I don’t trust you, either
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 hi
gher 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