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Trust in Media Near an All Time Low

August 13, 2013

By Rob Horowitz

Faith in the independence and accuracy of news reporting is near an all time low, according to a national poll released at the end of last week by the Pew Research Center. These new poll results, showing strongly negative public perceptions of the press are a continuation of an unfortunate long-term trend and come on top of the sale of two of the nation’s best newspapers, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe, at fire sale prices.

The results in large measure reflect the reality of the rise of “partisan news”—where cable television news networks and highly trafficked online news sites tend to represent either strongly conservative or liberal points of view. For example, FOX News is unapologetically conservative, favors the Republicans, and an overwhelming majority of its viewers voted for Mitt Romney. On the other hand, MSNBC is proudly liberal, favors Democrats and its viewers voted overwhelmingly for President Obama.

In this kind of media environment, it is not hard to understand why, according to the poll, 3-out-of-4 American adults now believe news organizations tend to favor one side in their reporting. Similarly, nearly 6-in-10 say news organizations are politically biased, while only 3-in-10 say they are careful that their reporting is not biased.

Perhaps more disturbing, more than 7-in-10 adults think the press tries to cover up its mistakes. And nearly 7-in-10 adults believe that news stories are often inaccurate; this compares to the less than 3-in-10 who believe that news organizations get their facts straight. The dramatic decline in faith in news reporting is evidenced by the fact that in 1985 a majority of adults believed that news organizations get the facts straight,

The one bright spot in the poll, according to Pew, is that an increased majorities of adults—nearly 7-in-10—believe that it is important for the reporters to play an aggressive watch dog role to keep public officials from doing ‘things that shouldn’t be done.” The rub is that accomplishing this goal requires robust investigative reporting, which with the precipitous decline of profits for daily newspapers prominently highlighted by the recent bargain basement sales is on the wane

The task ahead is to develop a model for non-partisan and investigative reporting that will thrive in a media environment increasingly characterized by niche audiences and digital content delivery. This is one key to restoring the public’s faith in journalism and there are some positive signs. Successful online newspapers without a partisan bent are beginning to emerge at the local level and some national investigative reporting is now being done and done well by partnerships between major news outlets and non-profit foundation funded investigative organizations, most prominently exemplified by ProPublica.

This kind of reporting is expensive. Further, given the fact that strongly partisan and ideological news consumers now can select comfortable and appealing echo chambers in which their existing views are reinforced and amplified, a sufficiently sizable audience for quality non-biased journalism is not guaranteed. Still, there are few things more important to the long-term health of our democracy than meeting this tough challenge. Let’s hope smart, talented and digitally–savvy entrepreneurs, such as The Washington Post’s new owner Jeff Bezos, work at and find the right formula. Published in Go Local Prov.

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