Returning credibility to the media that it should never have lost in the first place
All this talk about the “new normal” has many of us longing for the “old normal,” the way things used to be when we didn’t realize how good we had it.
Now along comes Jen Psaki’s White House news briefings, and suddenly the waves of nostalgia are pouring over us. The thrust and parry emanating from the briefing room have returned to a familiar cadence. Communications professionals are back at the podium armed with truth and facts and a distinct aura of competence. Now at last, we don’t have to watch Dr. Fauci’s face in the back row as if it were some discerning needle on a lie detector test.
Even so, while a sense of normalcy has returned in one respect, one of the lingering malignancies of the past four years was not just the assault on truth, but the pointed, unscrupulous attack on the Fourth Estate. It was a strategy designed to undermine the credibility of those charged with holding government officials to account.
And sadly, it worked.
How fake news evolved
What began as flippant accusations of “fake news” became a full-throated mantra, a rallying cry against perceived bias. Ironically, those accusing the media of fabrications were themselves quotidian purveyors of falsehoods, more than 30,000 chronicled lies over four years, and that’s just from one man’s mouth. And yet, even with that track record of dishonesty, his “fake news” allegations took root.
According to the just-released 2021 Edelman Trust Index, an annual global survey of attitudes related to the people’s confidence in institutions like government, business and the media, trust in traditional media has reached an all-time low, with fewer than half of all Americans (46%) saying they trust traditional news media.
And more than half think reporters are intentionally biased. The survey found that 56% of Americans agreed with this statement:
A similar percentage (58%) believe that news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology than informing the public.
Where is Walter Cronkite – the late CBS News anchor widely regarded as “the most trusted anchor in America” – when you need him?
Fixing fake news, a different kind of media relations
I find the eroding confidence in the media disturbing for two reasons. First, I don’t believe that it’s merited. I have worked side by side with reporters in my role as a communications professional for more than 40 years, and in my experience, journalists conduct themselves, as a general rule, with honesty, integrity and, yes, objectivity. This is not to say that reporters don’t make mistakes or get something wrong. Of course, they do. But it is rarely the result of bias or a misplaced motive. Mostly, they want to get the story right, remembering that their reputation is on the line with every byline.
The second reason for my dismay is the threat that diminished confidence in the news media holds for our system of government, at every level. We count on local news, for example, to report on zoning board meetings and inspector general reports, to review police and court records and ask tough questions to local officials. The media helps ensure that government – local, state and national – is carrying out its responsibilities honestly, competently, fairly and transparently. The media acts as the eyes and ears of the citizenry, and it’s essential that citizens place their trust in the media’s capacity to carry out this role effectively.
Despots throughout history have sought to delegitimize the news media so as to more effectively quash dissent. These poll numbers ominously suggest a gathering movement in that direction, one that is disconcerting to say the least. When millions of people do not believe media reports that an election was conducted fairly, it amplifies the threat to democracy that weakened confidence in the media can portend.
The media landscape today is as crowded as it’s ever been, even with the shuttering of hundreds of newspapers over the past 20 years. And while it may seem at times that truth is elusive – it’s not. It can be found in traditional media outlets who endeavor to keep their readers and viewers informed accurately and honestly.
If the media has done anything to deserve the sagging public trust in their work that the Edelman survey suggests, it’s letting accusations of fake news reverberate without more aggressively dispelling them. As we attempt to return to a sense of normalcy, let’s bring back the confidence and trust in the media that it deserves.