A Vibe Check on the Media

How do people really feel about journalism these days?

A new Pew Research report on public attitudes toward news media in the U.S. offers many eye-opening insights into the ways people perceive the journalism they consume. Published at the end of August, with responses from over 10,000 people, the report’s findings offer an opportunity for journalists, and especially newsroom leaders, to seriously reflect on the relationship they hold with readers and the ways they produce their journalism. 

Because if the Pew Research report serves as a vibe check of how the public feels about journalism, the verdict is that the vibes are pretty low. 

To start, most people remain fairly skeptical of the media. According to Pew, 51% of respondents say they have little to no confidence that journalists are acting in the best interests of the public. When compared to confidence levels of nine other professions, journalists only rank higher than one other group: elected officials. And here’s another finding that should give journalists pause: 53% of people say news organizations do not care about the people they report on (emphasis mine). 

That over 50% of people are not confident that journalists are acting in the public interest and believe that news outlets don’t care about who they report on reveals a massive failure on the part of news organizations to fulfill one of the foundational tenets of journalists. One of the primary goals of news outlets — whether print, online, radio, or broadcast — is to act in the public interest, to produce stories that keep the public informed and accurately present the issues impacting everyday people. News outlets who fail to do this will, as the Pew findings reveal, lose trust with their audience. 

As the report also shows, empathy in coverage is another important quality to news audiences, albeit one that isn’t emphasized as much in mainstream, traditional news outlets. For as much lip service is given to the importance of “objectivity” and “neutrality,” not as much emphasis is placed on empathetic reporting. But I would argue that empathy is actually a more important quality in journalism than objectivity, and the Pew findings alone are an indictment of the ways objectivity has been a detriment to building trust between the news and the people. 

Prioritizing objectivity is the antithesis to emphatic reporting — empathy pushes journalists to better understand the people we interview and the issues we cover. Empathy influences reporters to answer the why and the how behind every story, instead of just offering the who, what, and when. The pursuit of objectivity can detach a journalist from a story, but empathetic journalism does the opposite. In the service of improving public trust in the media, it would benefit newsrooms to end the obsession with objectivity and instead adopt a philosophy of both care and accuracy. 

What’s also clear in Pew’s findings is the connection between a lack of confidence in the media and a desire among news consumers for greater transparency between news outlets and the public. According to the report, more than 70% say news organizations do not do a good job explaining where their money comes from; about 60% say news outlets do not do a good job being transparent about conflicts of interest; and 80% believe news coverage is influenced by corporate and financial interests. 

Here’s the thing: they’re right. 

For the most part, journalism in the U.S. operates as a money-making, for-profit entity. Just look at the ways venture capitalists have ravaged the digital media sphere in recent years, destroying the notion that online news organizations are somehow more stable than other forms of journalism. But it’s not just vulture capitalists who are the problem — corporate interests also have their grimy handprints all over traditional media, and news consumers are right to call it out. 

According to a 2017 Pew Research report, media consolidation has made it so that hundreds of local news stations across the U.S. are owned by a handful of large companies like Sinclair and Tribune. Local newspapers suffer from the same problem. According to research from the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “The largest 25 companies in 2018 owned nearly one-third of all papers.” That number includes two-thirds of all daily newspapers and nearly a fourth of all weekly publications. 

Considering the decline of daily local newspapers, the consolidation of what’s left of local papers into a small number of hands results in local news coverage that is more in line with the interests of the parent company than the interests of the local communities.

No wonder over 50% of people said news organizations don’t care about the people they cover.

A press that is beholden to the interests of company shareholders and corporations is not a free press, nor is it a press that truly represents the interests of the public. News consumers have every right to know about the funding operations of the outlets they read, particularly if they support a publication by way of a subscription or donation. And if news organizations are to repair and rebuild trust with their audiences, it starts with being transparent about where their funding and support comes from. 

Journalism, as an industry, has become increasingly insular over the years, in ways that have eroded public trust in the institution itself. For instance, the role of the ombudsman in newspapers like The New York Times has faded into obscurity, despite serving as a vital connection between journalists and audiences. 

As overall public confidence in news media remains on the decline, it’s up to journalists and, especially, newsroom leaders, to make drastic changes in the way media interacts with the public. From the Pew Research findings, it’s clear that news audiences want more transparency from news organizations, not less. If media outlets are to stay afloat, and journalism has any hope in rebuilding public trust, it starts with meeting news consumers where they are. The public knows what it wants — it’s time the media starts listening. 

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