I’ve been a reporter or editor almost continuously since taking over my high school newspaper 39 years ago. So when President Trump called journalists “among the most dishonest human beings on earth,” it did get my attention. But journalists get attacked so often that rather than take it personally, I considered whether any truth lurked behind his hyperbole.
My guess is that probably half the country sees the President’s attempts to undermine press credibility as a serious problem. But as low as the President’s approval ratings are, the media’s are lower. As of September, only 32 percent of Americans trust the “mass media,” according to Gallup. That’s an historic low—part of a long and accelerating decline since Gallup registered 72 percent trust in 1976.
So why is the press losing the public trust?
In January, a young journalist interviewed me about a report from Pittsburgh Today, the institute I run at Pitt which benchmarks Pittsburgh against other regions. We discussed Greater Pittsburgh’s unusually high rate of high school graduation, and after I explained the causes and implications, he said, “I realize this is really a good news story, but I want to take the negative angle.”
I’d never actually heard a reporter blithely admit intending to distort the truth. He later apologized, saying it had been a hectic day. He struck me as a bright, enterprising guy, who had simply articulated the underlying ethic of his large, electronic media company: news = controversy = ratings = money. I asked him to consider the cumulative effect if journalists routinely turned everything into a negative. But in this age of media saturation, I’m afraid the answer is all around us: a perception of perpetual crisis and worry where the sky is always falling, mistrust is rampant, and the worst motives are assigned to those with whom we disagree.
Shortly after, another young journalist emailed me her blog about covering a recent protest. When she mentioned “solidarity” with the marchers, I responded that, while demonstrations are exciting, journalists traditionally avoid becoming advocates in order to preserve their “objectivity.” In other words, advocacy erases impartiality and credibility.
She said her passion for justice and current affairs got her into journalism (as it has for countless others) and as a self-taught freelancer, she’s wondered about the line between participating and observing. She’d assumed that stating her political opinions was okay, given how many prominent journalists do so on social media.
The rules of journalism used to be quite clear. If you were a reporter at a 20th Century American newspaper, your job was to be accurate, fair, honest, thorough and impartial. And let’s not forget fast, which occasionally put the other qualities in a vice. There was no place for slant, advocacy or personal views. Period.
Unfortunately, the fracturing of the newspaper’s economic model has rippled throughout the industry. Severe staffing cuts plus a 24-hour news cycle means there often aren’t enough people or time to do the job right or to teach young journalists. And when reporting lacks substance and accuracy, it’s obvious to readers.
Newspapers remain the bulwark of journalistic standards, but their decline has pushed more readers toward television and Internet news—the most pernicious step of all. Cable news personalities often don’t even try to hide their ideology, bias and emotion, and the Internet is a free-for-all in an ethics-free zone— the more extreme, the more successful. The result is a continuing national polarization.
Whether you love or loathe the new administration, it’s clear that the country needs a strong, credible press, especially in this era of fake news and alternative facts. Americans don’t want their reporters to interpret news and give opinions. They expect them to do the digging and get the facts. And a great many journalists know that and are doing their job well in tough circumstances.
It’s a privilege to be a journalist working on the great issues of the day. But it’s a privilege that carries a responsibility: the public trust. And we in the media—from reporters to publishers—need to regain that by tenaciously following the story where it leads, not where we think it should go.
Or as the old Pittsburgh Press motto used to say: “Give light and the people will find their own way.”