

So, Jack, to distill your doublespeak, you attribute the problem with readers’ and viwers’ mistrust to Fox or MSNBC news; and/or to themselves.

Personally, Jack, I think the problem is “journalists” like YOU, who try to spoon-feed and re-interpret and spin and deny when your JOB supposedly is to report FACTS, ACCURATELY.

Your piece offers few to none of the FACTS upon which you supposedly base its assertions.

I’m not buying it. Like the majority of the skeptical public, I can think for myself, most especially without the help of a writer whose very basis of operation is a pre-assumed mistrust of my judgement.

Posted by 1Aspect | Report as abusive

I had a course in American Studies in college, way back in 1970. To prove the point that what we read in the newspaper is almost entirely conjecture, opinion, & speculation, with minimal facts, the professor took out a felt-tipped pen and circled “factual” statements on the opening pages of the L A Times. You can imagine how much of those 3 to 4 pages represented “fact”. We also discussed the “fear” tactics of journalists/media to lure in readers. If you were to look at any given day’s news headlines posted on Yahoo, for example, they are almost all sensational, disturbing, even “armageddonish”. Shock and awe… that’s what the media delivers to us. Admittedly, it’s gotten that way because the public’s attention span is that of a gnat. A “NEWS ALERT”… that carries as much meaning as Tony the Tiger’s “It’s GRRREATTTT!” This shock & awe approach is what we’re witnessing in the political sphere too – frighten the daylights out of the public and they’ll support anything. Regarding the Pew survey on trust, the public’s lack of trust in the media and our political leaders gives me great hope – it’s a sign that the public shows some signs of cognition. The sheeple have begun to recognize that they are regarded as little more than open mouths. In case you didn’t notice, the media were the handmaidens who helped stop the clock in “1984″. And here’s today’s bad news: George Orwell’s stories always had sad endings. Is that fact or opinion?

Posted by Teachertaughter | Report as abusive

Maybe it’s like a lot of our other professions, these days…….it’s hard to make money, unless you sacrifice quantity for quality……..pump out more stories, no time to check facts. Audience share is more important than truth.

Posted by Robertla | Report as abusive

I think the poles are accurate, from what I hear from friends and associates. Most new reporters that I see have a warped view of the world due to the way they were taught, and the company they keep. Generally the way the news is currently being reported is a travesty. If you can help avoid the trainwreck that is coming in the journalism ranks please do it Jack, and stop complaining.

Posted by fred5407 | Report as abusive

The man wrote for Slate – enough said.

Just from that one simple fact one can infer his political bias. Hardly worth reading the article.

Another ho hum is that he now writes for an organization – Reuters – that is probably the least trustworthy of all the media outlets. Recall the Photoshopped images they regularly send out (example Israeli/Lebanese conflict).

Of course, the public does not trust the news; of course all media outlets now have been shown to have bias. It is more a mark of the sophistication of viewers and the disingenuous nature of people like Jack who pepper their articles, not with balance, but with a very strong left wing bias.

And Jack does not think we’d notice and is now a little pissed off that we do.

Posted by eleno | Report as abusive

1Aspect sums it up exactly- thank you for the concise and spot on comments.

Posted by Mind76 | Report as abusive

I gave up TV news broadcasts years ago because at the start of the Afghanistan and Iraq invasions it was too obvious that the major networks was too uncritical and too entertaining about all of it. There was too much patriotic bunting and not so subliminal bolstering of the crusade. Even “embedded journalists” was propaganda being sold as objectivity. The administration knew it could never have attempted to draft popular support for its imperial pretensions so they tried to seduce and control the media through selective inclusion of “the chosen”.

Even the word “Homeland” was somehow invented overnight by either the Bush administration or the media. Embedded journalists and news items and journalists that were being paid to report stories favorable to the administration did not help the news industry’s credibility one bit. The media are profit driven enterprises in the business of attracting customers. It is foolish to expect truth. There is no such creature as “the truth”. The best one can do is attempt to understand complex webs of relationships or causes and effects. And there is never a final answer. The popular media loves to present issues as truth or falsehood. Their viewers don’t seem to like the ambiguities of life and there’s always FOX news to soothe their aching heads.

Imperial powers tend to be ruthless. Historically, They never tried to “win hearts and minds” as if they were a church looking for converts, but tended to kill off anything that stood in their way. An imperial country, almost be definition, is a bully, thief and rapist. They also tend to know that the only thing that truly wins “hearts and minds” is bribery and terror. The US has not stinted on bribery and theft and it peddles inconceivable terror as “just what has to be done”. How many WTC equivalents, in terms of both lives and building volume have been destroyed since 9/11 in Afghanistan and Iraq alone?

It ought to be a sobering lesson to the imperialist instincts in us all that the farther the political establishment attempts to stretch the country’s influence, the more tenuous its grasp of its power base seems to become. A country’s prestige and power is not an ever-expanding blanket that can be instantly woven to cover everyone. Democracy, and especially a Constitution, is not something that can be easily imposed on the vanquished. By definitions it is supposed to grow from the grass roots and be a reflection of a country’s own traditions and expectations. The popular media tended to have very little interest (and still don’t show much interest) in the local populations and has very selective memories about this country’s past involvement with the very counties it had helped to make the way they were. The people who were suddenly raised to prominence in both Afghanistan and Iraq seemed to appear out of nowhere. Their own countrymen didn’t seem to know who they were.

Populations and politicians can be made drunk and stoned on their own vainglory and propaganda. When their power erodes and they find they have been led into ruins, they finally wake up and realize they were on quite a bender.

Posted by paintcan | Report as abusive

Hey, Jack, miss you at Slate, you can thank Weigel for linking over to this. It *was* a long time ago, what, no goodbye? It was the fresca or whatever that Plotz wanted you to write, that’s what drove you away, isn’t it? Too bad, I was looking forward to yours.

Posted by SpotTheDog | Report as abusive

I think there’s a growing awareness of bias, sometimes heavy bias in the form of blatant promotion of an idea, or in the form of spiking it so as to render it seemingly unimportant, in all levels of the news media. As it has been said, nothing is more disillusioning than in knowing a great deal about a subject and then seeing how the news media deals with it.

American media has become particularly partisan, with MSNBC and Fox News standing out on the left and right respectively. Many years ago the BBC radio service had a reputation for fairly dry and measured news reporting that at least had the appearance of objectivity. This may not be the case now but I wish we could return to at least one source who would really inject some balance and fairness into news coverage, perhaps by giving opposing points of view on significant issues. Most editorial pages support the dominant company view with an occasional renegade column for appearances sake — a token liberal or conservative from time to time.

People are not stupid. Even when I see something that I agree with I’m put off when it goes overboard in its favor. We just want honesty, even if we wish something were or weren’t true. Give it a try, please.

Posted by lairdwilcox | Report as abusive