In the summer before I started J-school I was out driving with some friends when the subject of what we’re going to take in college came up. When I told them I was taking journalism one of my friends scoffed and said, “Why do you want to be a reporter? People hate reporters!”
That was 2002 and his statement completely threw me off guard because, until then, I had never noticed a broad distaste for people in the media industry. I didn’t want to believe it.
Now, in 2017, “fake news” is the latest buzz word and the media have seriously lost credibility and public support. People don’t trust the media. They think it’s nothing more than a propaganda machine under the thumb of the establishment and you can’t trust anything they say; there’s always a bias skewing their reporting and preventing the true story from being told.
How did the media lose public support?
We know how things got this way. The presidential campaign of Donald J Trump was a rollercoaster ride of controversy and shock that threw the media into disarray. Things were headed this way for a long time, but the Trump Train pushed it over the edge. Vilifying the media was a cornerstone of his campaign, and he continues to attack the media everyday in his presidency. Even his senior advisor, Stephen K Bannon, called the media “the opposition party.” We’re told that the media are “some of the most dishonest people you’ll ever meet,” by President Trump, and that major media outlets with long standing histories of covering the issues at length are fake news.
Trump did a masterful job of manipulating the media during his campaign, and now they’ve all got egg on their collective faces. They covered the hell out of everything he did, so really the media are in some part responsible for Trump winning. But they had to cover him becuase it’s their job to inform the public about what’s going on, and what they can do.
15 years after my friend told me that everyone hates reporters it has become entirely apparent. In fact, the media is even more reviled now than it ever was thanks to Trump’s endless attacks on the media, and their horribly unbalanced coverage of the campaign.
So the question I want to ask is, how can the media redeem itself in the eyes of the public? Can there ever be a return to the days when the media was a respected institution, and people really cared about balanced and fair reporting? I believe it is possible.
The core tenets of journalism
In first year J-School we had the concepts of objectivity, balance, and fairness drilled into our heads from day one. It seems that Big Media has forgotten about these core tenets of journalism in its fervor to cover whatever generates the most page hits. As journalists, our job is to uncover the truth no matter where it lies and bring it into the light for all to see; and to not cast those stories under a certain slant, but to let the facts stand alone and the story speak for itself. These days, it seems the media just wants to cover whatever generates the most shock and outrage, and frame it in a way that highlights the most shocking and outrageous parts.
Journalism offers the power to affect change through storytelling. It’s a powerful force that can shape the direction of our society, and we media people are very aware of it. “The media is the message,”Marshall McLuhan famously said. We know the information we disseminate has to be accurate and fair because it shapes public opinion. If the public feels they’re being manipulated or misled, of course they’ll lash out and lose trust. That’s why, first of all, the media has to go back to fair and balanced reporting. No shock and outrage. Just the raw, complete story.
The problem with the media business model
I graduated in 2005; right around when the internet began disrupting the entire media industry and turning its business model upside down. News is found online for free now, so no one buys newspapers anymore. Publications that have stood for decades have been shutting down in droves, putting countless media people out of work. Of the ones that remain, page counts are cut, budgets slashed, and staff levels depleted.
In the age of online media, generating revenue all comes down to page hits, and what generates the most page hits? Sensationalism! Attention spans are truncated, and there is so much competition online, so news agencies often resort to overly-sensationalizing their stories to attract more web hits, which earn more ad revenue, which helps to balance the accounting books.
The media has become increasingly tabloid for this reason. The days of deep, investigative reporting are mostly gone. People don’t have time for exhaustive stories that cut to the heart of the matter. They just want to know what’s happening right now. The news cycle is 24 hours and the media is run ragged trying to keep up. When work is rushed, mistakes get made, and we lose sight of the core values that journalism is supposed to uphold.
How the media can regain the public trust
I believe it is possible for the media to regain the public trust, but it can only happen if we return to the core tenets of journalism. Also, the media needs to retool its business to stay competitive in the Information Age. We have to be critical. We have to be skeptical, but not cynical.
The media should not be more concerned with making money than it is about making great stories. As long as Big Media is beholden to giant corporate interests and advertisers, they can never be trusted 100%. In Noam Chomsky’s work Manufacturing Consent he talks about how the media is responsible for shaping public opinion to what the government wants us to think by acting as their mouthpiece. The media just tells us what Big Brother wants to us to know. Therefore, Chomsky contends, the media does not act as a check on the people in power by holding them accountable (as it really should), but it’s another tool the government uses to keep the public inline.
The media must divorce itself from being the government’s mouthpiece. Only a truly independent and free press can earn and keep the public’s support; a media that isn’t reliant on corporate sponsorships. A media that uses the power of storytelling to help people in our local communities, in our cities, in our country. The media is a powerful force in our society, but like any great power it can be abused and misused.
In our time, the media has lost its way. Only by returning to the core values that the industry was built on, and by retooling its business model to stay independent while looking more towards sharing the truth than making a buck can they regain the public trust and enter into a new golden age for real journalism.