Shooting the Messenger
Most don't trust the media even as most outlets fight to survive
I’ve been a news hound for most of my adult life. I still subscribe to four newspapers. But I limit the amount of news I watch on television for the sake of my own mental health. With the exception of the PBS NewsHour, which is always excellent, most of TV news feels toxic, a 24/7 relentless torrent of certain doom.
So it was no surprise to read an Associated Press poll released this week in which a majority of Americans blamed the news media for the political polarization dividing the country. The poll did not define what was meant by “media,” and I don’t buy that the media is entirely to blame for the current contentiousness, but maybe the constant barrage of news makes others anxious too.
The poll results were divided by political party; 61 percent of Republicans said that the news media was hurting democracy, while only 23 percent of Democrats and 36 percent of independents agreed. About six in 10 believe that the news media also bears some responsibility for the spread of misinformation. Around one-third are also worried about attacks on the press.
It’s important to note here that, while the media was rarely popular, trust in it began to plunge in 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. The election of Donald Trump who framed the media as “the enemies of the people,” probably didn’t help.
Yet … it’s complicated.
When I got a master’s in journalism shortly after the Civil War (or so it seems), I was taught to get two sides of every issue, but there are often more than two sides. Offering solutions was a no-no; it was seen as a violation of our precious impartiality. Providing information was always a big part of being a journalist, but now people can get much of what they need to know with the click of a mouse.
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Yes, there will always be the need for a robust media to hold those in power to account, to provide a reliable set of facts and to help people understand those who are different from them. There is a reason that the press is the only profession to be protected in the U.S. Constitution. But its clear to me that the modern role of journalists must change to restore trust and strengthen democracy.
Changing course now is difficult. The internet destroyed most of the economic underpinnings of what once paid for journalism, and the profession hasn’t recovered. In fact, it is beset by fear. Digital, print and broadcast newsrooms lost nearly 92,000 jobs between 2008 and 2020, according to the outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, which has been tracking news layoffs since 2003. Those left are underpaid and overworked. But the profession has to – somehow – adjust.
After my own layoff from The New York Times in 2009, I began to work with the Charles F. Kettering Foundation of Dayton, Ohio, which researches ways to make democracy work better. Kettering research frames public issues, from potholes to the opioid crisis, as “shared public problems.” Ordinary people, not just experts, are capable of grappling with and solving them as long as they can talk with one another. Journalists should be key to that.
The challenge for journalism is for it to “take advantage of pain and chaos that it’s in, and somehow, create something new.”
In a journalism that reduces polarization and restores trust, reporters would be part of talking with people about issues in their community. It’s a departure from the old standby of neutrality that demands that reporters don’t get involved. But journalism needs to be more hands-on, not less.
There are many efforts around the country dedicated to doing things differently: Solutions Journalism has been doing great work in this country and internationally for years, bringing in-depth reporting to seemingly intractable problems; Spaceship Media helps newsroom have important conversations with the communities they cover using what is called Dialogue Journalism.
My favorite is the work Alabama media has done through the state’s three largest newspapers on al.com, with a dynamic, interactive approach between journalists and the communities they serve. An example: When, in 2019, the website asked women to tell what it was like to be a female resident in Alabama, hundreds responded within 36 hours. Their essays formed the basis of Reckon Women, a Facebook group where women could talk about what they needed to thrive.
My Kettering colleague and former Knight Ridder editor and publisher Paula Ellis co-wrote a journalism textbook capturing the need for change in the profession. Called “News for US: Citizen-Centered Journalism,” it calls for “relational journalism,” an ongoing relationship between journalists and their own communities to improve daily life. It’s a terrific book, and I hope it will help train a new generation of reporters.
I know first-hand that there are journalists around the country approaching their jobs in new ways. I was privileged to be a part of Kettering Foundation meetings with dozens of reporters and editors in the last five or six years sorting through these issues, and the result is another book, just published, edited by my Kettering colleagues Paloma Dallas and Ellis. “Reinventing Journalism to Strengthen Democracy: Insights from Innovators,” features essays from journalists who have been in the trenches, trying to do good work and do it differently so that their communities and democracy itself can thrive.
But it’s still hard, and I cannot imagine working in today’s difficult media environment. The challenge for journalism, Ellis told me, is for it to “take advantage of pain and chaos that it’s in, and somehow, create something new.” The future of my profession, and democracy, depends upon it.