Less than a third of American adults trust the media at least “a fair amount,” according to a new Gallup poll. The finding is the most dismal since Gallup started taking the poll in the 1970s.
More than any other measure or metric, Gallup’s new report should be a proverbial coalmine canary for the media and democracy.
The research company writes that trust in media reached a peak in 1976, when almost three quarters of American adults believed what they read, watched and heard. As Gallup notes, 1976 followed a number of iconic investigative reports on the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.
In its most recent years, the poll’s findings appear to be cyclical with trust falling most during presidential election years and rebounding slightly during the following three years. The result is a steady decline over several decades.
No single factor explains people’s declining trust in the media. Though, a lot of it – in my opinion – is due to the internet pulling back a curtain on the media starting in the early 2000s. Like food, media is much more palatable when people don’t know what goes into it or how it’s made.
The quantity of media produced also makes the prevalence of mistakes, errors and offenses in media appear greater than in the past. People may have heard about major mistakes or scandals at newspapers or broadcast organizations prior to the internet, but today every piece of media can be picked apart and put on a stake for the world to see.
Another of the many factors influencing trust in media is the current U.S. political climate. People – especially conservatives – feel the media is largely working against their best interests.
While about half of self-identified liberals trust the media at least “a fair amount,” Gallup found trust among conservatives fell to 14 percent – from 32 percent a year ago.
There are no easy remedies to the media’s trust drought, but it needs to be addressed – especially within journalism – for altruistic and business purposes.
First, there is no democracy without a strong and independent press. There is also no democracy if the vast majority of people don’t believe its strong and independent press.
Second, journalism is a business, and truth is its product. If people don’t view stories and reports from the press as the truth, the product is little or no value to consumers and advertisers.
One of the key moves the media must make to build trust is to educate people about itself. People don’t trust what they don’t understand. People in media, media companies and the U.S. education system need to teach people to be educated and critical consumers of media.
Another equally large move that needs to be made specifically within the journalism community is to stop trying to reinvent the core mission of the profession.
As the 2016 presidential election enters its last few weeks of life, critics and commentators continue to call on journalists to invent entirely new approaches to journalism in an effort to cover what is universally seen as unprecedented events.
Journalism does not need a reinvention, however. The profession needs its practitioners to recommit themselves to its core principles, which are outlined in the Society’s Code of Ethics.
The call to commit to those principles may seem out of touch, but at some point people must realize the core mission of journalism is largely unchanged since the dawn of communication.
“While tastes have ebbed and flowed and news has been at times more and less serious, historians have discovered that the basic news values have remained relatively constant throughout time,” write Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in their book The Elements of Journalism.
What changes in journalism is not the underlying mission or principles, but the delivery systems – from print to broadcast to digital.
Journalists need to be advocates for the truth and shun speculation, innuendos, rumors partisanship and lies. Once reported, it’s up to the public to use that information to make decisions in their daily lives and in voting booths.
The road to rebuilding trust between the media and Americans is long, but it’s a journey journalists, news organizations and media companies must start on if they want to continue doing their work beyond the next few decades.
Andrew M. Seaman is the chairperson of the Society’s ethics committee.