Rosen’s Trust Puzzler: What Explains Falling Confidence in the Press?

Help me figure it out. Here are five explanations, each of them a partial truth.

17 Apr 2012 10:58 pm 267 Comments

The percentage of Americans who had a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in the news media has declined from over 70 percent shortly after Watergate to about 44 percent today.

Why? That is my question here.

It’s a puzzle because during that same period several other things were happening. Journalists were becoming better educated. They were more likely to go to journalism school, my institution. During this period, the cultural cachet of being a journalist was on the rise. Newsrooms were getting bigger, too: more boots on the ground to cover the news. Journalism was becoming less of a trade, more of a profession. Most people who study the press would say that the influence of professional standards, such as we find in this code, was rising.

So the puzzle is: how do these things fit together? More of a profession, more educated people going into journalism, a more desirable career, greater cultural standing (although never great pay) bigger staffs, more people to do the work … and the result of all that is less trust.


Let me be clear: I’m not saying there’s no explanation, or that this is some baffling paradox. Only that it’s worth thinking through how these things fit together. (For more on declining public confidence see this overview from 2005.) Here are some possible answers:

When you put the trust puzzler to professional journalists (and I have) they tend to give two replies:

1. All institutions are less trusted. The press is just part of the trend. Here are a few comparison figures from Gallup’s confidence surveys (Pdf):

The Church. In 1973, 66 percent had a great deal or a fair amount of trust. 2010: 48 percent.

Banks. 1979: 60 percent, 2010: 23 percent.

Public schools. 1973: 58 percent, 2010: 34 percent

The Presidency: 1973: 52 percent, 2010: 36 percent

The problem with this answer is that it ignores the whole idea of a watchdog press. If these other institutions are screwing up, or becoming less responsive, then journalists should be the ones telling us about it, right? Suppose the Catholic Church fails (scandalously) to deal with child abusers among its priests. If journalists help expose that, confidence in the press should rise. That’s the watchdog concept in action. Big institutions are less trusted. But in itself that doesn’t explain falling confidence in the press. Public service journalism is supposed to be a check on those institutions.

2. Bad actors.  The second answer I hear the most from journalists is that bad actors–especially the squabblers on cable television, and the tabloid media generally–are undermining confidence in the press as a whole. Just as Americans hate Congress but tend to love their local Congress person, they can’t stand “the media” — as reflected in your chart, Jay — but they feel differently about their own habitual sources of news. (Go here for some evidence of that.)

From this point of view, there’s no trust problem at all, really, just a category mistake. The most visible news people are being mistaken for the whole institution. If we could stop doing that, there wouldn’t be any drop in confidence.

The conservative movement has an answer to my question, which they try to drill into my head whenever they can:

3. Liberal bias. The United States is a conservative country (center-right, as radio host Hugh Hewitt likes to say) but most journalists are liberals. Even though they claim to practice neutrality, they weave their ideology into their reporting and people sense this bias. The result is mistrust. The problem has gotten worse since 1976. What else do you need to know?

Well, one thing I’d like to know is: how come Fox News, dedicated to eradicating liberal bias, is simultaneously the most mistrusted and the most trusted news source, according to survey research. That suggests it’s a little more complicated than: conservative country, liberal press. Wouldn’t it make more sense to begin like this? The United States is a divided country…

The political left has a different answer to my question. I should point out that it is not analogous to the right’s answer:

4. Working the refs. The right has learned how to manipulate journalists by never letting up on the “liberal bias” charge, no matter what. This amounts to working the refs, in Eric Alterman’s phrase. In basketball, some coaches will as a matter of course complain that the referees are favoring the other team. Their hope is to sow confusion in the minds of the officials, and perhaps get the benefit of the doubt on some calls.

Working the refs is indifferent to the actual distribution of judgment calls. Coaches who believe in the method use it regardless of whether the refs have been unfair (or generous) to their side. The aim is to intimidate. In the degree that “working the refs” works, journalists favor the side that is complaining the most. This amounts to a distortion of the picture presented to the public. From that distortion, mistrust follows.

But is it really true that the left does not know how to complain about bad calls, while the right screams at every opportunity?  Maybe in 1969, when Spiro Agnew’s complaints began, that was so. It hasn’t been so for a while. This complicates the case.

My own theory, which I do not see as complete or even adequate. 

5. Something went awry. My own sense is that the loss in confidence in the press has to do with professionalization itself. There was something missing or out of alignment in the ideas and ideals that mainstream journalism adopted when it began to think of itself as a profession starting in the 1920s. Whether it was newsroom objectivity, or the View from Nowhere, the production of innocence, the era of omniscience, the Voice of God, or the claim to provide “all the news,” whether it was the news tribe understood as a priesthood, monopoly status for metropolitan journalism, the identification with insiders, or an underlying media system that ran one way, in a one-to-many or broadcasting pattern… I don’t know. Maybe all those things.

I haven’t figured it out yet (in fact, much of my writing at PressThink has been an attempt to think this through…) but it strikes me that something went awry within the professional project–which also did a lot of good for journalism–and eventually that flaw began to take its toll on public confidence. The press got out of alignment with its public, and mistaken ideas that weren’t seen as mistaken prevented self-correction, resulting in symptoms like this.

The first addition based on a number of comments I received since this was posted.

6. Just part of the power structure now. Over Twitter, investigative journalist Phil Williams wrote, “Press more popular when viewed as standing up to power. Then it became part of power structure.” From this point of view, the glamorization of journalism after Watergate, combined with the influence of celebrity within the news tribe, plus the growing concentration of media ownership in a few large companies that themselves seek influence, had made mockery of the journalist as a courageous truthteller standing outside the halls of power.

Ground zero for this explanation would be the annual White House Correspondents Association dinner, in which all the factors I just mentioned are on vivid display.

I’ve been blogging at PressThink since 2003. The comment thread at this post may be the best since I started. Nos. 7-8 derive from it.

7. Culture war! Let’s say 20 percent of the country buys No. 3: liberal bias, 20 percent buys No. 4: working the refs, and 10 percent is ready to tear its hair out with the professional journalists’s imaginary solution: “he said, she said” reporting. (These, I think, are conservative estimates.) Put them together and half the country is angry at the press before it gets its boots on.

Like I said, America is a divided country. There’s a seductive pull to placing yourself in the middle between what you imagine to be “the extremes.”  That seems like the safest position, but is it really? The trust figures suggest the answer is: no, not really. Have you heard CNN’s slogan for its 2012 election coverage? “The only side we’re on is yours.” But it’s just a slogan. CNN has no idea how to make it real.

8. Too big to tell. In the comments, John Paton, the CEO of Digital First Media, second largest newspaper company in the U.S. (Disclosure: I was for a time a paid advisor to this company) speculates:

Society has profoundly changed in the last three decades.

The factors are many: economics; wealth; job security and empowerment. Technology empowers but real power to change one’s life is perhaps even further outside of most people’s grasp than before – i.e. Job expectations; education expectations; home ownership expectations; upward mobility, etc.

If there is a growing awareness of those disconnects, then perhaps society understands that the news media has failed them on the bigger issues and no amount of exposing corrupt politicians and thieving captains of industry will let the news media regain that trust.

According to this interpretation, stories that are “too big to tell” (not that they literally could not be told but they overwhelm journalism as it stands today…) are the ones that have really affected people’s lives. For example: “real power to change one’s life is perhaps even further outside of most people’s grasp than before.” Intuitively, the audience understands that journalists are never going to tell them “what’s going on” in the largest sense of that phrase. And this takes its toll on trust.

None of these explanations quite do it for me. I think they all have some merit, but “some” does not mean equal. I’m partial to no. 5, but I don’t think it accounts for a 28 point drop in public confidence. So that’s why I say: what would be your theory?

After Matter: Notes, Reactions & Links…

Sep. 17, 2014: Gallup: Trust in Mass Media Returns to All-Time Low. Six point drops in trust among Democrats and Republicans.

August 8, 2013: Pew Research Center returns to the subject:

Public evaluations of news organizations’ performance on key measures such as accuracy, fairness and independence remain mired near all-time lows. But there is a bright spot among these otherwise gloomy ratings: broad majorities continue to say the press acts as a watchdog by preventing political leaders from doing things that should not be done, a view that is as widely held today as at any point over the past three decades.

Aug. 16, 2012: Pew Research Center comes out with a new report: Further Decline in Credibility Ratings for Most News Organizations:

For the second time in a decade, the believability ratings for major news organizations have suffered broad-based declines. In the new survey, positive believability ratings have fallen significantly for nine of 13 news organizations tested. This follows a similar downturn in positive believability ratings that occurred between 2002 and 2004.

The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein takes up my puzzle:

I think you should see #3 and #4 as mirror images: One is the argument the right has used to erode trust in the press. The other is the argument the left has used to erode trust in the press. Both, it should be said, have their roots in real events and real grievances. The rush to war really was an example of the media — including me, as a dumb blogger in college — getting worked. But both are also the result of organized campaigns to take those real events and real grievances and turn them into a durable distrust of the media that can be activated when convenient for the two parties.

That doesn’t mean Republicans or Democrats have stopped reading, or caring about, the news media. Indeed, the loss of trust in the press has, as I understand it, coincided with a rise in the actual consumption of news media. I think we should take that revealed consumer preference for more news and news-like goods at least as seriously as we should take these poll numbers. The parties certainly do. That’s why, rather than trying to persuade their folks to abandon the media, they have contented themselves with trying to persuade them to simply mistrust the media.

Responding to both me and Ezra Klein is political scientist Jonathan Ladd: Why Don’t People Trust the Media Anymore?

I see two structural trends coming from outside of journalism as the main drivers of media distrust. First, the political parties have become much more polarized in their policy positions. Second, because of technological changes such as the rise of cable and the internet, as well as regulatory changes such as the end of the fairness doctrine, the media industry has become much more diverse and fragmented.

He also includes this chart showing the long-term decline in trust for the press as against other institutions:

One thing I don’t understand in Ladd’s post is this part: “I tend to be skeptical of any explanation for broad change that hinges of human nature simply improving or degrading. I suspect that human nature tends to be constant. Instead, I look for structural explanations. (Thus, I disagree with Rosen’s explanations #2, 3, 5, 6, and 8.)”

Human nature? I don’t get it. I don’t see how these explanations derive from a claim that human nature changed after Watergate, which is indeed absurd and unconvincing.

Ladd responds: “What I was trying to say was that journalists haven’t simply developed a greater natural propensity to behave like ‘bad actors,’ or exhibit bias, or be out of touch with the public, or co-opted by elites, or to miss scandals (like the Jayson Blair scandal) for too long, or exhibit other behaviors that we as observers might fault them for.”

Part two of Ladd’s post: Why It Matters that People Distrust the Media. Indeed.

Craig Silverman author of Regret the Error, and a student of trust construction in journalism, replies to this post with: Connecting the dots: Why doesn’t the public trust the press anymore?

Journalism that acts as the voice of God, that doesn’t listen, that doesn’t admit failings, that often punishes others for showing vulnerability does not build connection with the public.

Poynter’s resident sage, Roy Peter Clark, organized a chat with me and Craig Silverman: What can writers do to build the public’s trust in the media? The main point I tried to make is that the means for generating trust must themselves evolve.

In the comments: Clay Shirky, John Paton, Marcy Wheeler, Jeff Jarvis, Tom Watson, John Robinson, Chris Anderson, Andrew Tyndall, Roy Peter Clark and a whole lot more. Best comment thread I’ve have ever had at PressThink. (Not joking.)

The Washington Post’s Paul Farhi takes on a similar subject, but his point seems to be that there’s nothing to see here, so move along: How biased are the media, really? Not much, he seems to say, so why do people tell pollsters the opposite? He then lists possible explanations, which resemble some of mine.

James Fallows in 1996: Why Americans Hate the Media.

Public Trust in Government: 1958-2010.

Christopher Lydon–journalist, intellectual, radio host, and Boston presence–interviewed me when I was in Cambridge about the declining faith in American institutions, including the press. Because he is so good at what he does, it is one of the best interviews I’ve done in many years, and very much on point for this post. It will cost you 35 minutes to listen to it.

National Journal: In Nothing We Trust: Americans are losing faith in the institutions that made this country great. Loss of confidence in our major institutions is typically a social science subject. Here is a journalistic treatment that is quite good.

Clay Shirky argues that what was called “trust” in the Cronkite era was really just scarcity. And now that’s over.

Gallup chart by Terry Heaton’s PoMo blog and Audience Research & Development LLC.


Victoria says:

Alternative media sources provide a richer and more varied perspective than mainstream media, whose channels come off as clones, using the same footage and repeating press releases practically verbatim. In the end, it’s just as easy to tap online sources as is to turn on a scheduled program or wait for the newsweekly.

Thanks, Victoria.

The problem is that 20 points of the 28 point drop in confidence had already been lost by the time the World Wide Web and its riches came into Americans’ lives. Doesn’t mean your factor isn’t a factor, but we need more than it.

Victoria says:

Hmm… In that case, could the trust problem be related to anti-intellectual attitudes as well? The association of leftism with level of education, however false, was very strong in the seventies and the right has continued to milk it.

Bob Shea says:

I think you’ve noted what is a continuing thread in American cultural history, Victoria. “Know-nothing” and “all opinions are equal” is an anti-intellectual theme which today plays out through aegis of most notably Fox News amplifying what the GOP has used as a political tool at least since Nixon’s era. The press role in the Bush/Gore election added in the likeability factor of “W” being a guy you’d like to have a beer with..the “C” student…vs. his fellow Harvard grad opponet as a “stiff” and “nerdy” policy “wonk.”

As the practice of journalism by “journalists” has become more transparent/accessible to citizens, citizens have become more skeptical of the practice’s claim on authority/credibility. Citizens increasingly intuit that the practice of journalism doesn’t reflect “truth”, it alludes to/creates “truth.” They’re learning how the sausage is made. The good thing (maybe): Citizens are increasingly interrogating the “truth” resulting from journalism and—to do this well—they need more “truths” to interrogate.

I agree. People have access to much more information — some good, some bad, much misleading — that they then use to evaluate what the mainstream media is telling them. Some realize that the gatekeepers are filtering out information that is important to them. Some realize how arbitrary the whole editorial process can be. For others, getting information from generalists who are prone to understandable but dumb mistakes no longer is sufficient. Journalists are no better or worse than they have ever been, but their readers now know more than they ever have before regarding the raw materials everyone is working from.

As Jay pointed out in the post before these two, Web20 and this transparency stuff is pretty darn recent. But the decline in trust began more than 30 years ago.

Refering to growth of cable news. Used to watch dad hand-crank sat dish too CNN. Remember him critiquing wire copy in local paper vs. CNN. .

30 years ago, eh? Hmmm, what was the most significant shift 30 years ago?

Reagan deregulation of media monopoly ownership rules? Devastated the rural landscape, radio, small papers, to the obliviousness of the metro-myopic press. Took a bit of time for the effects of massive media monopolies and “this town ain’t big enough for the two of us” newspaper wars to reach the “coasts.”

To the point that an entire generation of radio journalism grads in the 80s never worked one day in their fields. Rural radio, even essential weather reports, was replaced with taped repeaters.

But one overlooked effect of the massive corporate 30% profit-machine buy-in to siphoning ad money out of communities and out to shareholders while constantly hollowing out and cutting news staff is this:

Truth-telling was no longer within the majority of the news staff’s pay grade.

To write authority-challenging truths, you had to be WAY up the management totem pole, top managing editor, at least. That was something they didn’t tell me to expect in journalism school, while I dreamed of being Woodstein.

Sure, salaries were always kept low. But newsrooms were radically destabilized by a climate of constant layoffs and the disappearance of veteran reporters and editors (higher paid, more likely to challenge corporate management, must be let go).

But worse than that, the corporate carpet-bagging masters had the only game in town, often the only game in many towns. They governed the system that determined if you’d ever be able to work in that field again.

Overt censorship or self-censorship, I’ve lived under it. Even during the early Iraq War, I was forced, by my relative unimportance in the newsroom, from reporting actual true and multiple-source verified facts about Iraq and WMD, not because anyone told me not to (no one did), but because the party line in favor of the US govt position on everything was such that one couldn’t even call into question the tightness of President Bush’s codpiece in the “Mission Accomplished” aircraft carrier landing and not risk instant dismissal.

Your editors would catch it and take it out anyway. You could try to sneak things past them, like on cable news headline “crawls”– blind spots that don’t usually get copy-edited. But if someone saw it, you’d be out.

To break ranks, to break “voice,” that monolithic US mainstream media voice, was career suicide.

Tammie K. Milligan says:

I agree totally! The deregulation and merger of radio TV and newspaper ownership made it much more difficult for reporters to get out there anything that went against “the powers that be”. Eventually the public caught on to this fact, that the media is pretty much a corporate mouthpiece, and their trust evaporated,

Nate Bowman says:

Chris Boese

Well said.
I agree.

To me, all of the points Jay enumerates result from the commercialization, corporatization and conglomeration of media outlets started under President Reagan’s administration and which you so well describe.

To me, it’s pretty simple, so here are my takes on Jay’s .
1. That all institutions are less trusted does not mean that they are all less trusted for the same reason. I would posit that many are because the corporate control of all institutions has increased drastically over the last 30 years. And thus, the purpose of each institution has been subsumed to the needs of corporatiions.
a. Banks have been allowed to gamble (with increasing stakes) at will with people’s money. When the gamble pays off, they talk about how great and worthy they are. When the gamble doesn’t pay off, the politicians who are beholden to them allow them to get off scott free legally and financially. As added insult, they force the same people who lost their money in the banks’ gambles to pay for the banks’ losses.
b. Public schools have always, to some extent, been there to create employees rather than critical thinkers. The vilification of teachers, as well as the demonization of under-performing children has led to a test-driven education system that makes it increasingly difficult for a teacher to create critical thinkers. In addition, the [mis]justification of privatization of schools as a panacea not only perpetuates this, it creates an arena within which corporations can transfer taxpayer money to private coffers.
c. The increased power of corporations over the presidency is self-evident. The breaking of campaign promises is expected. The indemnification of corporate bad acts is routine. The military machine has gotten so large that it needs wars to survive and presidents of both parties oblige. The erosion of the constitution and civil rights is commonplace.
d. The church has had its own problems and scandals so it is natural for people to have less trust in it. But even here the whole “Christians have a right to be rich and be proud of it” in some churches has become the driving force in some churches and all but drown out the commonly-thought of Christian virtues of of prudence, justice, restraint, fortitude, faith, hope love and charity. Not to mention that the holy virtues are supposed to be attained through selfless pursuits.

2. Bad actors work for and are the executors of the greater control exercised by the powerful over the message which is acceptable to be transmitted to the populace.

3. Journalism, in order to fulfill its mission of helping the largest number of people possible to make informed decisions, is inherently populist. Those beholden to corporate America misrepresent populism as liberalism and so influence conservatives to subsume facts and truth to the party line. They thus convince people to support causes NOT in their best interest.

4. Working the refs: When corporations centrally own so many media outlets, it is easy to coordinate a message and get the audience to not pay attention to facts or truth. Or even care about them.

5. I agree with Jay on something happening when the trade became a profession. It seems to me that when it was a trade, more people practices it with integrity. And, though many lists of the principles of the profession and the ethics of the profession have been developed in the last 30 years, it seems to me that the corporate journalist media have developed them more to create the appearance of integrity and to explain why “In this case, that principle doesn’t apply” [similar to the way journalists have contributed to the erosion of the constitution and civil rights by NOT, as a group, raising any kind of fuss about it] than to actually live up to them. I put little of the blame on journalists as individuals. It is difficult to not live up to the unstated conditions of your employment, as Chris Boese shows us above.

6. Corporate “journalists” value having access to power more than telling the truth (and ESPECIALLY more than telling truth to that power). They also dismiss criticism of their work as people not really knowing what’s going on. And so, people lose their trust in the press.

7. As I alluded to in 3, corporate journalism is a contributing factor in creating the class wars that those in power create so that they can go about their business while the rest of the country fights self-defeating battles against artificial enemies. American is a dividing country because journalism is allowing it to be so by not exposing the fabricated divisions between people of common interest.

8.I think the “too big to tell” is not only a self-justifying explanation, but one which can be invoked to justify smaller and smaller stories because they can be thought of as being part of that “too big” story. I am surprised by the cynicism of the audience reflected in Jay’s saying “the audience understands that journalists are never going to tell them “what’s going on” in the largest sense of that phrase.” It is a journalists job to tell the truth as accurately and thoroughly as possible, It they feel it is “too big to tell”, the answer is NOT to not tell it; the answer is to tell it in a way that the most people will be able to take it in.

Robertp123 says:

Excellent and accurate, Christopher Krug. If someone like you started a blog, I would subscribe. It won’t happen because those in the press are not ‘real’ people with normal observations. They are very obviously corporate shills, touting the party line. Whatever happened to investigative journalism? It died along with JFK. The majority of the public has figured it out – and can’t trust a word out of the mouths of the major networks.

Professionalization creates a perceived loss in everyman status. Once a person/position is elevated, the mistakes become glaring and harder to forgive. I think it’s a mix of #1 and #5.

Right, Katie. There is a big difference between “this is the best we could do in figuring out what happened today” and “that’s the way it is.” The first claim stands a chance of being believed over a long period of time. The second does not. One of the strange things about trust is that it’s related to how much you claim for yourself.

Years ago I saw a zine whose corrections were headed “Things we learned after the last issue was printed.” It struck me as a nice humble way to not claim too much.

Phil Williams ‏on Twitter:

“My theory, @jayrosen_nyu: Press more popular when viewed as standing up to power. Then it became part of power structure.”!/NC5PhilWilliams/status/192460976342302721

(Williams bio: Chief investigative reporter, WTVF, Nashville. Recipient: duPont, Peabody and George Polk awards, Pulitzer finalist.)

Absolutely. I was honestly surprised when I read down your list that this wasn’t mentioned. While the concept of the watchdog press is still lumbering along like a zombie, I feel the perception is that the press stopped speaking truth to power long ago.

Sure there are moments when the zombie shows some life. But when “embedded” reporters report from a war zone, or the press seems to do no more than republish government press releases, it’s hard to feel that you are getting the whole picture.

The Internet allows one to easily look outside our borders and read international news. And that news is different. That shouldn’t happen. Yet it does.

I just added no. 6 based on Phil’s tweet and some other things I have been hearing.

Bob Shea says:

Jay, I think you should consider moving #6 up the list. The image of David Gregory dancing with “Grand Master” Rove at the Correspondents Dinner is an icon of the insider image of the national media. (I’m sure a Democratic version can be found as well.) Add in multimillion dollar contracts a la sports figures, and the sports-like coverage of public policy and public figures, it’s no surprise that actual journalists have given way to infotainers who appear to shill and suck up to the powerful not hold them accountable.

All coming to a head in Colbert’s WH Correspondents Dinner performance. He really said what everyone outside of Versailles was thinking re: the corporate media.

I’d like to make an additional point about confidence in the press. Confidence is a measure of audience perception, not a measure of the actual worthiness of this confidence label. Hypothetically, it could be that the press is doing a better job now overall than they did 40 years ago. That audiences (or the people formerly known as the audience) don’t trust the press as much could actually mean that audiences have become more savvy and thus, more aware of potential failures by the press than we used to be. Maybe the press is doing at least just as well, but audiences have become more critical. I remember reading a group interview from a few years ago, for instance, including people like Ben Bagdikian and David Halberstam (and other luminaries), where they were asked about the Glass and Blair plagiarism scandals. Across the board these great journalists suggested that plagiarism used to be a much greater problem in years past (when tit was more difficult for outside fact-checking and general surveillance of the press).

Mainstream Press is corporately owned. There’s a feeling that what gets covered is in the interests of the owners and not truly watchdog not a searching out of difficult or inconvenient truths but just playing part of the political game, to corporate advantage. Journos are stuck with editors who do what owners want, in this view. And there are also lazinesses built into any system… Journos become insiders as they cover a story, unless they’re very careful. And they aren’t, it seems, nor fierce enough.

Bias — but not in the way it’s typical envisioned.

There was a book out in 2002 called Tilt? The search for media bias and the fascinating thing it uncovered is that there is a bias toward coverage of biased media. In general, coverage itself wasn’t actually biased–and the researcher included a wide range of past studies.

The media talk about media bias, which continues the cycle of mistrust and keeps it on the public agenda.

This ties into journalists as professionals, because the training insists on being unbiased which would mean covering criticism of the press too. But what we end up with is a profession criticizing itself and pointing out its own weaknesses, creating a cycle that continues to break down trust.

Aren’t #1 and #5 almost the same thing? If journalism is professionalized and institutionalized, it’s not surprising that public attitudes about the press will behave similarly to public attitudes about other large and remote institutions.

If you were to expect anything else, it would be because you think of the press as something other than a large remote institution.

Phil Williams got at the most important angle, I believe, and I’d like to expand on it a bit. You say that the press is or should be a check on institutional power, therefore #1 is likely not right; but the press over this period has both become more institutional and become so more visibly. Ergo, it’s just another power structure to distrust.

Don’t forget that besides the increase in professionalism, in the 1970s and 1980s the ownership of most news organizations became not only more concentrated but more corporate. The great family-owned newspapers started to sell out to the big chains in large numbers (my hometown papers were bought out in 1973), and broadcasters were snapped up as ownership regulations became more lax. This all blurred the line between Big Business and the scrappy news hounds. Both the perception and the reality of the watchdog role have taken serious hits in the past 40 years.

I think your first reply, from Victoria, “Alternative media sources provide a richer and more varied perspective than mainstream media,” is more correct than she realized. But alternatives to the almighty news sources began long before the arrival of the Web.

Your chart shows a rise in trust of news from 1973-1976. 1971 was the year of the Pentagon papers, ’72 was Watergate and ’74 was the movie “All the Presidents Men,” the story of the news uncovering Watergate. So first off, the peak in 1976 is likely to be higher than an average of previous years. You don’t source the chart, and we don’t know, but I am going to guess that no one even bothered to measure ‘trust in news’ before ’73.

So, beginning from what we must call an artificial highpoint (Robert Redford in his prime!), trust was bound to fall, and by 1980 was back where it was in ’73.

But that’s when the real changes began. Starting in the ’80s, there was tremendous growth in the number of TV channels via cable. 1980 was the year that CNN launched, and 1985 when Fox created the “fourth network”. More news sources equaled less credibility for each. Concurrently, TV news came to be seen as a revenue source rather than the old “loss leader,” (who wouldn’t trust the news less when it became all about making money?) Newspapers soon followed suit.

At this very moment, the precursors to the Web, BBS and email, began to spread. Email chains were common in those days, and along with BBS, new interpretations of the “truth” by the nascent citizen journalists were flying all over the place.

So if you trace the history of the expansion of news sources against the fall in trust, I think you will find a direct correlation.

Excellent points, Evelyn.

But All the President’s Men, the movie, was 1976.

Thank you Jay, and I stand corrected. The book came out in 74, the movie in 76. An even better fit with your chart.

Nate Bowman says:

“More news sources equaled less credibility for each”

I agree that there each ended up with less credibility.
I disagree that this was necessary as if there was a limited amount of credibility to go around.
Each source earned credibility to the extent that it fulfilled its journalistic mission to help people make informed decisions.
To the extent that the source didn’t, it lost credibility.

I would argue it is straightforward to explain the endpoints of the long 1974 to 1998 drop. Watergate probably represented the historic high for this time series (too bad there are no data for before that time period). By 1998, we had the spectacle of the Clinton impeachment travesty. In the latter case, I’m surprised that the positive line is still hanging on over 50% at that point. The very linear trend between these two points makes me wonder how frequently data was gathered, but it is not a stretch to suggest that the transition between these two extremes was a continuous and smooth process. After 2000, the web can account for the decrease, since we can now quickly confirm for ourselves that the the emperor has no clothes.

And the minor bump up in 2002 is probably due to a post-9/11 rally around the flag phenomenon…

There’s no doubt. Which is ironic, because the press did some of its most pathetic work at that time.

gnarlytrombone says:

A wise man once asked, “What becomes of the press when the public’s constitution alters or weakens?”

Here’s what the gentleman is referring to:

p. 20 of my book, What Are Journalists For?

Lack of accountability. No matter how many big stories the journalistic herd gets wrong (the lead-up to the Iraq War comes to mind) the high-profile talking heads stay the same.

I considered adding that one to my list of five.

I think that’s true not only in the press but in institutions in general (and has contributed to growing distrust of institutions): Once you reach a certain level in society, you are no longer accountable. You can run a business into the ground, oversee a decades-long continuing criminal enterprise involving the sexual assault of children and obstruction of justice, allow a U.S. city to drown, order torture and other crimes against humanity (well, maybe YOU can) and NOTHING HAPPENS.

Nate Bowman says:

I agree.
It reminds me of Brian Williams being called our not only for relying on a pundit who just happened to be a retired general briefed by the Pentagon on how to sell the war in Iraq, but on blacking out David Barstow’s Pulitzer-winning expose of the scandal.

His response? “I know him personally. He is a friend. I trust him.”

Nate Bowman says:

When profitability becomes more important, accountability becomes less important.

And, when the news anchors are making 5 million a year, with whom do you think they identify? NOT the people they are supposed to be helping make informed decisions.

I do think the Left’s concern, seen in the comments, about the corporatization of the press and “Big Media builds mistrust” deserves a hearing. News organizations that became part of the political and economic power elite, acting as gatekeepers, may be part of the answer.

I would also recommend linking to PBS and Fallows on why the press is hated.

I would also recommend contrasting Fineman’s AMMP with the watchdog role that attacked other institutions.

Finally, I’ll offer a reading list of important publications on what’s wrong/causing the decline of the press.

How about just poor performance over a protracted period of time as an explanation? Closing bureaus, laying off journalists, relying on opinion rather than journalism, just making it all up, a la Jayson Blair et al… Trust is something that has to be earned–and can also be lost if unearned.

In any event, trust is the key issue before us all now — how can we find credible news and information we can rely on — the key topic in my new book should you care to check it out:

Friends, Followers and the Future: How Social Media are Changing Politics, Threatening Big Brands, and Killing Traditional Media

A combination of factors Im guessing but I’d add the exponential growth of media which has undermined its value. When information was sparse(r) you valued those who brought it to you. When you are surrounded by a cacophony of information, much unwanted, it’s an irritation. Plus the deliberate mixing of opinion and news – but we’ve been over that ground already!

Thanks, Richard.

Really well said, this: “When information was sparse(r) you valued those who brought it to you. When you are surrounded by a cacophony of information, much unwanted, it’s an irritation.”

Of course that would really apply after 2000 or so. There was a steep drop before then.

I’m not a historian or a person of color, but would that chart be the same for African Americans? I’m just wondering if their trust in the press was ever that high and what it looks like today. There must be polls that have ethnic and gender break-downs.

Except that the rot had set in before 2000. Part of it, I think, is that our flagship media had already begun to prove that we couldn’t trust their news judgment or their reporting. The Times‘s Whitewater and Wen Ho Lee reporting were creatures of the 1990s. The Judith Miller debacle was all of a piece with it, and tended to destroy any optimistic hope that things like the Whitewater coverage had been an aberration.

If something is of low intrinsic value, scarcity isn’t going to make it look all that much better. The dropoff may have more to do with the speed at which the public internalized the sense that what the press had been serving up was of low intrinsic value than with the end of scarcity.

Nate Bowman says:

“When information was sparse(r) you valued those who brought it to you. When you are surrounded by a cacophony of information, much unwanted, it’s an irritation.”

I disagree that it is a zero sum game. To the extent that a media source helps people to make informed decisions, it is trusted, not matter how many other media there are. To the extent that it doesn’t, it does not earn trust.

Nick Heynen says:

I have another factor which is inadequate as a full explanation: the proliferation of cable news channels and the race for ratings in network and cable news outlets. CNN debuted in 1980, which is right at the beginning of the chart. As the most “visible” news sources for many (most?) Americans, national TV news I think plays a big role in shaping the view of the press as a whole. So when they do something ridiculous, or artificially blow up coverage of an unimportant story, or simply fail to do all their homework before going live with something, the perception of the media as a whole suffers.

Not to mention the massive spread of what I’ll call “personality news” — that is journalists whose personalities (and the biases that accompany those personalities) are as much of the reason people watch as the news they’re charged with presenting. It’s become less important whether or not you trust the institution behind the news, it’s all about whether you trust (or simply like, or even have a crush on) the personality conveying it. And when those personalities are outrageous, and their ratings skyrocket, the other outlets try haphazardly to replicate the success with their own crazies.

I say all of this, of course, sitting cozy in my newspaper role. No room for blame here! Move along.

I’ll add one more factor: An entire industry has sprung up devoted to undermining public confidence in the nonpartisan press. It’s not only a conservative movement — liberal groups do it too. But since the Web dramatically reduced the startup cost to get your news product “to market,” it’s been in the interest of partisans on both sides to undermine the established institutions who serve that watchdog role, because they would rather the public get their news directly from them. This of course doesn’t account for the slide in confidence pre-Internet, but it’s been a growing contributor to distrust in the press in the last two decades.


Hi, Nick.

Your first comments about cable news and “personality” is what I was trying to get at with No. 2.

This… “An entire industry has sprung up devoted to undermining public confidence in the nonpartisan press” deserves some additional thought.

Thanks for helping me out.

Indeed: The sophistication of propagandists devoted to undermining fact-based thought keeps growing, and to undermine facts they must also undermine fact-based institutions. That would include reporting.

Jay, thanks for the provocative question and the useful frames. I think you are asking both “What happened?” but also “Did it have to go this way?” My first newspaper article was in 1974 — in Newsday — so I like to think that I was the one responsible for the decline.

When you combine your five causes, they constitute a powerful, I would say irresistible force of decline.

But it would also be interesting to test the influence of certain signature, polarizing culture events, such as the Supreme Court decision in January 1973 legalizing abortion.

How important was that event in setting the sides for the culture war that divides Americans to this day? It was the kind of issue that murdered neutrality, which, in turn, made the “disinterested” press harder for partisans to embrace.

Thanks for stopping by, Roy

Yes to… “What happened?” but also “Did it have to go this way?” Was it inevitable, like, say, the loss of the paid classifieds to the web? Or was it correctible if there had been more vision?

I agree that culture war is a huge factor here, and I may have to fashion that into no. 7 above…. But I would start the clock in 1968 with the birth of Nixon’s southern strategy and 1969 with Agnew first attacks on “these men of the media.”

Into that rising climate of rancor came Roe v Wade.

I wish there were data points from the 60s and between the 70s and 90s. Too much room for this kind of ideological speculation of the political/culture war impact on trust in media w/o them. I have seen little evidence correlating Nixon/Agnew to this poll.

For example: “The General Social Survey, a massive national poll conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, has been measuring public confidence in institutions for more than three decades. From the 1970’s through the mid- 1980’s, confidence in the press was as high as it was for other major institutions— the military, Congress, religion and education, to name a few. But in the late 1980’s, ratings for the press began to slip, and by the 1990’s the slip had become a slide. In 1990, 74 percent of Americans said they had a great deal or some confidence in the press. A decade later, that number had fallen to 58 percent. During the same period, confidence in other institutions remained stable”

This 2009 Pew report also provides important data that breaks down “the media” into specific news orgs and differences in ideological demographics.

Nate Bowman says:

I disagree that, for instance, Roe v. Wsde caused the polarization. As with most divisive issues, it was taken advantage of by those wanting to divide the populace.

I looked for the report I read that showed the time lapse between events like Roe v. Wade and the DECISION to politicize them for electoral gain, but I couldn’t locate it. Sorry.

Great discussion! But I’m stunned nobody has used the word “class.” As journalists professionalize, they (seek to) step up in class. Readers are left behind. When you add the widening class divisions of the last 40 years — not just in income, but ways of looking at the world — you get mistrust.

I didn’t use the word “class” but I did use the concept:

“Journalism was becoming less of a trade and more of a profession…”

This is excellent Jay. I’ve been writing about this for many years, because I started in “the biz” in 1970, so it happened on my watch. My view is that Watergate itself, that pinnacle of “journalistic achievement” altered the professional industry forever by elevating the status of journalists to celebrity. After that, young people viewed the industry differently, while the people formerly known as the audience shook their collective heads. Market hopping became the norm. Young people interviewing for jobs often mentioned Watergate and had that sparkle of “me too” in their eyes. Moreover, I’m not convinced that people viewed Watergate with the same eyes as those who wrote the first draft of its history. Then there’s the movie starring, of all people, Robert Redford and Dustin Hoffman. The glamour of such power, oh my.

Chris Lasch wrote in “The Lost Art of Political Argument” that the decline in participation in the U.S. political process could be directly tied to the rise in the professionalization of the press, and that, too, plays a role here. I think this is a big part of what’s unraveling before us today, and I, for one, welcome it.

A few years ago, I was making a presentation at CNN when someone asked, “But what about our credibility?” I pointed to the image you used above and responded, “What credibility?” Most people in traditional media think that blogs disrupted trust, but as you’ve pointed out, blogs are a response to the lack of trust in the press, not a cause.

Keep the faith.

I wonder how the Watergate myth played out in the pedagogy and curriculum that accompanied the rising number of journalism students.

Those are valuable observations, Terry, especially this one:

“Market hopping became the norm. Young people interviewing for jobs often mentioned Watergate and had that sparkle of ‘me too’ in their eyes.”

It reminds of the time I was sitting in a meeting with Knight-Ridder editors in the mid-90s. They were trying to understand why their newspapers felt so disconnected from their communities. I asked them, “Well, do you pay your reporters enough to own a home in the town they’re reporting for?”

Everyone looked at his or her shoes. Mostly his.

Brian Perkins says:

I agree with Terry here, and to take the market hopping theory a bit further–career hopping. It is a bit more recent, and may hardly account for the precipitous drop in the 80s and 90s, but may account for continued losses.

Public Relations has blossomed, offering new homes for the journalists that feel underpaid. Often in smaller markets, instead of hopping from town to town, many journalists are jumping ship for the greener pastures.

In that sense, we’re failing to develop experienced and savvy journalists over the long-term. In addition, television has become such a powerful medium. The addition of high definition has increased the value of “looking” the part vs actually “acting” the part. I’ve seen where a stronger journalist is passed over for a better looking television personality.

I too see Watergate as a watershed. Before Watergate, most people entered journalism to be writers, and newspapers were filled with story-telling.

After Watergate, the fulcrum shifted, and most entrants wanted to be reporter-heroes. For several reasons, this coincided with the rise of professionalism, with its expert-speak and policy focus. As these trends intertwined, storytelling waned, and reader interest — and trust — waned with it.

Rosen —

Given your repeated, and justified, insistence, lo! these many years, against the conflation of the term “press” with that of “mass media,” it is extraordinary that a decline in confidence in the mass media as a news-delivery system should inspire you to ponder about the reputation of journalism. Talk about category error.

I side with the comments of Victoria, Evelyn and Sambrook in this thread: the phenomenon being observed in Gallup’s trendline is the fragmentation of mass media. Journalism’s reputation may — or may not — have declined during this period, but that is not what Gallup is measuring.

Consider this chart of the audience for the broadcast networks’ nightly newscasts — as good an index of mass media journalism as one could hope for — and you will see a steady defection since 1980 that correlates excellently with Gallup’s data.

Gallup’s question concerns newspapers, TV and radio as delivery systems for journalism and it asks about comprehensiveness, accuracy and fairness. Two quick points:

Commercial radio started its switch from mainstream journalism to the talk format long before the Fairness Doctrine was officially repealed, so that third of the newspaper-TV-radio troika disqualified itself as a reliable news delivery system quite early in Gallup’s trend, long before the World Wide Web arrived.

Of the three attributes — “fully, accurately and fairly” — there is no one under the sun who would claim that the mission of “mass media” journalism is, or should be, to be granted a great deal of “trust and confidence” in delivering the fullness of a news story. Mass media organs exist to deliver headline news on the basic level to a general audience; for detail and comprehensiveness one consults to niche sites.

The Gallup chart may be very misleading. There are NO data points for the drop between the last survey in the 70s and the next survey in the 90s. There really should be no line at all for the 15-20 year period when the question wasn’t asked.

Not correct. Terry Heaton of AR&D research made the chart, and I asked him if I could run it. I put this to him and he sent me the data from Gallup: The first column is “great deal+fair amount.” The second is “not much/none”

1973: 70 30
1976 73 27
1979 71 29
1982 68 32
1985 65 35
1988 62 38
1991 59 41
1994 56 44
1997 53 46
2000 51 49
2003 54 46
2006 50 49
2009 43 56
2012 44 55

That’s a pretty clear pattern downward. There is only one blip: 2003, which is clearly the result of the nation being on a war footing.

Terry is looking for a link to this data.

What you are likely to find is Terry used data from a different question than the one on the graph. Since I have backed up my statement with a link, I’ll wait for your (or Terry’s) link to the data.

I first became aware of this about 10 years ago via Gallup. It appears, however, after looking through old links, that Tim is right. Gallup resurrected the question in 1997 after last asking it in 1976. Therefore, the 20 year line between those two days is implied. The spreadsheet I built to include later years were taken from the original Gallup image here, among other reports. I think this one explains it best (and includes numbers going back to 1968). I’m not sure the gap means much, but I do appreciate Tim setting the record straight. My bad.

Terry, thanks! I have linked to charts from the General Social Survey in the April 18, 2012 at 5:08 pm comment below that you might find useful.

Okay, then we–Terry and I–stand corrected.

My “incorrect” was incorrect.

Thanks Jay!

Tim, thanks for the GSS links. They tell the same story.

Terry, I think the data points from 80-83 and again from 90-93 tell a story that would be missed by interpolating across Gallup’s missing years.

My guess has been higher level of education in the populace combined with greater transparency of errors in news reporting and how news is gathered and reported. Educated people feel more confident in passing judgment, and the jump in education after WWII may have reached some critical level in the seventies. Personally, I judge a news source by how well they do on a subject or region I know something of – The Economist gained my trust through that. I assume if they report accurately on an area I am educated enough to judge, and add to my knowledge of that area, they will report accurately in other areas as well.

Was there more reporting rivalry between news sources in the seventies? As opposed to news baron rivalries which I know always existed, but news sources pointing out errors made in other news sources? The Internet did that for the past decade, so perhaps this happened in other forms since the seventies.

Out of your choices, my guesses are 1, 2, 5 (specifically the claim to provide all the news) and partially 6.

Keep up your public display of your work. This out-of-journalism reader has gained much from it.

“Greater transparency of errors in news reporting…” That is an interesting one. Consider: the error rate could be going down, but if the transparency of errors to the users is increasing, trust could decline despite marginally better performance or rising professional standards.

Sam Penrose says:

I think Yossi’s point is important but both you and he are looking at it backwards. If trust is falling because the audience knows more, is not the crux of the matter that the previous trust was unearned (see also: Catholic Church)?

Step one: be trustworthy. Step two: be trusted. Why are you skipping to step two?

Nate Bowman says:

Well said Sam.
I, for one, have expressed my disappointment with what passes for journalism over at NPR by writing comments to reports and to the ombudsman hundreds of times.

Not once has any of their “journalists” [sic] or “ombudsmen” [sic] seen fit to own up to anything or even admit there is room for improvement. Most recently, the ombudsman has fought to NOT disclose when the subject of a report is a corporate sponsor (!)

First, this is an excellent question. Now, immediately what comes to mind in trying to answer it is a mixture of the first possibility given (rise of mistrust in institutions) and the loss of innocence touched upon along the rationalization. There seems to have been, along with the rise of prestige of the trade, a shift of its conception as perceived by the general population. Journalism began to no longer be seen as a profession focused on delivering facts, but as a trade of delivering: 1- Spins, and 2- Marketing. This fits, further, with two interconnected historical developments: The explosion in population numbers and the proportionate explosion in mass communications. What fatally occurs is that each segment of the public has a news channel trusted, albeit the increase of critical thinking – a spin on educational success – also increases the rise of skepticism as to the sources’s intentions. Summing it up, loss of innocence, mistrust of public institutions plus dramatic increase in population vis a vis ideologies vis a vis mass communications vis a vis rise in critical thinking equal a very confusing environment to trust altogether. This with no mention to other symptoms of population explosions, such as apathy, or the development of information tech, creating a hyper information environment even harder and more confusing to keep track…

Bruce Altman says:

You had it at #4. Whether it’s parenting or the ER, “the wheel that squeaks the loudest gets the grease”. Most of the rest of these factors derive from or are caused by this controlling dynamic. Calling the press on liberal bias is just another way to be “cry out loud”. Joe Reader doesn’t want to complain about lack of professionalism except as this same cudgel.

Any other shortcoming that I see is that, except when engaged in longform journalism, the press seems too foten at loose ends. A seemingly valuable cohesion disappears or is too diffuse. Even though great individual writing overrides all the rest of this, the rise of revolutionary news gathering technologies does tend to devalue the quality of the prose.

Do we need to put some ideas on the table that can account for the short periods of increasing trust, or do we have all the ones we need already? (This is hodgier-podgier than what I’m used to seeing from Pressthink.)

The listed factors can be classified. I’d go with: General Issues (1), Meta-News (3,4), and News Mechanics (2,5,6).

I’ve looked over the comments so far with the goal of distilling and classifying. (By that I mean seizing on details, radically reinterpreting and filtering in hopes of boosting signal/noise ratio. Hope nobody’s married to their comments.)

General Issues:
* Responding to market forces
increasing investment, competition, profit-drive (Evelyn)
proliferation of the press – anti-institutionalizing (Victoria)
reinvention of the press – institutionalizing (Brian B.)
capture of the press – corporatizing (Naomi D.)
downsizing / talent drain (Rory O.)
* Weakening public (Gnarlytrombone)

* Watching the watchdog (Christopher K.)
* Alienation of press from audience (Matt A.)
* Bias analysis cycle (Jenny F.)
* Blended news (Richard S.)
* Reversal of relationship to the executive (Bill L)

News Mechanics:
* Professionalization (Katie)
* Non-accountability (Doug M.)
* Gatekeeping (Tim)
* Personality Cults (Nick H.)

I’m not sure my attempted categories are holding up very well, but I do think Professionalization and Non-accountability go hand-in-hand, as part of the corporatizing process.

Most of this is prefigured in the Edward R. Murrow story.

Helpful. Thanks for the classification scheme.

I would posit that there’s also been a change in the last decade in the nature of what it means to be informed. The Internet made it easy for anyone to look up anything and do some of the kind of work journalists were once entrusted with. So people can pick and choose from a plethora of information sources and stick to what appeals most to them while distrusting everyone else.

In the days when people relied on area newspapers for information and read most of the newspaper each day in the morning, the plus side was they might get exposed to viewpoints they wouldn’t normally consider because their options were limited. The downside was their options were limited, so readers had to invest more trust as a matter of practicality. We live in an age of more autonomy, but that autonomy robs us of some involuntary exposure.

Numbers 1 and 6 are important factors.

However, I think the decline in trust also reflects the increasing polarization of society. A substantial portion of those who say they don’t trust the press answer that way because the press reports something–whether it’s on U.S. politics or the Middle East– that doesn’t fit with their ideology or worldview. They will never “trust” the press unless it’s a mouthpiece for their point of view.

News organizations try to address this by dutifully reporting “both sides of the story.” But too often journalists become merely stenographers who seem unable to use their insight, presence and knowledge to uncover and report what is really true. Instead, as Jay has said, they adopt the “view from nowhere” and fall into the trap of false equivalence. When this happens, news consumers who are looking for truth have every reason not to trust the press.

Given this, I’m surprised the trust number is as high as 44 percent.

Thanks, Dean. (Dean is the former ethics and standards editor at Thomson Reuters, and former vice president and editor-in-chief of I want to point something out about the polarization you mentioned and its interaction with no.5. And yes, I am going to over-simplify and stylize the argument.

Let’s say 20 percent of the users won’t trust the press unless it’s a mouthpiece for their ideology. In the U.S. with two major ideological blocks that’s 40 percent of the users. If the standard response is to report both sides and assume the truth lies somewhere in the middle, then in that universe the user satisfaction index (USI) would be justifiably zero.

Meaning: The 20 percent on this side aren’t getting the ideological confirmation they want, the 20 percent on the other side aren’t getting the confirmation they want, and the 60 percent who want the news to help them get their bearings or know whom to trust aren’t getting served well, either. You wind up with a situation where everyone thinks they are getting screwed, including the journalists who get attacked no matter what they do.

I wouldn’t call it a “cause,” but it can’t be good for public confidence.

I liken this to some of the polling on the Affordable Care Act back when it was still in Congress: It had fairly high unfavorables, but when you drilled down, a lot of the unfavorables turned out to be from people who thought it didn’t go far enough — they weren’t all from people who flatly opposed the concept.

And given the wide gap that has arisen between the respective accepted sets of facts of Left and Right in this country, that’s a huge confidence obstacle to overcome even before you factor in any other possible reasons.

Could it be explained by the possibility that people overgeneralize when they talk about “the press” and “the media”? Could it be that the average person ascribes to all parts of the news media the faults of the one part of the media that offend them the most?

That basic idea is what I was trying to express in no. 2.

I tried articulating a few thoughts on these on Twitter earlier this morning, and I’ll try to pull them together into something coherent here.

When I think about this problem, I keep stumbling across a basic conundrum: When I think about this systematically – that is, when I apply the sociological principle that our relationships with social institutions (like the press) are dictated primarily by those institutions and the social structures around them, not by our individual attitudes – I come up with #1 and #5 (and #6, which is closely related to both) as the main explanations – by increasingly institutionalizing itself, the press has aligned itself with other social institutions in whom trust is declining while also adopting forms such as the View from Nowhere and “priesthood” mentality, all of which distance itself from the public from which it’s hoping to draw legitimacy.

But at the same time, whenever I ask my (non-academic) friends about why they’re frustrated with the news media, they always answer with #2 or #3 – the media’s all biased, they focus on sensationalism and celebrities instead of the facts, they just shout at each other and cheapen political discourse, etc.

So, maybe these two perspectives are examining the same basic problem on different levels. When the processes of #1/#5/#6 occur, they’re so gradual, deep, and structural – so “baked in” – that the average individual media consumer doesn’t see them and wouldn’t know how to recognize them even if they did. But those processes are what produce #2/#3/#4, which are the tangible outgrowths of a press driven by devotion to power, concern for self-legitimation, and the demands of being inextricably tied to a capitalist system.

So the real “root” cause is the institutionalization of the press in #1/#5/#6, but the way we see it is the content in #2/#3/#4. But the complaints the press receives about its performance are overwhelmingly along those content-based lines, so that’s what it responds to. This, as Jay noted on Twitter this morning, only makes the structural problem of #1/#5/#6 worse, because it’s trying to apply a superficial, content-based solution to a much deeper problem (that it won’t even acknowledge in the first place!). In a sense, their way of applying that “solution” is to double down on institutionalization, by trying to provide institutional solutions to a problem of which institutionalization itself is the root cause.

Excellent, Mark. Really helpful.

Now (excuse the school teacher’s tone) … How would you apply what you just wrote to this incident?

I think that in that incident, you saw a rare instance in which the institutional enervation (or, to use your word, devastation) of the press was revealed in such startlingly naked terms that its public saw straight through the content/bias-based level of concern to the structural/institutional flaws of the press.

Yet even here, Brisbane didn’t recognize that the problem was on this institutional level. As he saw it, he was just responding to potential concern over an approach to content – should the Times break from its stance of strict objectivity in order to call out demonstrable falsehoods? To him, it wasn’t the window into the systemic failings of the press that it was to his readers; it was simply an everyday, practical question of how to properly practice objective journalism.

That blitheness indicates just how deep the willful ignorance runs in the press regarding its own systemic deficiencies – far, far deeper than its audience’s ignorance. Here, too, Brisbane is looking for an institutional solution (proper objectivity) to a problem created by institutional forces (truthtelling moving down the list of newsroom priorities). It’s laughably useless and head-in-the-sand, and the public knows it.

Great answer. Thanks again, Mark.

Mark – this is an excellent synthesis. Thank you. However, I think that we are not giving enough attention to the corruption that comes from monopoly rents. :-/

Michael Hill says:

Something has been gained and something lost in the democratization of the media brought on my cable TV, first, and then the Web. The increase in voices has certainly broadened the discussion and given access to those often excluded by the gatekeepers, but it has also made the media seem like a Tower of Babel. It is now so hard to discern who is doing what — trying to tell the truth, give good analysis, spin, convince, cover up, confuse, whatever — that many simply say, “A pox on all their houses.” The good get tarnished by the bad, and by the mediocre. And it is much easier to ignore “the media” and simply say, “I believe what I believe.” As someone who grew up in the South, I can say the the very controlled establishment media shone strong lights on the state of race relations there (if not in the North) that were hard to ignore. Today, they would be ignored by many who would simply find their own outlets, websites, whatever that agree with their positions. Then they would tell pollsters that they don’t trust “the media.”

Craig Paddock says:

My sense is that not believing the news media has become an easy excuse. It’s part of our popular culture to distrust the media for a host of reasons — be it bias or errors or whatever. But detractors I come across aren’t great consumers of any type of news media. They distrust something they’ve rarely read or watched or heard. Perhaps it’s some sort of self-justification for not really paying attention to news. People aren’t informed and perhaps feel they need to make an excuse. So they blame journalism, saying in effect that even if they made the effort they wouldn’t be informed anyway. And don’t say that journalists have trivialized the news and made it harder than ever to become truly informed. With the abundance of news outlets using multiple ways to try to reach audiences, it’s never been easier to stay informed.

Susan Ellis says:

In a word, hubris.

Armed with the educations Yossi mentioned people came to believe they knew what was happening better than anyone else–without really doing the reporting. Along came the Internet, which gave them the tools to print what they think they knew, and (somewhat similar to the home improvement do-it-yourself boom that came with the introduction of Home Depot)you had…and still have… people publishing all over the place. I hear them now chanting “information wants to be free” (a phrase taken totally out of context…but then, who would know that if they didn’t go back to the source to check it).

Meanwhile journalists, also guilty of a similar hubris thanks the rise in their education and status, stopped listening to the public (because what did they know anyway?), which gave readers reason to want to grab control and say what they were sure they knew.

Now we’re in a situation where the public is sure you can’t believe anyone and readers are forced to be reporters whether they want to be or not, checking multiple sources to find out what’s valid…or perhaps not checking and so joining those who think what’s broadcast on Fox news (or other such sources)is actually true. But those people who believe in bad sources are not stupid necessarily. They are just looking for someone who represents what they see as the truth.

The solution to all this, I think, is going to be crowdsourcing…as well as exhaustion. Journalists now are looking to readers to provide information and insight that will set their stories apart. They are learning how to validate new sources to ensure they’ve got the story right. They are getting back to balance, but also to seeing what is real and valid for their readers. On the exhaustion side…it’s like Home Depot. Once people realized that all those pretty house parts required lots of work to put in place, they moved back to hiring builders to do it for them… at least most people did.
Of course, the neighborhoods will never look the same, but that is not all bad because in the end, having a little competition is what keeps us all honest…even if that competition does come from amateurs.

While all the reasons mentioned are valid, the most important really is that the business of journalism has eroded the profession. The profession emphasizes the craft–facts, disseminating information, a public marketplace for ideas. The business is sales, ratings, and market share. More of the effort these days in on manipulating the news, rather than reporting it. As my wife says, “you gossip for a living.”

This is a great list of comments.

I would point out that the graph is about “mass media,” and your question is about journalism. For the sake of discussion, I’ll assume that people asked that question are thinking about CBS News rather than Inside Edition or the New York Times rather than the National Inquirer. Also, given that fewer people are reading newspapers and watching TV, wouldn’t you expect the numbers to drop, especially as “online news” isn’t listed as an example of mass media in the poll question?

OK, enough of that. I add two things…well, I don’t know if they are additions because I haven’t read ALL of the comments.

1. During the period you mention, journalists became less “of the community.” They wrote stories — still do — that don’t reflect community interests or values. Because we’re so damned objective, we’re unable to communicate clearly that we are part of the people we’re writing for. Our story selection is antiseptic and doesn’t mirror what people actually care about or talk about. We charge for obits! For weddings!

(While I wish the lack of watch dog journalism was a significant cause, I can’t fathom that it is. I actually think that watch dog journalism erodes trust among a fair percentage of people. Example: I think a lot of people believe the L.A. Times should NOT have published the Zucchino story this morning on the grounds that it undermines U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.)

2. Our customer service is terrible. We eliminate content because we can, even though customers tell us they want it. They ask us for coverage and we don’t give it to them and we won’t explain why. (Or worse, we tell them that the thing they want us to write about isn’t important! Think how that makes a person feel.) We can’t get the paper there when we say we will. We don’t answer the phone and we don’t return calls. When someone doesn’t get their paper and go to the trouble to call to tell us they want one, we don’t bring them one. We credit their account. (It says that we don’t even think it is worth redelivering.)

I know that customer service isn’t Journalism with a capital J. But be careful not to dismiss it. When I think of companies I don’t trust — cable, computers, service — it’s because customer service sucks.

The worse thing is that once the trust is gone, it’s gone.

Especially important: “Because we’re so damned objective, we’re unable to communicate clearly that we are part of the people we’re writing for.”

Which is why I entitled my book, What Are Journalists For?

Thanks, John.

Nate Bowman says:

“1. During the period you mention, journalists became less “of the community.” They wrote stories — still do — that don’t reflect community interests or values.”

“Because we’re so damned objective, we’re unable to communicate clearly that we are part of the people we’re writing for.”
Though it is not a journalists job to communicate that they are part of the community they are writing for, their work attains this objective simply by helping the community make informed decisions.

“Our story selection is antiseptic and doesn’t mirror what people actually care about or talk about. We charge for obits! For weddings!”

“(While I wish the lack of watch dog journalism was a significant cause, I can’t fathom that it is.”
I couldn’t disagree more.

“I actually think that watch dog journalism erodes trust among a fair percentage of people. Example: I think a lot of people believe the L.A. Times should NOT have published the Zucchino story this morning on the grounds that it undermines U.S. efforts in Afghanistan.)”
I think you are confusing disagreement with trust. Telling the truth usually gains trust. I think it is emblematic of the state of journalism (sorry, but I assume you are part of the profession) that you would uncritically disseminate this justification for muzzling the press.

“2. Our customer service is terrible. We eliminate content because we can, even though customers tell us they want it. They ask us for coverage and we don’t give it to them and we won’t explain why. (Or worse, we tell them that the thing they want us to write about isn’t important! Think how that makes a person feel.) We can’t get the paper there when we say we will. We don’t answer the phone and we don’t return calls. When someone doesn’t get their paper and go to the trouble to call to tell us they want one, we don’t bring them one. We credit their account. (It says that we don’t even think it is worth redelivering.)

I know that customer service isn’t Journalism with a capital J. But be careful not to dismiss it. When I think of companies I don’t trust — cable, computers, service — it’s because customer service sucks.”

“The worse thing is that once the trust is gone, it’s gone.”
I couldn’t disagree more. Trust can be earned, squandered and earned back. And it starts with individual journalists, outlets and then the industry. Just help people make informed decisions.

Just a hunch, but the early years of the fall of confidence are, I think, also the early years of the political focus group. So, the rise of a political methodology that the watchdog press isn’t trained to counter? See Michael J. Arlen in the February 18, 1980 New Yorker for a glimpse behind the curtain.

What a fascinating discourse. From the perspective of someone who went to work in newspapers in 1962, stepped away after a few decades to do magazines for a while, and now leads a Web journalism startup, I’d like to lob in two more causes for the decline in trust:

1) A tectonic shift in retailing in which discounters, starting in the mid-’70s, decimated the department stores that had long been newspapers’ bread-and-butter advertisers. As discounters rarely advertise, newspapers were left with only advertisers who serve affluent people who don’t patronize discounters — and publishers went looking for more and more upscale advertisers by inventing special sections for gourmet dining, decorating and other interests ofpeople with disposable income. By the late 1980s metro-paper editors (I was one of them) were told to edit the paper for the upper two quintiles of the income distribution. In effect, newspapers turned their backs on the majority of the people, the less-than-affluent folks who had long been their bread-and-butter readers. Everyday people felt like the papers had dumped them, turned up their noses at them. They felt, and feel, disrespected. It’s hard to trust people who disrespect you. I explored this in detail in my 2006 Media Giraffe speech:

2) The advent of cable news upended the ratio of reporting to opinion. Before CNN appeared, news was what happened. “Talk is cheap,” my first city editor told reporters all the time. “Just tell me what happened.” When cable news arrived in 1980, it had to fill up 24 hours a day, but there was no increase in things that happened. So here came talking heads, shouting heads, experts, wonks, fear-mongers, idiots. Add Fox News, and then MSNBC, and suddenly opinion and commentary overwhelmed original reporting. “What happened” was supplanted by “who said what.” Lots of these talking heads are paid by interests that are not disclosed (except by investigative reporters) and some are on a mission to discredit fact-based original reporting. So what’s to trust?

Both these trends trace your graf. They’re not the full explanation for it, but by my way of thinking both are foundational. Many of the folks who the newspapers discarded ended up turning to cable news.

These two trends, and others named here, have helped the word “journalism” lose fixed meaning; people tend to have their own definitions, and whatever the definitions are, they tend not to like it very much.

“In effect, newspapers turned their backs on the majority of the people, the less-than-affluent folks who had long been their bread-and-butter readers. Everyday people felt like the papers had dumped them, turned up their noses at them. They felt, and feel, disrespected.”

When you combine Tom’s economic explanation–chasing affluent readers- with culture war attacks on the press, a political explanation for mistrust, 40 percent confidence looks like… a lot.

Nate Bowman says:

Well said Tom.
I agree Jay.

Eddy Johns says:

Thanks for another thought-provoking column. This may be a fairly outside perspective, but I think an important aspect of the issue is that perhaps the very success of the investigative powers of the press has made it seem more threatening to the average person. Watergate proved that no one is immune from exposure, but that exposure can go both ways. A mistrust of the press can grow out of the fact that it has positioned itself so that the people it reports on appear more like targets than subjects. In fact, the press seems to revel in character assignation at times. A person in power should rightly be wary of -and will subsequently bad mouth- the press, but the average person knows that the press can turn its powerful gaze on anyone. The press does not seem to be on anyone’s side except its own. I know this fear might sound contradictory in the age of exposing yourself on social networks, but the issue is control. I think everyone likes to maintain control over what is known publicly about themselves, and one of the missions of the press (so it seems) is to overstep that control. I know a lot of people that might like to star in a film, but not that many that would like to be a subject of an investigative documentary.

Doc Nagel says:

I’m surprised no one has yet mentioned Chomsky. No, not entirely, since Chomsky’s institutional analysis of media, going back to Manufacturing Consent, is simply ignored in almost all ethical and professional discussion of journalism. Corporate, for-profit journalism does not need to tell or create truth. It needs to create compliance and complacency.

But I have another, stranger idea to throw out there. I’m increasingly of the opinion (the reasons and research of which I’m omitting for brevity) that audiences now typically approach news media under a kind of subjunctive attitude. They attend to the news under an “as if” – “as if” they believed, “as if” the news was about the world in some objective way. News is a not very believable story about not very believable events involving not very believable characters.

Jay, it might be more helpful to have additional charts available to inform the comments. Note the trend actually shifts noticeably in the early 90s.

Confidence in the Press (2006 GSS)

Confidence in Instutions including the press for comparison (2006 GSS)

Tim — two interesting points in the Confidence in Institutions data:

1)The only change in the pecking order of the five institutions between 1973 and 2006 was the rehabilitation of the military from its Vietnam-era doldrums. Relatively speaking the press was in the same position vis-a-vis medicine, religion and Congress as it was at the start of the series.

2)There was no meaningful change in the standing of four of the five institutions — the press, Congress, medicine and religion — between 1993 and 2006.

Agreed! I do think the decline in all institutions is part of the answer. I think Jay’s question about why the watchdog role of press didn’t benefit the press as other institutions declined is interesting.

The watchdog journalistic role may be better suited to niche or dedicated media — such as documentary filmmaking, long-form magazine reporting, specialist Websites — than generalist mass media outlets.

Andrew, I thought about this some more and checked the data again. The data would lead me to an analysis of causes broken into decades:


There are important inflection points and plateaus apparent in these periods that are overlooked in the 40 year linear drop analysis. Some explanations may only fit one decade and others may extend over more than one. I’m pretty convinced that the data shows the Web had little impact on press credibility. Most of the explanations so far fail to explain the drops in the early 80s and again in the early 90s; nor the current plateau.

Congratulations Tim on your insightful and documented comment about the complete lack of Gallup data for the period between 1976 and 1997. The chart at the top of this post is indeed misleading.

If we are to consider the trend that Gallup measures methodically — between 1997 and the present — then the decline from 53% trust-and-confidence to 44% seems easily attributable to the phenomenon John Robinson notes: the switch from newspapers-TV-radio to online sources.

In other words, Gallup appears to be measuring media changes not journalism changes.

Thanks! If the drop was significant in the early 90s, it really points out the problem with the Nixon/Agnew/Watergate/Culture War theory.

Puzzler: Is there much of a difference between “6. Just part of the power structure now.” and the press as a special interest/pleader?

To reduce confusion, I eliminated three comments that deal with the correction to the data discussed here:

Great stuff as usual, Jay — 2 points:

1) On the majority disapproval numbers for the media — it’s very much like the majority disapproval of Obama’s health care reform. What I mean is this: The “majority” against health care reform is actually a combination of conservatives who think it goes too far (40 percent) and liberals who’d like single-payer and don’t think it goes far enough (15 percent). Likewise, majority distrust of the media is a combination of conservatives who think journalists are too liberal (a movement that coalesced from Spiro Agnew in 1970 through the Clinton impeachment era) and liberals who think journalists kowtow to their right-wing critics (Clinton impeachment through the Iraq War to the present).

2) I think the longer explanation is a mash-up of the various theories. The objective media rose in the early to mid-20th Century for a variety of reasons — mainly the economic imperatives of appealing to mass audience (and not offending with a political viewpoint), a cult of professionalism that went beyond the media, etc. The FDR era through the JFK assassination saw an amazing consensus on both domestic policy (the New Deal) and foreign policy (WWII and the Cold War) that masked any potential problems with this.

It all blew up after the ’60s (when else). Social unrest and the unraveling of the Industrial Revolution caused working class whites to rebel against the class of people below them on the ladder (poor minorities) and people who they thought looked down on them (college elites, who protested Vietnam, etc.) Increasingly, journalists were seen as both a) part of the elites — the higher pay from the success of “objective journalism” attracting folks like Yale’s Bob Woodward — and b) crusading for minorities. The backlash started with conservative pols like Spiro Agnew but spread with the rise of talk radio after Reagan repealed the Fairness Doctrine (which partly explains why there was a long steady climb). Ironically, these journalists increasingly kowtowed to their right-wing critics, in part because they were clinging to the mantle of objectivity that meant so much to them.

Inevitably, there was a backlash to the backlash, starting with the Clinton impeachment and the “vast right-wing conspiracy.” With Bush’s election and the Iraq War, liberals decided that a media comprised of center-left individuals who bent over backwards to appease the right wing had failed them; the Internet gave progressives a way to construct its own alternative media (sites like Daily Kos) to compete with the right-wing alternative media of talk radio and Fox News Channel. Do the math and it’s pretty easy to see why trusters of the mainstream, traditional media are such a minority.

Math has never been a journalistic strong-point. Making up “facts” like 40% and 15% and not linking has been a symptom of Will Bunch’s ideological confirmation bias.

Poll: 47 Percent Disapprove of Health Care Law

Hi, Will. I think your condensed narrative in 2.) is very good. It makes sense of a lot of the data.

This Washington Post poll from January 2011 finds 50 percent opposing HCR: 35 percent said it went too far and 13 percent said it didn’t go far enough.

Awesome. You interpreted from Kevin Drum’s interpretation of a single question in a (3 month old) single poll that the 13% that answered “not far enough” were liberals who wanted single-payer? Gallup: “Jon Cohen of the Washington Post, for example, shared with me data showing that the plurality of the 13% who say the bill doesn’t go far enough are independents, not Democrats as might be expected.”

Well you’re equating “liberal” and “Democrat” without cause. I’d say that someone who wants the health care reform to go even farther than it did qualifies as liberal, regardless of their party membership. (The myth that people who don’t belong to either major political party are all centrist moderates needs to die a fast and painful death.)

Not at all. I make no claim about the ideology of the 13% from a single question from a 15 month old poll. Nor do I presumed to know what revenue solutions they had in mind when they responded “not far enough” or if not far enough just meant some would still be uninsured.

I only added the demographic information from Gallup as a further data point, and perhaps a warning about such presumptions. If you have additional information about the ideological demographic, please share! If you don’t, do everyone a favor and admit you don’t know.

Correction, not a 3 month old poll but a 15 month old poll.

Jay, I look back at the comments you chose to reinforce and the ONE you wrongly chose to challenge and see many examples of how trust is lost in the press.

OntoReal says:

The loss of confidence goes hand-in-hand with the popular, mainstream press’ abandonment of its duty to protect the truth even if it means confronting the ‘powers that be.’ The press can no longer be counted upon to be the ‘go to’ source for discovering truth when the subject is something economic or political in nature or involving inconvenient scientific truths. This failure takes several forms. One is through ‘false equivalence’ where BS is given an uncritcial hearing – one politician’s outright lie is given a pass because his/her political opponent stated something in an exaggerated fashion. The key problem is that the lie-tellers have an alternative news environment where they can take refuge and even be honored for their dishonesty as long as they serve the power elite’s agenda.

As long as the mainstream media just watches this happen uncritically, they dig a deeper hole for themselves as they struggle not to offend or challenge dishonest and demagogic political and economic discourse. This is compounded by the now ubuquitous presence of media “celebrities” who would rather cover who is “winning and losing” some manufactured, hyped-up dispute than stick their neck out and help the general public gain a critical understanding of how the entertainment-centered, corporate-filtered news agenda really does not serve their fundamental interests very well at all. There are other mechanisms I could mention but they involve matters that are shockingly (but not surprisingly) absent from the list above. So, if “the press” really wants to be respected as an institution of journalistic integrity then, tell me, on what mainstream media channel today could I.F. Stone or Jack Anderson or Edward R Murrow be featured (and supported by their network)? There’s your answer why “the press” has lost its standing.

Nate Bowman says:

Well said Ontoreal.
It reminds me that the airwaves were supposed to belong to the public. And that informing the public was one of the prices the broadcasters had to pay for the privilege of using the airwaves.

That concept has been eroded to the extent that frequencies are now sold to the highest bidder. And what has the public gotten for that?

Clay Shirky says:


This is a terrific piece, thanks for this.

Some thoughts:

1. Richard Nixon was, in fact, a crook.

To me, the most striking phrase in your essay is noting that the trust began declining “shortly after Watergate”. Part of the cognitive dissonance among the press may be because the story they tell themselves about themselves has Watergate as their finest hour. Yet the chart shows that a press willing to pursue corruption and malfeasance at the highest level of government was not enough to maintain or improve their public standing, and at least suggests that Watergate and the political climate it created actually helped erode that standing.

The chart does not go back to the Viet Nam war, but my sense of that conflict, wrenching as it was, came closer to pitting young vs. old than R vs. D. During Watergate and the subsequent momentary purge of the otherwise ascendant Republicans, truth in the US became a partisan affair.

2. The 70s Happened, and We Shot The Messenger

It’s only recently (thanks in part to #occupy) that the political discourse has focussed on what a transformative period 1973-1982 was in American life, separate from presidential politics. The focus on Watergate as an event has somewhat masked the incredible (and, so far, unreversed) effects of the oil shock, which empowered OPEC, brought in the closest thing we’ve ever seen to hyperinflation, and destroyed the bargain of ‘income gains for companies mean income gains for workers.’

Again, I wish the chart showed the 60s as well, but it could be that the press, as the delivery vehicle for not just bad news but evidence of the structural decline of the US domestically and internationally, simply became the nattering nabobs of negativism Spiro Agnew always accused them of being.

3. We are all post-modernists now.

This is a version of your #1, ‘Nobody trusts anybody anymore’ (except you get to use the word epistemology a lot when you talk about it.) This theory says ‘If there is a loss of trust in the behavior of some institutions, then watchdogs should be counter-cyclical in how much people trust them, but if there is a loss of trust in institutions per se, then the press gets caught in the same downdraft.’

The web didn’t happen in the 1970s, as you noted when talking to Victoria, but a kind of abundance did. After Watergate, the Post, and, in competition, the Times, became de facto national papers. Compared to the weak tea served up by the nightly news, and in contrast to the thin investigative work done by most metro dailies, having a third, triangulating source for news created a political version of the old ‘The man with one watch…’ problem. And, as usual, the rise in abundance led to a fall in certainty (as happened with the printing press and the telegraph.) There have been waves and waves of communications abundance since — CNN and talk radio happened even before the internet went mainstream — all of which further reduce certainty.

4. Maybe the answer isn’t the same as the question.

This is a slightly inverted version of #3, above. Maybe the question the pollsters thought they were asking — something like ‘How much faith do you have in the good men and women of the news industry, and in the the noble institutions in which they toil?’, but the people heard “Does following the news make you feel more or less confused?”

Because the answer to that question could quite sensibly rise in the 1970s (and could briefly reverse after 9/11), if people thought the job of the industry was to produce clarity rather than a comprehensive view of the myriad forces shaping etc etc etc.

In this view, the professionalization of the industry, and especially the fateful decision to admit college kids into the ranks of reporters, meant that the reporters and editors were increasingly comfortable admitting that the same events could be interpreted.

Thanks for the kind words, Clay.

About your last point. Michael Schudson says in Discovering the News that the rise of objectivity in American journalism was not a confident statement along the lines of, “We see the truth and tell it plainly, without fear or favor…” but an accommodation to the reality of clashing perspectives, the inability to explain modern society and the awareness that journalists are unable (or unwilling) to say who’s right.

Schudson locates this post-modern turn, not in the English departments at elite universities in the 1980s and 1990s, but in the period of rapid professionalization in journalism in the 1920s to 1940s. The climactic passage can be found here:

Hi Jay,

Don’t know if this is helpful, but pulled this from my manuscript:

“Likewise, an article in Harvard’s Nieman Reports in summer 2005 cited a number of surveys—those conducted by NORC over the years, those by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, and an early one released in 1986 that Times Mirror commissioned from the Gallup Organization. All of these confirmed the continued and steady erosion of public confidence in
the press that studies had been documenting since the early 1980s.

“Why? Respondents over the years variously cited undue influence from powerful individuals, from government, from corporations, from advertisers, or from labor unions. By the end of the 1990s, respondents had added—in steadily increasing numbers—immorality, questionable values, believability, and partisanship.”73

73. Carroll Doherty, “The Public Isn’t Buying Press Credibility: The Seeds of Public Distrust Were Sown Long Before the Recent Round of Scandals,” Nieman Reports, Summer 2005, 46–47.

It is. I linked to it in the post. (“…For more on declining public confidence see this overview from 2005.)

Thanks, Brooke.

While the factors you identify are likely contributors, I would throw something else into the mix (touched upon above as well). It is not the journalists, it is the audience! Or, as you say, the people formerly known as the audience!

In short, people have developed a greater degree of media literacy or at least perceived media literacy. This may not mean that they know exactly how the media work but they have an understanding and this perceived understanding influences their trust in the media and also in politicians.

Perhaps you could draw a parallel with physics. I dont totally understand physics but, I have a basic understanding of gravity. If I drop an apple, it will fall to the ground. People have developed this basic understanding (or what I call “lay theories of media”) which may or may not be correct but certainly informs action and understanding. (For example I looked at activists’ understanding of media in an IJOC article).

This understanding may be based on firsthand experience, media training, reading or even comparing competing media narratives (think BBC v CNN v Al Jazeera). But the more people understand of the editing process, the more they are exposed to arguments about how the media function (through reading; documentaries and the like) and the more they are aware of how politicians manoeuver for media coverage, and the more skeptical they will likely be become.

In terms of sources for lay theories, there are many. One only needs to look as far as the Daily Show who, for over a decade, has been giving its audience a primer of sorts on media literacy. Of course there are documentaries out there too (think of Control Room; Out Foxed etc). The point isn’t whether or not the information is correct (the Daily Show is meant to be satire) but how people make sense of it and the implications this has for trust which is the key currency that media organizations trade in.

Nate Bowman says:

I think your take illustrates the issue of journalism as a trade or as a profession.
In my estimation, physics is not an apt metaphor for journalism. One does not need special training to perceive whether they are being better or worse informed by a media source. I think it is the idea that one needs special training to be able to sense good journalism that contributes to the mistrust. I’ve seen many instances of “journalists” accusing critics of “not understanding the realities of journalism” rather than owning up to the possibility of improving their work.

And, to me, it IS important whether or not the information is correct. And, not that the Daily Show is perfect or a paragon of journalism but they do one thing much more often that most media outlets do not: cover topics not even touched on by the mass media and speak truth to power. However imperfectly they do this, they still INFORM PEOPLE>

So many great responses have been written to this question, my contribution will be, at best, a footnote. But here it is. Specifically, I want to pull the thread you, Clay Shirky, and Will Bunch have identified a little more.

Arguably, a wider decline of trust in institutions of power should lead to increased trust in institutions that watch power. But an argument that the change is more cultural, that we’re “all postmodernists now” would predict the opposite- that as trust declines in the practices by which knowledge is produced, trust in knowledge-producing institutions will decline even more rapidly.

When trying to understand journalism, I often spur my brain along by analogizing journalism with science. And here there is very useful, and recent data:

“Just over 34 percent of conservatives had confidence in science as an institution in 2010, representing a long-term decline from 48 percent in 1974, according to a paper being published today in American Sociological Review … That represents a dramatic shift for conservatives, who in 1974 were more likely than liberals or moderates (all categories based on self-identification) to express confidence in science. While the confidence levels of other groups in science have been relatively stable, the conservative drop now means that group is the least likely to have confidence in science.”

This data seems to imply that there is an important connection between developments in our political system, and our trust of particular institutions which are supposed to produce knowledge.

As you note, in your quote of Michael Schudson, journalism in the era of “high professionalism” (post WWII) put its faith in attaching a particular kind of procedure to a particular institution, while bracketing questions of pure fact. The truth lay in the process, not the people, but that process was yoked to a particular institutional form which saw that process as the guarantor of its own legitimacy.

The Volokh Conspiracy, with which I usually disagree, has some interesting thoughts on this in relation to science:

“one can have tremendous faith in science, as an institution and a process for discovering truth, while simultaneously lacking confidence in “the scientific community” as represented by current scientific leaders, science agencies, university researchers, those who purport to speak for science, etc.”

The difference here is that while journalism comes under fire from both liberals and conservatives because of its’ inevitable implication in politics, conservatives, rightly or wrongly, see scientists as inevitably biased against them in the policy realm. So along with culture, we need to look at politics as well. Just as a mass-advertising model may have allowed journalists to delude themselves that they spoke to and for the entire “public,” so a post WWII political consensus allowed them to think that “professionalism through process” was sustainable.

What’s the solution? I want to posit three

* Let’s refetishize facts (along with fetishizing process)
* Let’s re-embed facts in transparent process (not “transparency” of the kind that open government advocates argue for, but transparency of method [journalism will cop to no methodology other than “common sense,” which is ridiculous). –> linking, methods sections, lists of sources interviewed, etc.
* Let’s be openly partisan- which, if we do 1 and 2, wont matter as much as it might have fifty years ago.

Ultimately, though, I think the primary culprit is in our political system. Until we have massive political reform on a deep and structural level, there is only so much journalism can do to save itself.

The key idea I took away from this, Chris, is… “as trust declines in the practices by which knowledge is produced, trust in knowledge-producing institutions will decline even more rapidly.”

But then you said, if I heard you correctly: conservatives don’t necessarily mistrust scientific practices, they mistrust scientists.

Can you explain a little more?

By the way I am close to adding no. 7 to my list: culture war, baby!

Hi Jay,

Right, good point. I was a little vague here. I think the conservative counter-argument (as in the Volokh essay) to survey research is that, “hey, we don’t distrust ‘science,’ we discussed politicized ‘scientists’!” While this may or may not be true, in the end, it doesn’t really matter. The key point is that it was offered as an explanation in the first place. The major difference between science and journalism is that distrust of journalism is bipartisan and distrust of science is largely conservative (though the article points out that in the 70s, this political divide was reversed…)

I would add another reason to the list related to #2: RATINGS. News as entertainment. Sensationalism for the sake of grabbing viewers to increase ratings and therefor revenue. This makes the reporting far from objective and less trustworthy.

I think one of the factors is the plethora of options of where to get one’s “news” (print, broadcast, cable, web). With so many different ways to access the media, it is easy to see contradictory claims, which means that a portion of players are not telling the truth. The average news consumer has a life, they don’t have time to fact check 10 different sources to see who is accurate, they just know that some of them are obviously lying.

That would explain why a local paper would be more trusted than “the media” in general. I know my hometown, local paper, is telling the truth because I know those potholes on Elm Street haven’t been fixed. However, with 10 different accounts of what is happening in Washington DC or Wall Street, how do I know what is true? All I know is somebody, possibly many people, are lying. This produces a profound trust deficit.

On a personal level, Judy Miller destroyed my trust in the NYTimes. Countless people died because of the Times’ shoddy reporting on “Curveball”, and they’ve never come clean about it.

Good points, Tim. One of the mysterious things about trust and news involves what I called in my dissertation (1986) the “awayness of things.” I had to invent this awkward term because I could not find a word that expressed it. It’s an observation about scale.

When in order to be adequately informed people have to know about things happening far, far beyond the horizon of their experience, they obviously become dependent on news reports from afar. But that does not mean they trust those reports. However, some of the mistrust may have to do with awayness itself, with the scale of news system, as Tim suggests.

We know how to judge reports arriving from a world we can experience– see, touch, check. Reports from way over the horizon of a touchable world are a different animal.

Yes, I think awayness is a good term. Things like Twitter are changing the perception of awayness, though I can’t properly explain how at the moment…I’m still getting my head around it on my own terms.

Nate Bowman says:

Yes, some of the distrust may come from the awayness itself (though it can be overcome) but it pales to so many media outlets taking advantage of the awayness to not inform the public sufficiently.

Nate Bowman says:

Yes, but becoming informed isn’t a static process. It evolves over time. You see who provides backup, links and connections to original source material. One can check a little here, a little there and learns which sources are trustWORTHY.

Nick Stone says:

Because most of the public are stupid. They don’t read, they don’t know anything, and they’re very easily and readily manipulated by propagandists and marketers. Pervasive stupidity is the most serious threat to this country ever.

We’ll be sure to base our reform plan on this insight.

I love this comment from a veteran journalist at the Philadelphia News, reacting on Twitter to a summary of this post. He says…

“What about public trust in Twitter, blogs, online rumor mills & unsubstantiated blather? High, yes?”

…That captures so much. See:!/DanGeringer/status/192986510646181889

Apologies if someone already brought up what I’m about to say; I didn’t have time to read every single comment.

I have a few ideas to offer.

I think part of the answer lies in your #1 explanation Jay. If the media is truly functioning as a watchdog and uncovering wrongdoing at various institutions, then the public’s esteem of the media should be higher. Well… I think we’re all painfully aware that the media is sometimes less of a watchdog these days and more of a lap dog. So if the public perceives the media to be perpetually failing at their watchdog role, that could lead to an erosion of trust.

My second explanation has to do with a (re)emergence of a distrust in authority. This is similar to distrusting institutions, but it takes on a specific character as regards media. Basically, people resent the media’s editorial authority i.e. the ability to set the agenda, determine what is news, what matters, etc. As you well know, people increasingly make these decisions themselves and when they sense they are being pushed in a certain direction, they tend to resent it. I try to talk to “regular” people about media all the time (people who aren’t journalists and not news junkies). One of the most common complaints I hear is “why is ____ being made into such a big story?”

Finally, people still don’t feel they can communicate freely with the creators of the media they consume, or they don’t know how to or the thought never even occurs to them (perhaps this is part of the lack of accountability problem we have in the US in general, as you discussed in that interview you tweeted recently). When I ask people about their media complaints, I ask them how often they’ve tried to voice those complaints to the reporter or editor of the paper or someone at the TV station or the radio station. The answer is about the same as when you ask people how frequently they contact their Congressman (hence, the low regard for Congress as well). The bottom line is that we trust people and institutions with whom we are able to have an easy two-way relationship: our spouse, our parents, our good friends, our doctor, the corner grocer, etc. The more difficult or non-existent the relationship, the less trust there is. I could go on, but that’ll do for this comment 🙂

I can vote for No. 1.

I also think one possible factor is demystification. The more that media spread — to cable and now to the net — the less mysterious the press became, the less awe it was likely to inspire. That started on cable — from news as scarce to news as over-abundant on 24-hour news — and then expanded on the net, where anyone can become part of the news ecosystem, from commenting to fact-checking to reporting. “What’s the big deal?” the public can now say.

Regarding the press as part of the ruling power structure, an example: Yesterday Romenesko highlighted the case of the Daily Oklahoman downplaying a report critical of the CEO of a big corporation based in OKC.

That’s practically the definition of “regulatory capture”.

All of these are good potential reasons, all probably play a part, yet none completely satisfy. Unfortunately, the hypothesized relationships above are mostly correlational. It’s hard, but not impossible, to tease out cause-and-effect relationships in some of the cases, or to even define in a meaningful, measurable way some of the terms.

If I did design studies to systematically exam the question, I suspect #1 holds up better than is suggested above (and #4 and #6), probably in combination with the hostile media effect — which is a consequence of the hammering the press had received since, maybe, Spiro Agnew.

The most interesting of the possibilities above, #5, would be hell to test.

Nate Bowman says:

Hi Jay

I left this over at Craig Silverman’s piece at Poynter also:

Given the history of Poynter, I am not surprised that they didn’t include this, but I am surprised Jay Rosen left it out. (Yes, he touched on it tangentially, but to me , it is central.)

It is the increased corporatization and conglomeration of news outlets, which started in the Reagan administration. This has increasingly stifled and eliminated independent voices and made the beltway bubble ever-more impenetrable (in both directions). At the same time, it has eroded the principles and ethics of journalism so that those who would espouse them are derided as purists or not realizing the “realities of journalism” or not understanding how journalism needs to “adapt in the age of the internet”. Thus, journalism loses its integrity and then the people’s trust.

Journalism is supposed to empower people to make informed decisions. That is how it EARNS trust and respect. The more corporate it becomes, the more it also becomes PART OF the power structure and thus less inclined to question it or shine light on it. Glenn Greenwald said it well yesterday when he discussed the way main stream “journalists” reacted to Julian Assange’s inteview of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah on RT. The whole thing is worth reading, but this quote is germaine here:

“There is apparently a rule that says it’s perfectly OK for a journalist to work for a media outlet owned and controlled by a weapons manufacturer (GE/NBC/MSNBC), or by the U.S. and British governments (BBC/Stars & Stripes/Voice of America), or by Rupert Murdoch and Saudi Prince Al-Waleed Bin Talal (Wall St. Journal/Fox News), or by a banking corporation with long-standing ties to right-wing governments (Politico), or by for-profit corporations whose profits depend upon staying in the good graces of the U.S. government (Kaplan/The Washington Post), or by loyalists to one of the two major political parties (National Review/TPM/countless others), but it’s an intrinsic violation of journalistic integrity to work for a media outlet owned by the Russian government. Where did that rule come from?”

This does not mean that it is not possible to have good journalism at any of these outlets. It does mean that reports have to be judged on their own merits and that, over time, an outlet either presents more reports with integrity (thereby building trust) or not (thereby losing trust).

How are people supposed to trust “journalists” who uncritically paraded a slew of so-called experts telling us lies about how the war had to happen and incorrectly predicting how it would play out? Why is it a surprise that “journalists” ignored and marginalized those who said that the lies were lies and correctly predicted how the war would pan out? How do these “journalists” expect to gain trust when they are parading the same group of pundits to now tell us why war with Iran is imminent and again marginalizing and ignoring those who tell us why it is not?

How are we supposed to trust journalism when an organization that is supposed to be “standing for journalism, strengthening democracy” does not get in an uproar about the antics of Messrs. Breitbart and O’Keefe yet pens numerous essays telling us about what a bad person Mr. Daisey is for not telling the truth in his one-man show?

What are we supposed to think when that same organization does not get its hackles up when the omubdsman of NPR (!) not only thinks it is NOT necessary to disclose when the subject of an on-air piece is a corporate sponsor but actually fights for a change in the rules so that it is almost never necessary (these guidelines from a handbook that Poynter actually helped draft)?

Or when that same ombudsman condescendingly states that the audience are “either going to trust NPR or they are not” as if it is beyond NPR’s power to do anything about it.

What about when that same organization chooses to headline a piece on Chaz Stevens, a Florida blogger whose investiagations resulted in the jailing of three elected officials and the investigation of at least five others as “Aggressive local blogger served with cease-and-desist letter.”

That organization is Poynter. How are people supposed to trust journalism when one of its watchdogs behaves in this way?

Even worse, how are we supposed to trust media outlets when its own Society of Professional Journalists pends a scathing letter about a non-journalist pretending to be David Koch convinces Governor Scott Walker to let down his guard, but has penned nothing similar for Messrs. Breitbart or O’Keefe or anything on FOX?

Journalism has a privileged status. People by default trust it. Journalists simply have to provide a complete, thorough, factual and reality-based version of what is going on. I am not saying this is easy; just uncomplicated.

Mr. Silverman expending so much effort discussing “connectedness” as an isolated factor (and thereby partially blaming the public) means to me that he doesn’t understand how journalism DOES connect to the public. It is simply by empowering the largest number of people to make informed decisions. I sometimes get the sense that all of this involved analysis serves the purpose of maintaining the status quo by focusing on tangentinal issues (and thus keeping attention away from the basics of journalism) while at the same time providing jobs for those who come up with these theories.

I do agree on one point on the connectedness issue: that journalists earn trust through vulnerability. I fear that Mr. Silverman only subscribes to this in the abstract. In my (admitely limited) time commenting at Poynter, I have yet to see the author of a piece acknowledge that ANY commenter has a point when they criticize someone’s work.

It takes a at least negligence and often willful ignorance for journalism to lose the public’s trust.
The business of journalism might need to adapt, but the principles and ethics do not.
To the extent that “journalists” reclaim the integrity of themselves and their jobs, they will regain the people’s trust.

Hi, Nate – others have talked about the press or mainstream media becoming part of the power structure but I don’t think anyone has talked about corporatism. (I do, below.)

“Experts say…” – what experts? What do other experts say?

Instant-expertism.; even making a competition out of it.

Oversimplification of a complex world.

Distaste for reporting ambiguity, uncertainty and complex answers.

THe need to report events in real time because they are high profile rather than important. At what cost?

Ron McIntire says:

As a non-journalist, I cannot think of another profession that requires its information gatherers to report on such a wide range of technical subjects–boring, ugly and danger-filled. They see so much sadness, political nonsense and criminal injustice in the world that if it didn’t make any honest press publish with a liberal bias, I don’t know what would.

The Internet has created a heightened awareness about the malleability of the American fact.

Like you, I’m partial to No. 5. But I do think these reasons pretty much add up to a 28% drop in public confidence IF we include liberal bias as a reality rather than just right-wingers working the refs, which is also true.

I worked in newsrooms for many years and I can say categorically that the vast, vast majority of editors and reporters I worked with (I include myself) were liberal or progressive and these tendencies fed directly into our work. You can see it today with some of the reporting on the Florida shooting, with media routinely recoiling at the state’s “stand your ground” law. Maybe it is a bad law, but the fact is that 68% of Americans polled about it think such laws are a good idea. And chances are that same 68% are repelled by our coverage of that story.

That said, the liberal bias is largely confined to social issues. On the economic and military interventionist side, journalists tend to be conservative. In other words, we’re a bunch of Jimmy Carters. Hence, the widespread absence of skepticism over Simpson-Bowles or the Ryan budget plans or the constant haranguing over Libya, Iran and Syria, etc. etc.

I would also add as a seventh big point something that has little to do with journalists but may hurt us nonetheless, and that’s the fact that when we do perform our watchdog function, there’s usually no way the public can do anything about the awfulness we report. I live in the Chicago area and, believe me, the papers have been chock full of the malfeasance and shenanigans permeating the Richard M. Daley and now the Rahm Emanuel administrations. But nothing ever gets fixed. Nothing CAN be fixed. Just as on the federal level, the public voice has no outlet, no way to adequately hold their so-called representatives to account. Elections flat-out don’t work. Political parties are for someone else, not for us.

So we’re stuck with these horrors and when the press keeps reminding us, we get frustrated. And part of that frustration gets stuck on the press. That’s point No. 7.

Political frustration, a feeling of helplesness, lack of agency, a sense of powerlessness, cynicism about what happens after exposure, after the story has come out… yes, I think these things powerfully affect trust in the press, even though they are really the terms and conditions in our political life.

Nate Bowman says:

Political frustration, a feeling of helplesness, lack of agency, a sense of powerlessness, cynicism about what happens after exposure, after the story has come out… yes, I think these things powerfully affect trust in the press, even though they are really the terms and conditions in our political life.

But the terms and conditions in our political life are a direct result of how journalists cover politics, what they expose, what they let politicians get away with, etc. To the extent that they shine light, people will trust.

The posters statement that people think that it can’t be fixed is accurate and is the culmination of many years of a downhill slide. But it is not irreversible, It just takes journalists performing their mission to help the most people make informed decisions.

I would not be surprised if there is mistrust of a press that primarily votes for Democrats and gives money to Democrats, even when it violates their terms of employment. I’m pretty sure if the the situation were reversed, and the press consisted of former Republican speech writers, press officers, primarily voted for Republicans, and gave money to Republicans, the same people who tell us it doesn’t matter and to “judge them by their work” would be complaining about political bias and have less confidence in the press.

my answer: ownership.

Yes! If what you mean is consolidation of ownership.

I laughed when I saw a clip promoting something on ABC — where the two protagonists were Nathan Fillion (Castle) and Robert Downey Jr. (Ironman). How was this possible? Because Disney owns ABC and produced the movie.


An evergreen topic and thanks for the contemporary twist re participative vs. lecture.

But I think there is more, and as you pointed out in Poynter chat, this has been building for a long time.

Think of those who don’t trust media as a coalition of various grievances. Politics and bias, yes. But errors, even of spelling and grammar hurt. Related are people who have read a story about themselves or a situation they know, and think the media report got it wrong or missed important context. Finally, there are minorities, immigrants and others who feel people like them are left out (or stereotyped) in coverage. Add them up and you have a lot of people with a beef.

Robert Storch says:

As many have pointed out, it is a combination of many of these factors. I tend to go with #6, the corporate ownership. The focus is on what makes money, not what is “newsworthy” and how much does it cost to get it.

My take on #5 has to do with the star system. Too much of the money paid to journalists is flowing to the top. When those stars get paid so much, they get comfortable with their access to power. When you get that close, you can’t speak too much truth to power without loosing your access and thus your star rating.

As far as #4, working the refs. I call it the big lie. If you say something often enough people believe it. Like, “law suits make insurance rates go up.” or “Obama wasn’t born in the US” or “global warming is a myth.” Then when the media, reports such things as facts or genuine subjects of debate, people believe them.

There is too much “he said” “she said” passed off as reporting a controversy instead of reporting what is true.

Kaleberg says:

I’ve heard that called the “cocktail weiner” theory, based on many journalists’ fear of not being invited to the “right” parties in Georgetown.

First off, I’m quite a few drinks into the night but I figured I’d throw my nickel in anyway.

I would imagine that people stopped taking journalism seriously at about the same time that journalists did. Now you and I and other engaged people probably look at the Times, the Atlantic, WaPo (though I could go on a tirade about these guys too) and other comparable outlets as the standard bearers but I would wager that a lot of people do not make the distinction between them and the more accessible cable outlets that stand in for journalism these days. For example, Anderson Cooper can do some decent journalism when he wants to but unfortunately, he and those like him have done one too many feature stories on inconsequential stuff surrounding pop stars and ridiculists and so on. They routinely shirk their duties and try to wear two hats: News when there is news (made for TV: floods, explosions, etc) and fluff as soon as “nothing” happens for a day or two.

In addition, you have shows like Morning Joe which have a certain air of gravitas, but the gravitas never solidifies. That show drives me crazy. It is very clear to me that Mr. Scarborough would like to keep the door open for a possible run for something in the future which prevents him from ever clearly stating his opinions on issues he nevertheless talks strongly about such as abortion. What is his position? He never lays it out but does critizise others for talking inartfully about ths issue. On the deficit (his pet subject) he constantly talks about the problem that needs to be fixed but never gives his prescription. To do so would hurt his election chances someday. In other words, he is not there for us, he is there for him and everyone else tows the line because they want to be invited back.

Sunday shows are all horserace and completely.useless two days later after we find out what actually came of what they spent the whole day gaming out. We spent most all of the healthcare debate listening to the media anticipating how it could pass through congress but almost nothing on what they would be passing. We spent a year focused on the thing and no one ever really explained what’s in it.

In writng this drunken rant I think I have come upon my biggest peeve with the entire industry and it is this: 99% of what they talk about can be rendered absolutely useless if not laughable by reading next week’s paper. Most of the discussion is focused on what will/could happen rather than what IS happening. Insiderism and horserace coverage rule the day and I have to go read Ezra Klein to find out what thebactual facts of the issue are. Mainstream journalism is a disaster and that is what most people judge the whole baby and bathwater by. Thank you, and good night. Eat Snacky Smores.

“We spent a year focused on the thing and no one ever really explained what’s in it.” – legislation is hard…let’s show a dramatic courtroom scene.

“Most of the discussion is focused on what will/could happen rather than what IS happening.” – what IS happening is only interesting to them (some so-called journalists) if they “called it”. Why would they report something that doesn’t feed their ego? – sorry, I’ve had a few too.

Ever see two newsreaders get that deer in headlights blank stare when they don’t know if the story they just read for us is a “good thing” or a “bad thing”? I mean, that’s their job right? Blah blah happened and “that’s a good thing”. Yada yada happened and “that’s a bad thing”. Such and such happened and, um… (uh oh, we are totally failing here!)…’s the weather this week Jay?

or this:

Newsreader1 – “It’s thought that 30 billion Americans may suffer from this condition Frank”
Frank (looking impressed) – “that’s amazing”

What’s worse, that someone reading news would not correct or question that? Or, that they didn’t catch it?

Sometimes a quantity is reported and reacted to as though it were an impressively large quantity even though it was just informational. “why would they bother to give a number if it weren’t meant to impress?”

Your example of Anderson Cooper (who is neither the best not worst example) illustrates a larger problem: Accountability journalism has never, ever carried is own weight financially. It has always been subsidized. Even “60 Minutes” in its heyday ran hard-hitting exposes alongside features on Italian sports cars, not just to appeal to a broader audience but because the latter subsidized the former. In the so-called golden age of TV news, whole news shows were loss leaders, subsidized by “The Andy Griffith Show,” soap operas, etc.

The de-siloing of news caused by the Internet has cut accountability journalism off from its traditional funding sources, and the biz side has cut staff rather than seeking new revenue.

Q: why a long decline in trust of the media?
A: the rise of entertainment-news. News used to be unprofitable. Now it pays. Converted steadily to entertainment-news.

Mathew Ingram says:

I’d have to go with number 5, I think, if I had to pick one — to me, it dovetails with the post that Steve Buttry wrote awhile back (which was sparked by a question of yours I think, Jay) in which he talked about how “our” newspaper became “the” newspaper. I think for many people the professionalization of the process pushed it further away from them, and made it seem less like something they could trust. That and the possible influence of the post-modernist stance that Clay and C.W. Anderson have both mentioned I think are responsible for most of it — although I am willing to admit that just a general surfeit of media as a whole, both new and old, probably exacerbates the problem.

A couple of points on trust

Robert Storch wrote

There is too much “he said” “she said” passed off as reporting a controversy instead of reporting what is true.

There is two much emphasis on “he said” “she said” reporting period, not just on talking heads on cable, especially with the emphasis on shorter stories and even shorter sound bites.

When US presidential candidates talk about Canada sending oil to China, instead of the US, they’re talking about my home town, Kitimat, BC. I retired here not expecting that it would soon become the centre of a major news story. the Northern Gateway pipeline (Google for details, it’s a huge controversy) Every time a reporter from out of town (some of whom I have worked with in the past) comes to Kitimat they know they want to talk to the anti-pipeline people, of which there are many and they want to balance with the pro-pipeline people. Trouble is there aren’t any, or at least none that will fit into an easy he said/she category. I know conservative business people who oppose the pipeline. There are conservatives who oppose the pipeline but would be in favour of it under certain conditions (like refining the oil in Canada) and there are those who say they are in favour but then give me a long list of caveats and doubts which means I really put them in the in favour under conditions category. The trouble is the visiting reporters (or more probably their editors) don’t want the maybe for, maybe against category, they want a definite no that could fit into a sound bite or quote and those people just don’t exist here. That means while the vocal opponents are widely quoted, the maybe for maybe against are not and that creates an impression of bias. An even bigger problem is that for budget and other reasons, most of the reporters who cover the pipeline issue are based in the oil patch, in Alberta, and while most of the reporters are trying to be “objective,” they are actually showing their cultural roots and their coverage is seen here as biased.

More distressing to me was the conversation I had with a group of people in their 20s before I left Toronto, none of whom could be called radical or even that politically engaged. One asked me how the big corporations paid off reporters (he was actually confused between reporters and columnists for the mostly conservative Toronto dailies and was probably referring to the columnists). His friends agreed with him, for them the situation was clear, it was the “corporate media” and what I saw as conservative, pro-business ideology, they saw as proof that not only did big corporations own and control the media, they believed that these people where actually being paid by the corporations to write stuff rather than the columnists were expressing ideas they actually personally believed in.
If that is indicative what others in their 20s think, then the media is in very deep trouble.

Typo correction
Should read
The trouble is the visiting reporters (or more probably their editors) don’t want the maybe for, maybe against category, they want a definite yes that could fit into a sound bite or quote and those people just don’t exist here.

Jay, I think it’s #5 but not what you’ve IDed. Look at this chart on the number of daily newspapers in the US:

The decline in evening newspapers correlates with the decline in trust in your chart. I’m going to argue that it is a proxy for (a) reduced choice/voice, (b) corporate consolidation and (c) the move to one-newspaper cities. In other words, I don’t think it is the professionalism of the journalist but the corporate environment in which she found herself working.

Because “trust” matters when the issues are state, local and national politics or muckracking related to corporate or NFP malfeasance. I don’t think readers and listeners fail to trust sports news or movie reviews or the weather forecast.

Soundbites on TV news dropped markedly from the 60s to today — and I would argue that is a proxy for simplicity and, perhaps, irrelevance. It’s not possible for a talking head to explain any serious issue in 60 seconds.

Your chart also correlates with consolidation in radio ownership throughout the 80s. Radio is not a primary news source for as many as TV and newspapers, but it is part of the mix. Again – consolidation led to homogeneity.

My vote for the factor in #5 is business consolidation, the profit motive and treating news like a widget coming off an assembly line instead of the voice of the community.

(Now I’ll go read the other comments! – Thanks to @MathewI for tweeting this – I missed it yesterday.)

Not sure how I missed six but I guess I stopped reading. I think #6 is related closely to my arguments about consolidation and corporatism.

Eleanor A says:

What a fascinating article. I’m officially hooked.

Some of this has been mentioned in other comments but I would like to inject a few thoughts which are somewhat related.

1. Transparency of media gathering process. The audience is more and more educated about how newsrooms decide what is news, how they are resourced, how they collect stories and how difficult/impossible it is to achieve objectivity.

2. Advertising. What is the impact of paid advertising, writing news stories on advertising and blurring the design difference between the two?

3. Media management and the rise of PR. As a PR person, it pains me to say this but the constant discussion of how this practice influences media has surely damaged trust. Not to mention that the management of spokespeople to deliver structured ‘talking points’ has damaged the ability of media to deliver trustworthy coverage.

Perhaps the people of journalism have simply grown out of relationships with their consumers, and so has lost trust.

Imagine that you, the consumer, live in a town with only twenty other people. You can easily come to trust half of them. After all, you know them. You’ve developed relationships with them.

Now imagine living in a town of ten thousand. You probably still only know and trust ten people. The rest of the town is going to get dumped into a mental category that is, at best, “unknown”, if not just outright “this guy could have a knife”.

Who, of his age, didn’t have a perceived relationship with Walter Cronkite? Or Dan Rather? Or the only newspaper in town? It was easy to trust them: you saw that person or product every day. But there has been a great deal of dilution of the icons of journalism, simply because the field has grown.

Do you trust the fifth most popular anchorperson/talking head on TV? Who even thinks about that?

I love this from Dave Winer: “Ask me why I don’t trust the news, and I can give you half an answer. To give a real answer you’d have to explain which news are you wanting to know why I don’t trust.”

Exactly. Some news is very trustworthy. Some reporters are very trustworthy. Some editors are very trustworthy. Even some CEOs of media companies are very trustworthy. I’m trying to think of what they all have in common and I keep coming back to the fact that they are the most transparent. They show you their process, explain how they make decisions, publicly share info about their companies (even financials), etc.

I asked Digital First Media CEO John Paton what he thought. He’s been in the news business during the span of the chart I led with, initially as a copy boy, the a reporter, editor, and now as executive and head of the second largest newspaper company in the U.S. Here is what he wrote back:

Jay, still thinking about your post.

And want to think about it some more.

In the meantime, could this be a factor?

Society has profoundly changed in the last three decades.

The factors are many: economics; wealth; job security and empowerment. Technology empowers but real power to change one’s life is perhaps even further outside of most people’s grasp than before – i.e. Job expectations; education expectations; home ownership expectations; upward mobility, etc.

If there is a growing awareness of those disconnects, then perhaps society understands that the news media has failed them on the bigger issues and no amount of exposing corrupt politicians and thieving captains of industry will let the news media regain that trust.

In other words, the stories that are “too big to tell” (not that they literally couldn’t be told but they overwhelm journalism as it stands today…) are the ones that have really affected people’s prospects, as in “real power to change one’s life is perhaps even further outside of most people’s grasp than before.”

Intuitively, the audience understands that the news media isn’t going to tell them what’s really going on in the largest sense. And that takes its toll on trust.

And that’s why John has the job he has. I can’t prove he’s right, but 1) it sounds intuitively correct and 2) it is consistent with other observed phenomena, from the decline in social mobility in the U.S. to some of the (related) factors that gave rise to the Occupy movement.

To add to this, after more reflection …

Remember the Barlette & Steele series for the Philadelphia Inquirer, “America: What Went Wrong”? Reader response to it was overwhelming, and in light of John’s comment, I think it’s because that was one of the “too big to tell” stories (about 1986 tax reform) that reporters really were able to wrestle to the ground. Although it was about just one piece of legislation, it really also was about everything that was going wrong with our institutions at the time.

… and yet Brad Delong, an economist, had a different reaction: “My view was that they didn’t know enough to write the stories they wrote–and were unwilling to learn. So whatever they produced was unreliable.”

It could be malice (i.e., having deliberately sold out), it could be simple ignorance, or it could be a combination of both. Roy Peter Clark, mentioned elsewhere in this post, likes to say that competence is an ethical issue.

Barlett and Steele are examples of how sensational, award winning story-telling has hurt journalism’s credibility among the people formerly known as the audience and especially those readers who know more and see one-sided anecdotal “investigative journalism” for what it really is.

Christopher Bowe says:

John Paton’s comment above is the single best explanation I have heard on this topic. Sprinkle a bit of #6 on top of that and it explains a lot of the trust shift.

There is a structural and conceptual disconnect/problem in news and what is required in changed. Perhaps they should retool toward being more like education services?

William Ockham says:

I think the possible explanations divide into two categories. First, we (the people formerly known as the audience) became less trusting (Item 1 and perhaps Item 2 in Jay’s list). Second, the media became less trustworthy (Items 3-6). Obviously, there could be elements of both involved. I think it would be interesting for people to say what percentage of the issue is the declining trustworthiness of the media and what is a decline in our willingness to trust. Many people here seem convinced that it is 100% a decline in the media’s trustworthiness, but perhaps I am misreading the responses.

I look at the general decline in trust of institutions and see a correlation that suggests most of the decline is rooted in the change in our willingness to trust. That change was largely driven by the media itself, I think, which is pretty ironic, if I am right.

I also think that public trust in institutions is pretty much divorced from the institutions’ actual trustworthiness. If that were not so, the trust in banks would have fallen much more than it has in the last 40 years as deregulation has made banks less trustworthy in objectively measurable ways.

Excellent analysis, thanks! I agree that any role the media played in building distrust of institutions (bad new bias, anti-institution attackdog?) that drove down trust in the media as an institution itself is pretty ironic. I do think you are right, but I don’t know how much it accounts for the almost 30% drop over 40 years.

Some interesting excerpts:

“Organized religion and television news had relatively higher scores in the 1970s compared to other institutions. This was no longer the case in later years. Furthermore, the press went into relative decline after 1990.”

In U.S., Confidence in Newspapers, TV News Remains a Rarity

“In particular, we find that the same political indicators that lead to higher confidence in institutions in general drive down confidence in the press.”

Jen Roth says:

What makes it a puzzle is that during that same period, several other things were happening. Journalists were becoming better educated. They were more likely to go to journalism school, my institution. During this period, the cultural cachet of being a journalist was on the rise.

This right here is when I started saying, “Exactly!” and anticipating #6. Journalists themselves, at least at the national level, seem to identify more with the class of the power holders than with the rest of us. Was there a drop in coverage of worker and consumer issues during this time period (or were those always under-covered?)

It might be informative to see if this trend of growing mistrust in the press holds true in other countries, and if not, examine the different circumstances.

I wish you had “liking” enabled on these most excellent comments. It would be really interesting to see which comments accumulate the most “votes.”


I will probably respond at more legnth. But a few thoughts.
Where does race fall in? It seems like the press still tells the narrative of the white country. We’re not white anymore (well, you and I are, but the country isn’t). The press is also increasingly of a higher class/geography (as local papers fold) than those they cover.

But I also wonder whether one problem is that for very good reasons we don’t believe in the narrative of America anymore, and the press is about that narrative. We believe in America–whcih is different. But the narrative the press is telling (often from cities isolated from much of America) is unfamiliar to the country.

In other words, almost the reverse of my formula for journalistic authority: “I’m there, you’re not, let me tell you about it.”

I’m not there, you are, let me tell you about it. Yep, that would increase mistrust.

Mark Elliot says:

It’s obvious: a waxing indifference to, even mistrust of, polls! Pollsters themselves tell us how difficult it is today to construct a representative sample. It’s not uncommon for polls to conflict on a seemingly identical question (save for a slight change in wording). If you’re not paying close attention, it becomes a lot of noise.

And if you are paying attention, you’ll notice that there are too many polls cited that report questionable findings. Like on TV news. But they don’t note, for example, that the margin of error swamps a reported disparity. Heck, I see things like that offered up like gruel and I sour on MSM reporting too. (But I do love my own media sources because I graze with the same care that I devote to feeding my body.)

John Paton and Emptywheel are I think getting at a Marxian class analysis that so far is really only in the background of the original post and its comments. I think people don’t trust the press because they know humans can do better in the traditional liberal sense, and in a necessarily revolutionarily way, but the press as a bourgeois ideology instrument locks those possibilities in the closet. It’s instructive that upon introduction of the explicit concept of “class,” Jay immediately thinks of a labor-derived class theory, even though hypothesis no. 6 clearly represents another class theory, too: a power theory of class. So let’s talk a little more specifically about class.

First, what do we mean in no. 6 by “power?” What I usually mean by power as a sapling student of discourse theory is the power of people to tell other people what to do, usually through law — though at the same time, the power of people to democratically ensure that such orders aren’t tyrannical. Seeing as how this is Jay Rosen’s blog, and Jay’s theory is influenced by Hannah Arendt, for a brief moment let’s reconstruct “power” according to the important discourse theory of democracyoffered a couple decades back by Jürgen Habermas, a work of theory which also draws strongly from Arendt.

In a Habermasian democracy, two types of power exist: administrative power, or power enforced from the top down traditionally by a government, and communicative power, formed by horizontal discussions in the public sphere. This latter form of power is the kind of power that Habermas derives from Arendt, for whom power “manifests itself in orders that protect political liberty” and “above all in the freedom-founding acts that bring new institutions and laws ‘into existence’ [citation omitted].” Communicative power happens “in its purest form in those moments” when “a population committed to passive resistance opposes foreign tanks with their bare hands; when convinced minorities dispute the legitimacy of existing laws and engage in civil disobedience; when the sheer ‘joy of action’ breaks through in protest movements” and leads to the creation of democratic laws and institutions (Between Facts and Norms, 148).

But communicative power can also happen less dramatically, such as when people talk to each other about what kind of laws and policies they’d like to live under, and those conversations shape formal legislative debates. Yes, the press is essential here in an “educational” role, but as the Internet has helped us realize, the press also has to be porous to public opinion and will. The press reflects, and the press shapes: It’s an irreplaceable two-way sluice in democratic power relations. That’s a major baseline from which hopeful liberal-style intellectuals of the last century suggest we should consider the press, or to Habermas, “the mass media,” which “ought to understand themselves as the mandatary of an enlightened public whose willingness to learn and capacity for criticism they at once presuppose, demand, and reinforce; like the judiciary, they ought to preserve their independence from political and social pressure; they ought to be receptive to the public’s concerns and proposals, take up these issues and contributions impartially, augment criticisms, and confront the political process with articulate demands for legitimation” (BFN, 378). Social actors such as journalists and political parties should be allowed to “use” the public discourse space, Habermas writes, “only insofar as they make convincing contributions to the solution of problems that have been perceived by the public or have been put on the public agenda with the public’s consent” (BFN, 379).

Now with those background definitions of power and those expectations for the mass media in mind, let’s shift from a power-derived class analysis of the press to an explicitly Marxian or labor-derived analysis — that is, one based on how a society organizes its surplus labor; this analysis is, in other words, a class analysis based not on how much wealth or property people have or on how much “power” they have in the sense discussed above, but on how much work people do with their brains and/or muscles as juxtaposed with whether these same people have the freedom to participate in the public formulation of communicative power and, just as importantly, whether these people enjoy the freedom to pursue their unique life projects; do people enjoy the fruits of labor? This kind of class analysis tells us that there’s something more to the shift in political economic reality that’s taken place since the 1970s.

As Paton writes, “real power to change one’s life is perhaps even further outside of most people’s grasp than before – i.e. Job expectations; education expectations; home ownership expectations; upward mobility, etc.” This is to say that in the 1970s, for the first time in 150 years, real wages in the U.S., that is, what people were capable of buying with their earnings, stopped increasing. That 150-year period, as Marxian economist Richard Wolff teaches us, was a time of true American exceptionalism, in that the U.S. was the only capitalist nation in the world wherein as long as people consented (sometimes passively) to being what Marx has called “wage slaves,” people could at least in turn buy more and more stuff. But that exceptionalism stopped in the 1970s, once German and Japanese industrial production began to compete with the U.S.’s; once cheaper (and even more exploitative labor markets) were tapped in the global south and elsewhere; once computerized technology began to replace human laborers; and once a new wave of immigration into the previously exceptional U.S. economy increased competition in a now-shrinking U.S. labor market.

A few comments here have referred to the advent of Reaganomics in the 1980s, but we forget that those regulatory captures were part of a larger exploitative response to a hard new truth that had been making itself evident in the previous decade (hard for capitalists, harder for U.S. workers): the political-economic fact that infinite market “growth” is impossible. The U.S. populus of the 1970s had been subjected to a pivotal strategic response to this now apparent brick wall — a response formulated not by the U.S. worker, whose leisure time and real wages have since undergone a precipitous fall, but by the U.S. capitalist, who has always enjoyed the fruits of labor. Crucially for us now, if we take seriously the capitalist response to that downturn in real wages, we are able to see something of an “origin story” behind that “Giant Pool of Money” once used as a starting point in This American Life‘s award-winning reportage. To wit:

Why not take the surplus value created by the workers and lend it back to them with interest [since they now dearly miss those pay raises they once knew; give workers the “raises” but make them pay it all back with interest!]? This produces a profit upon the profit, and it allows the internal market to keep churning. [Such was the closest to nirvana U.S. capitalists would ever get, Wolff often remarks.] And so the great credit bubble of the past decades came into being as money flowed to literally anyone with a job or a home and even apparently some without. But all good things come to an end and this is where today’s reality comes in: the credit expansion has reached its limits. Hence today’s crisis, which is not just another blip […], but a real stone wall up against which the system has crashed.

What then of respected journalist David Leonhardt’s assertion, recently cited by Jay as an important piece of (what ought to be considered) trustworthy journalism, that “[w]hen it comes to economics, we know that a market economy with a significant government role is the only proven model of success?” Leonhardt, like many other Keynesian liberals with press authority, would further have us believe that the faster rate of “growth” in the U.S. relative to Europe has been on its face valid in an unspoken moral-legal sense, as have been the “boom” economies of China and India (tell me, reader, do you think of human success when you read of Chinese or Indian class relations?), even though, as Leonhardt writes, “unencumbered market forces often lead to disaster, as 1929 and 2008 made clear.”

In truth, boom and bust cycles happen regularly every six or seven years, and this truth makes U.S. economic exceptionalism up to 1970 come off as that much more remarkable, what with real wages’ continual rise despite the busts. To be fair to the Keynesians, I should note that Habermas, looking back on the post-industrial spread of market systems, takes seriously the democratic potential of capitalist economies, observing, historically, that “as long as rising complexity in public administration and the capitalist economy was paralleled by the increasing inclusion of citizens, one could assume, all in all, that [market expansion] coincided with normative progress in the realization of equal rights.” However, “these parallels were a matter of contingent, and hitherto in no way linear, correlations.” There have in fact been “many indications of counterdevelopments,” Habermas observes: “To name just one of these, in the fragmented societies of today’s economically interdependent [world], the prosperity and security enjoyed by a majority of the population is increasingly accompanied by the segmentation of a neglected and powerless underclass that is disadvantaged in practically every respect;” we might take that particular use of the word “class,” I would offer, to encompass labor-, property-, power-, gender-, sexuality-, race-, and consciousness-derived theories of the concept (BFN, 350). Though to be sure, from a property or wealth standpoint, poverty has persisted in a strikingly global sense; it is morally wrong that we still have it; and its presence contributes to a mistrust of institutions, which have sat passively as the income gap increased even more in recent years.

The more important point here, however, is that not only do many citizens now lack the leisure time and, thanks to causes I don’t have time to go into here, the rhetorical competencies necessary to participate in the public sphere unto the collective authoring of what might otherwise be legitimate laws — but, what’s worse, global workers “lucky” enough to have work also have little to no say in comparison to boards of directors (usually it’s no say) over what workers are making, how they’re making it, why any of this is happening, and who gets to benefit from the labor, and that pathology of human discourse leads to the increasing poverty our planet faces today. The overall organization of social production — not just the production of media content — is controlled by market logics; hence the story supposedly too big to tell (though why?) is that we have neither democracy in our public legal-political lives, nor democracy in our global industries. In other words, we have neither democracy nor “economic democracy,” as certain Occupy activists have put it in recent months.

Two decades ago, Habermas was somewhat hopeful as to to the role of markets in global politics, and this conservatism relative to many of his students and fellow critical theorists led to some strong criticisms of his new philosophy of law (a philosophy which encompasses the above-quoted theory of the press). But the now-escalated crisis has recently changed Habermas’s views on markets, as one of his strongest critics for some time, Slavoj Žižek, notes this in his now-widely distributed and considered talks. Der Spiegel documents this change as well: “In the past, there were enemies; today, there are markets — that’s how the historical situation could be described that Habermas sees before him.”

An important normative reason why people don’t trust the press is that the press fails both liberalism and radicalism, at a time when we need the best of both. I suggest, then, that an ethical, or better yet, an “objective” journalist in 2012 is not a “small ‘c’ conservative,” as Rachel Maddow calls herself in her recent book, but a “small ‘c’ communist,” in the Marxian philosophical sense. We’re entitled to a say over our lives — every one of us, everywhere. And yes, in case anyone is wondering, I imagine that in utopia we need a press more or less as Habermas imagines it.

Kaleberg says:

Weird. On Earth, in the US, wages have been almost flat since 1980.

I’m not ready to answer the puzzler, but I do come bearing data from other (all online) polls on trust. This should be mostly relevant to #1, but a few things are relevant to the other explanations.

Harris Interactive:

What you need to know: This Harris poll finds that the level of trust might be fairly broad. Basically, 73% trust local TV news, 69% radio, 69% websites, 69% local newspapers, 64% cable TV, 62% network TV, 60% national newspapers to “get you the news fairly and accurately.”

What you might notice: The amount “Rarely/Never” trusting a media outlet is fairly consistently in the 20%’s range, with a noticeable outlier of Fox News at 36% (Fox also has the lowest number that doesn’t know, at 9%–the only in single digits). A lot of the net trust is “occasional” trust, rather than trust “all of the time.”

Things to note: This paragraph jumped out at me (this should make commenter Mark Elliot scream):

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, Harris Interactive avoids the words “margin of error” as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Use these results with caution.

See: Americans Have Broad Trust in Media in General

Edelman Trust Barometer:

What you need to know: Between 2011 and 2012, trust in the media increased while trust in other institutions decreased.

What you might notice: A lot of countries have low reported levels of trust are very developed and free, while a lot of the countries with high reported levels of trust are authoritarian.

Things to note: The Edelman Trust Barometer oversamples for the “informed public” (college-educated, top-quartile income in country, follow news/public policy issues closely).

And to deal with this right away: The relationship between trust in freedom is not robust. For example, here’s a plot of the 2011-12 Press Freedom Index vs the 2012 level of trust in the press from the data. (Another thing to note: my plot isn’t very robust either. I haven’t done a plot against the changes in values yet–I’d have to account for the change in how the PFI was indexed, and I don’t have time to do that right now–but eyeballing the data makes me think there won’t be anything here.)

See: Why has trust in the media increased?
Do we trust our government? See how your country compares

YouGov – Public trust:

What you need to know: Trust in the institutions in the UK is decreasing, including those in the media.

What you might notice: The trust in different segments of the media (broadcast television, broadsheets, tabloids) is very different, with television stations having a lot more trust (upwards of 50-60%) than lower-market newspapers (10% trust in tabloids). A good summary is here.

One survey even asked people in the US and UK about their trust in the media in both of their countries. While they were both skeptical, US audiences were less skeptical of the UK media (in other words, nothing too surprising).

You can see that report here.

Things to note: These surveys ask about individuals (“journalists”), not their organizations.

Here are some of the public trust surveys:
2003, 2005, 2010

YouGov – Other polls:

1) This poll commissioned by Media Standards Trust asks some very interesting questions about people’s beliefs in media practices. Things to note: 75% of people agree that “Newspapers frequently publish stories they know are inaccurate”; 10% “trust newspaper editors to ensure that their journalists act in the public interest.”

2) This PBS Trust Report asks both US and UK audiences about their trust in media in both of their respective countries (interesting!). The general writeup is here. (I’m going to focus on US audiences and on UK opinion of US media vs theirs, just to stay as relevant as possible.)

US audiences: About 42% trust in newspapers, magazines, and TV. 38% trust radio. Interestingly, 37% trust “websites,” while only 18% trust “blogs” and 19% “social media.” Trust in UK media is lower (21-28% trust, highest for TV), but a lot of this seems to be lack of familiarity (37-42% “Don’t know”). See the .pdf here.

UK audiences: Fewer distrust our newspapers/magazines than theirs (by 13% and 15%, respectively). Their TV is a lot more trusted (31% more trust, 10% more distrust). Many more trust their websites (27% more trust). They think that our TV is right-biased (23% think right vs 3% think left, with 19% thinking the bias varies, versus 8%/14% left/right for theirs, with 31% thinking it is variably biased). A great deal more think that their TV is unbiased (24% vs 4%). And, unsurprisingly, a lot more don’t know.
See the .pdf here.

3) I won’t go into much detail about it, but there’s a poll about general UK attitudes toward society and the media. Among other things, it finds that 88% think it important that the media raise awareness of social issues; that slightly more people–95% vs 90%–think it’s important that “the main news programmes you see on TV” cover national news vs local news (the high end is even more split–82% vs 60% think it’s “very important”); that TV is both more trusted and more thought to be trusted. See the .pdf here.

Thanks for all your hard work, Zach. I know it took you some time. Much appreciated!

Zach, that’s great work, thank you!

#7: Demographics and the aging of the baby boom.

Let’s extrapolate from 1 to 300 million:

In 1970, sitting in Saigon, I was stunned by an article clearly written, not by someone with judgment, worldliness, and knowledge, but by someone like me: a kid. A special kid who brought his journalism degree and silly credulousness to the table.

As the years went by and the boomers got older, the press became sillier – by comparison.

I wonder what the results would be if the “trust” question were a similar question meant to tease out how much information people expect to get – or do get – from the news media. Since the news media is a mono-culture, one can’t expect to get any information once one is familiar with that mono-culture’s standard line. Ask yourself when you last found a piece of news or commentary that was unexpected – that is, was informative.

[…] Rosen’s Trust Puzzler: What Explains Falling Confidence in the Press? » Pressthink […]

I have added number 7 and 8 to my list of possible explanations. No. 7 is Culture war! No. 8 is Too Big to Tell.

Bolstering John Paton’s point (and #8), the Atlantic delves into the growing mistrust of institutions. A worthwhile long read.

How Americans Lost Trust in Our Greatest Institutions

“It’s not just Washington. Across the country, citizens’ faith in their city halls, newspapers, and churches is fading.”

[Johnny] Whitmire is an angry man. He is among a group of voters most skeptical of President Obama: non-college-educated white males. He feels betrayed — not just by Obama, who won his vote in 2008, but by the institutions that were supposed to protect him: his state, which laid off his wife; his government in Washington, which couldn’t rescue homeowners who had played by the rules; his bank, which failed to walk him through the correct paperwork or warn him about a potential mortgage hike; his city, which penalized him for somebody else’s error; and even his employer, a construction company he likes even though he got laid off. “I was middle class for 10 years, but it’s done,” Whitmire says. “I’ve lost my home. I live in a trailer now because of a mortgage company and an incompetent government.”

Yet unlike that earlier era, vibrant new institutions are not generally springing up to replace the old ones. And even when they do, they don’t always restore Americans’ faith in institutions and each other. Schools are worsening (especially relative to competitors abroad); politicians are limited to small-bore, partisan measures; and corporations’ power over people like Johnny Whitmire is rising. What if, this time, institutions don’t recover — and our faith dies with them?

A few commenters mentioned the news-as-entertainment point, and I think it needs to be elevated to the list. 60 Minutes was the spark here, pioneering an emotional mode of factual storytelling that viewers found compelling & networks found profitable (in late-70s the show became a hit, even though it’d been on for a decade). From this point forward, TV news divisions were not seen solely as loss-leaders, but as potential profitable wings of a corporation. The rise of CNN in the 1980s reinforced this possibility, and by the 1990s, TV news’s emotional appeals for our attention had become the norm & goal for the entire journalism industry.

This is also a self-sustaining cycle: some TV news shows it can be entertaining, so viewers come to expect that news should entertain them & start tuning out that which doesn’t, with rise of USA Today, talk radio, cable pundits, etc. Then people start to see news as just entertainment, and thus not a trustworthy institution, but just part of the machine. Hence, today’s scenario.

Can you please show the graph with an overlay of metrics for same time period showing Fox vs CNN market share?

Accuracy needs to be it’s own item or more pronounced in an existing item. Whether trust has been lost because of greater (more frequent and/or more significant) inaccuracy or greater (and cumulative) awareness of consistent or declining inaccuracy, might be an interesting research topic. However, accuracy has long been recognized as a cause of mistrust.

Siegal Report: “We must reduce the garden-variety factual errors that corrode our believability”
Reign of Error
Current Problems in the Media: High Levels of Inaccuracies
Measuring and improving accuracy in journalism

Steven Engler says:

Two other partial explanations (the second actually two separate ones):

PROLIFERATION OF INFORMATION SOURCES: Journalistic voices proliferated, making contrasts in content and framing more obvious. The 1976 FCC ruling that made new systems offer at least 20 channels and most offer public/info TV is roughly correlated with the beginning of the shift in your chart. The more complex recent curve might reflect journalists’ diffusion on the net, the rise of bloggers, in short, a blurring of the boundaries of the category of ‘journalist.’

GENERAL MISTRUST OF EXPERTISE AND THE SPECIFIC ROLE OF THE MEDIA IN LATE MODERNITY: Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and other theorists of “late modernity” argue that, since the 1950s trust in experts has eroded. They focus especially on scientific expertise. Partly as a result of nuclear weapons and the environmental crisis, and partly as a result of broader social shifts, trust in those who are presented as experts has been dramatically eroded. That is, we live in a global “risk society,” all more or less aware that we are in the same global boat (one that is leaking with various risks), and this results in a lack of trust in those who got us here and those who are supposed to address such issues. Some of this spills over to the media as experts.

But there is a more specific issue regarding the role of the media in the “risk society”: they are the bearers of this bad news. Simon Cottle (writing in 1998 – suggested that the media have taken on the role of communicators of global risk. To extend his argument, journalists are not just the bearers of bad news but the bearers of a type news the badness of which is unprecedented in human history: the threat of global disaster).

The counter-argument for this second explanation would be that the effects don’t turn up in the 1950s/60s, with the nuclear threat and the emergence of the “risk society.” The response to that would be that it was largely in the 1970s–in response to the environmental crisis flagged in the 1960s–that the media (in part reflecting the proliferation explanation above) began to shift its frames to discuss the ambivalence, fragmentation & uncertainties that hold among the “experts” themselves. This reflexivity accelerated with journalistic focus on the ambivalence, bias, positioning of news outlets themselves.

What might be more interesting about the loss of trust in media/experts is the combination of risk and prediction: That TV pundit might know less about the future than you do

“In this age of academic hyperspecialization, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals, distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on – are any better than journalists or attentive readers of The New York Times in ‘reading’ emerging situations,” Tetlock writes.

Hi Jay,

Part of the problem is that “trust” is an ambiguous term referring to at least three different concepts:

1. Contractual trust – do we have a common understanding of the roles, responsibilities and boundaries that define our relationship?
2. Communication trust – does what you say match what you do, and vice versa?
3. Competence trust – do I actually believe you can deliver what you promise?

Although these trust surveys probably accurately capture the level of disgruntlement of the population, the reasons behind their discontent and lack of trust is probably quite different.

I suspect that in the case of the press, we have problems with all three!
* Lack of clarity on the modern role of the press
* Mistrust generated by the press’s eagerness to be part of the political influence cycle
* A recognition that newsrooms are more time-poor than ever due to commercialism and cost-cutting

fps online games…

[…]Rosen’s Trust Puzzler: What Explains Falling Confidence in the Press? » Pressthink[…]…

Take a good hard look at categories 2, 3, 4 and 7: Bad actors, Liberal bias, Working the refs and Culture war!

Aren’t these really one category? All of them share the foundation of the media as a cultural other and an enemy.

The political polarization of the United States began with the 1964 Presidential election (which began the realignment of the southern states from Democrat to Republican) and was institutionalized by the Civil Rights And Voting Rights Acts that followed the 1964 election. The enfranchisement of black voters, desegregation and the integration of schools by busing created a “Radical Center” (see Donald Warren’s book by that title) of alienated middle-class Americans who were the target audience for Agnew’s demonization of the media.

Ultimately, the backlash from the Civil Rights and Anti-war movements in the 1960’s and early 1970’s created the political realignment of the 1980’s and the country has been increasingly deadlocked and polarized since then.

The 1980’s began the transition of media ownership from the private families of the “Lords of the Press” (George Seldes’ phrase) to public stock corporations and a simultaneous collapse of diversity of ownership through buyouts, mergers and closures. The new style of corporate ownership and management elevated a very different sort of person to editorial or producer status: the ass-kissers, lickspittles and brown-nosers of mediocre middle management. This new class of management brought in the “view from nowhere”, false balance and all the rest of the lazy, spineless “he said, she said” nonsense that became our infotainment media.

However, if you take a little historical perspective and compare our current situation with the press described by George Seldes in his autobiography, “Witness To A Century,” it’s pretty obvious that the media as an institution has never been a watchdog. Watchdog media, investigative reporting and speaking truth to power have always been and will continue to be outside the norm for the mass media.

The decline in trust in institutions is part of a long-term reorganization of how global society functions, the media in the US is just part of the overall trend.

What is driving this is the information revolution that began in the 1950’s with the introduction of thermonuclear ICBMs. Suddenly, the centralized telegraph, telephone, teletype and radio communications networks could not keep up with speed, volume and survivability required to wage nuclear war. The result was the information revolution. Initially, it was a necessity for the military to function in a nuclear war environment, but rapidly it spun off into computers, networked (as opposed to centralized) communications, and a massive drop in the cost of communication, publication and information storage.

The most notable aspect of this is the internet, but the internet is only a small part of the overall decrease in cost and increase in bandwidth.

Institutions function as top-down hierarchies where orders flow down and information flows up. Institutions exercise power through centralization and differentials of power. The institutional form of societal organization reached its evolutionary peak with the industrial revolution.

The information revolution has added a new form of societal organization: the network. Unlike institutions, networks are decentralized, have many node that can function as collaborative, competitive or consensus leaders. Networks have extremely high communications costs. When communication was scarce and expensive, institutions ruled.

The information revolution lowered the communication costs to the extent that movements of social transformation (see Luther Gerlach, “People, Power, Change”) became the normative means for societal evolution.

So the declining trust in institutions is an expected outcome of the public becoming more informed, more polarized, more engaged in confronting the entrenched power of established institutions. The simultaneous concentration of wealth is making fewer but larger institutions (think NewsCorp) being confronted by a swarm of citizen journalists.

In the long run, networks beat institutions nearly every time.


For the theoretic background on the evolving role of networks in society see David Ronfeldt’s “Tribes, Instutions, Markets, Network: A Framework About Societal Evolution.”

Thanks. Very interesting analysis.

That paper is online, by the way:

Carole Cohen says:

Critical thinking tells me to take everything written with a grain of salt. The larger than life investigative stories fits into my thinking about this. Oddly, first large investigative story I’ve thought to be thoroughly plausible and researched well I read today, in the NYTs, about Walmart Mexico. On the other hand, Rolling Stone did a scathing story on Bank of America. Rings true, but it’s so scathing, how can all that really be true? I wanted to get on Facebook and ask people, why are we not shutting them down if all this is true? Did not see any back up reporting in any other media for that story, at least not at that magnitude.
So how can I believe it?

I also think most of us (the general public) keep hearing that the owners of the publications in the MSM are not as keyed into true journalism anymore, because it doesn’t sell as well. May be true or not, but that impression is out there.

Nate Bowman says:

Critical thinking tells me that if I read a scathing story that may not ring true, I try to verify points of the story.

Perhaps those whom the piece covers count on exactly the reaction you had. “It’s so egregious, it CAN’T be true.”

Claire Fleisig says:

Reporters don’t report the news anymore they analyze it to death.

I think the answer to your question is contained in the question itself. The press has become more professional, more robust, and more omnipresent and, as a result, it has become a more effective change agent.

If the changes that result from a press inquiry/coverage mesh with your world view, you are very likely to admire the press. If, on the other hand, the changes that result run counter to your world view (or interests) you are likely to harbor disdain for the press.

There were many people who felt that Nixon was hounded out of office by the press. There are others that felt that were it not for the press the maladventures of the Nixon White House would never have been known.

Your feelings towards the press are, to some extent, forged by your feelings towards the subject of the press’ attention.

Consider the coverage of the most recent wars and compare it to the coverage of WWII or Korea. I can’t think of an instance during WWII where the press openly challenged the military’s position.

In a relatively short period of time ‘the news’ went from being sponsored by tobacco companies to pillorying them.

A more effective, and as a result, powerful press, is going to be constantly rubbing some party’s fur the wrong way. It might be the conservatives one day and the liberals the next, but at the end of the day…there is much more fur being rubbed the wrong way today than there was in the pre-Watergate, subservient press era.

In short; you can be an effective change agent or you can be loved….pick one.

I tend to think there is no puzzle, that the high level of trust in the early 70s was the anomaly. Other than the rise of the paternal network TV news anchor and authoritative voices such as Edward R. Murrow’s, what “golden age” of trust can we look back upon? WR Hearst sailing his yacht down to Cuba to “furnish the war”? Southern Antebellum broadsheets celebrating the latest lynchings? When I was researching a piece on pre-Civil-War racial hysteria in Texas, I was amazed at how much newspapers of that time evoked our modern media landscape: they were packed with short announcements, paid content, gossip, nasty accusations, sensationalism, fear-mongering, and the occasional piece of dull and useful information. Anyone could start up a newspaper back then, and from the looks of it, just about anyone did.

We don’t have data on trust from this long era of American journalism, but it seems hard to believe that 70 percent of anyone would place faith in such a mess. Then as now, read the papers [read, blogs] that spoke to them or offered the best violent entertainment.

Why was Mark Twain’s piece “Journalism in Tennessee” so funny? Because it wasn’t that hard to imagine editors in 1871 firing pistols at each other in between rewrites.

In “What Are Journalists For?” Jay does an excellent job of summarizing the rise of Walter J. Lippman’s paradigm of journalists as a “specialized class,” a lasting profession. That paradigm has been dominant for so long that we may tend to think that it won the day, or that something has gone wrong now. We may, as a country, just be reverting to form. I’m not saying that’s great or at all reassuring. But the world we’re in now is not exactly new.

As Twain quotes a blood-soaked Tennessee hack, “You’ll like this place when you get used to it.”

It definitely could be that high levels of public confidence in the press in the 1970s were an anomaly.

Let’s remember, though, that they occurred after a period of intense social conflict and disunity, otherwise known as the 60s. So we’ve still got some explaining to do.

Julie’s point about the wretched quality of (most of) the press in prior centuries is, without question, true.

Lenny Schafer says:

Can’t see the forest for the trees, methinks. TV local news reporting is what is doing the deed. Local news is sensationalist, tabloid, harpie, biased, altered smiley bodies, and ultra competitive. If it bleeds it leads. People just get tired of blood and guts served up to generate interest and ratings. Journalism is not a profession, imo. It is just story telling with a certain style that usually pretends objectivity. If the news is politically polarized, it’s because that’s what the viewers are. Most of it stinks and is tiresome. Also, the internet access to the news sorted by one’s own interest has far fewer empty calories.

And over at Warren Ellis’s blog, the journalist Laurie Penny dives in:

I thought I got into journalism to tell truths and right wrongs and occasionally get into parties I wouldn’t normally be cool enough to go to. Right now though, with a few exceptions, professional journalism is rarely seen as an exercise in holding power to account. Justly or unjustly, the media, especially but not exclusively the mainstream, corporate-controlled press, has come to be seen as the enemy of the voiceless rather than their champion. Justly or unjustly, few people believe what they read in the papers or watch on the news anymore, because belief has long ceased to be quite as important as complicity when it comes to the Daily Mail, the Daily Post or News International. On the streets of Athens and Madrid as well as during the London riots of August 2011, journalists have been threatened and attacked by desperate young people making havoc in the streets. Why? Not because these young people don’t want to be seen, but because they don’t want to be seen through the half-closed eyes of privilege.

Here’s Laurie Penny on the falling cost of communications as a way of redistributing power from institutions to networks:

As more and more ordinary men, women and children without degrees in journalism acquire the skills and technology to broadcast text and video, the media has become another cultural territory which is gradually being re-occupied. Those on the ground do not have to wait for the BBC and MSNBC to turn up with cameras: they make the news and the reporters follow. They have grown up in a world of branding and they know how to create a craze and set the agenda. They occupy the media. And the media is starting to worry.

Penny’s piece is quite good, and, yes, on point.

She fuzzes one thing up, though. Any experienced journalist who has reported on politics and other areas where there is regular controversy can verify that if you are committed to truthtelling and honest observation, you will get people angry on both sides of the question. Those who love your reporting one day (because it supports their arguments) will be enraged the next day when the story turns. It happens a lot.

However: there’s a temptation to see those who are most committed as proxies for the larger public. That’s dubious. The fact that you get grief no matter what you do doesn’t tell you anything about public reaction or public trust.

“both sides”? Heh.

A corollary to that position, of course, is that if “both sides” are angry at you, you’re doing your job right. Less trumpeted but perhaps more likely is the possibility you’re just screwing up regularly.

Lenny Schafer says:

If both sides are mad it does not mean a journalist is doing a good job. This is a specious dodge as if it contained some logic. It just means that more people think the story teller has done a lousy job.

Nate Bowman says:

It could mean either one.

Or, it could mean that both sides are working toward an end different from their stated goal. Perhaps working together toward that end.

Anyway, the emotional reaction of the subject of the reporting should have no effect on how a journalist covers a story and especially truthtellling and honest observation. Perhaps if more journalists were not cowed into making access to power more important than telling truth to power, not only would the public trust journalists more, those in power would respect and fear them more (as they should).

I think it was Thomas Jefferson that said “When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny”.


This is a great analysis and a fascinating discussion. I think aloofness is a great contributing factor. People feel detached from the media and feel no loyalty. When I worked for the Des Moines Register in the 1980s, our editorial policy was more liberal than most Iowans, but our reporting was trusted because people knew we cared about them and felt like they knew the Register. It was *their* newspaper. I don’t think people feel possessive about any media outlets today. That’s why I think a huge goal of community engagement is to build a personal connection that can become the basis for building trust.

The Guardian’s “Open Weekend” brought almost 5,000 people to their headquarters for discussions and community-building. I wonder if they think of it as “their” newspaper.

Pokrycia Dachowe…

[…]Rosen’s Trust Puzzler: What Explains Falling Confidence in the Press? » Pressthink[…]…

Jay – two comments/observations:

1. I think part of the decline in trust is obverse of the ease with which a citizen can question the press. Certainly beginning in the 90s with digital distribution – email, comments, etc – it was very easy to instantly correct, question, critique, challenge attack and share that move with your friends. When I moved from print newspaper work to online reporting in 1995 this was actually part of the attraction – you could report from inside the community, and your reporting would reflect that grounding, transparency, and authenticity. (That and the ability to literally own your printing press, the biggest draw). Yet I can’t help but think that the rising tide lowered all boats in terms of trust – which may have been built partially on blind loyalty, lack of information, lack of everyday contact, and the pedestal that the “watchdog” press once stood on.

2. Which brings me to the second point. I think the survey really refers in the main to the “big” press – daily newspapers from major cities, the news networks etc. Community journalist sailed right through this storm, I believe. And it’s no shock that community journalism is one of the more interesting places in online journalism (even while struggling with a financial mode to keep it afloat). I came from a great community newspaper that survived a terrorist bombing and won the the Pulitzer, so my ideas were formed by that “reporting from within the community” idea. I wrote local, and my sources and critics either walked in the door or called me up on a daily basis. They still do – through much different doors.

Hi, Tom. “The ease with which a citizen can question the press…” Yes. I do think this is a major factor. If I can think of how to phrase it, I might make this no. 9.

Also the question of “part of the community” (a provincial view, but not in a negative sense) vs. apart from the community (a cosmopolitan view, which is not exclusively positive) is important.

Regarding “The Ease with which a citizen can question the press” – this is a large vein of ore which I urge you to mine further!

The nation is hungry for Truth and Justice. The corporate-sponsored ad-based media are no longer supplying it. And the people have figured that out.

Just as the nation turns against the government when the press exposes the government’s lies (Vietnam, Watergate, Iraq WMD, Monica Lewinsky, you name it), now the people are able to figure out when the media are lying, or presenting facts with misleading context, or fabricating. From NBC re-editing Zimmerman to utterly slipshod Wall Street / government economic data reporting that is instantly demolished on a dozen financial blogs, the credibility of the corporate media is in tatters, and for good reason.

Furthermore, in the past, when the media would get the story right, the media had clout – the ability to force the government to investigate and punish those who did wrong. Where is the media-driven punishment for those who destroyed trillions of dollars in public wealth? MG Global and Jon Corzine? The robosigners at the banks who don’t care if the paperwork stripping people of the homes is factual, as long as they get paid? For the thousands of people who committed mortgage fraud by the trillions (on both sides of the transaction)? All of these stories have been widely reported (though mainly outside of the mainstream press), and there is palpable outrage among the people, yet the press continues to let the powerful get off scot-free. Names, which have been named and shamed, somehow get rehabilitated and put back into positions of power, when they should be in jail! Corporations (advertisers?) go all-but-unpunished, even when convicted… and more often the fraud and illegality don’t even get investigated. The media pull their punches and don’t seem to mind hobnobbing with criminals. Why?

Nate Bowman says:

Well said Wisdom Seeker.


I’ve been thinking about your views on the professionalization of the press and its relation to trust, and it got me thinking about the same phenomenon in other institutions. I’m sure we’d find that academia, medicine, etc. became less trusted as they became more “professional.”

The only glaring exception I can think of to that rule (though I am sure there are others) is the military. When the Pentagon scrapped the draft after Vietnam and developed today’s “professional” military, I’ll bet even the planners didn’t expect that the military would be held in the level of esteem we see now. No matter how many Abu Ghraib’s sexual assaults, Jessica Lynch propaganda stunts, etc., the professional military is always ranked high among institutions revered by the public.

My sense is that the professional military maintains high trust ratings regardless of actions because of a general feeling that the institution as a whole is “on our side.” The military stands for freedom, sacrifice, loyalty, i.e. values that most people understand as virtuous.

The professional press, on the other hand, are not “one of us.” To extend the military analogy, there was a sense during Watergate that the press were “fighting” to discover the truth in the face of establishment efforts to obfuscate and intimidate; the press were kind of like an “army of true patriots” defending representative democracy against the imperials presidency.

Today the professional press is not perceived as wanting to fight that fight. Most people have a sense that the imperial presidency did not end with Nixon, and in fact probably got worse, but the professional press has gone into retreat. Worse, they went over to the other side.

High levels of trust for the military are definitely part of the puzzle.

I would amplify your comment about professionalization further. Today we live in a much more technological world, where it can take “deep knowledge” of a subject to get a story right. But at the same time, the professionalization of journalism (and the rise of “journalism” as a major) means that far too many journalists have “journalism” expertise, but lack the other expertise needed to actually probe through spin and get to the truth. Personally I find much better “journalism” written by people who actually “do” what they’re writing about, as opposed to “journalists” who barely have time to write their stories, much less understand the subjects on which they are writing. This is especially true in finance, economics, science and technology, but it also holds true in matters political. Can you imagine a hospital in which doctors were trained in bedside manners and other forms of “communications”, but never learned rigorous anatomy, biochemistry, or physiology?

The situation is made worse by the financial incentives at play. It would seem that genuine expertise takes time to develop and costs more, whereas advertisers apparently don’t care about quality-of-detail as long as the subscription numbers (“eyeballs”) stay up.

Take advice from Deep Throat, RIP.

50% distrust is minimal information entropy. 50-50 at best (1 bit). Chaos is perfect for hiding messages to partisans. The current situation allows communicating a clear message to your base (dog whistles exist at many frequencies). There are axes of communication: Fox, MSNBC and many isms in between.

Here’s one aspect of the broader problem of journalists becoming part of the power structure that they’re supposed to report on that I’m not sure anyone else has mentioned. Conscious considerations of ambition, interest, the need to make a profit for one’s employer, and so forth aside, it’s basic human nature to be powerfully influenced by the ideas and approaches of the community one belongs to. The word “groupthink” exists for good reason: with the best will and most determination in the world, it is extremely hard for most people to believe a set of facts that isn’t accepted by the group around them.

We have a situation today where most of our agenda-setting journalists in critical policy areas belong to very small, very insular communities. Things like the cult of savviness in political journalism, like the peculiar slant in reporting on the supposed need for radical changes in Social Security (the subject of this article in CJRR)…

…can readily be explained by this sort of cognitive capture. It may be almost invisible to the journalists doing this distorted reporting; they may believe they’re doing an unbiased and illuminating job of informing the public. And they may wonder why the public doesn’t trust them.

We news consumers, though, are for the most part outside that bubble. We see that this sort of reporting is eerily disconnected from the world as we know it. The CJR analysis of what’s wrong with the Social Security reporting of the moment isn’t a revelation, precisely: it only validates what a reasonable reader of these stories will already have noticed on at least a subliminal level. (If there’s a revenue problem, why isn’t revenue raising a way to deal with it? Has no one noticed that this is a program with broad popular support, of the kind that would allow politicians to address it via tax increases? How is it that articles don’t even attempt to address these questions? And so on.)

The more of this cognitive capture of journalism we see — and we see more of it with every passing year — the more the public is treated to this sort of distorted coverage. And the more often we see it, the higher the odds are that each of us will encounter a story we have the background to recognize as materially misleading or incomplete.

And of course, the more often each of us hears or reads a story that we know to be wrong/incomplete/distorted/misleading, the more chances we have to generalize the failure: to think, “If News Organization gets stories in my area of expertise significantly wrong, significantly often, how can I trust them in areas where I’m not an expert?” And the less each of us trusts journalism as a whole, the more we communicate our lack of trust to those around us.

And before long here we are, treating mainstream media like the old Pravda, and muttering about unaccountable power, and despairing at the thought that any voter might be getting all his or her information from such unreliable sources as the New York Times, or the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal.

“The word ‘groupthink’ exists for good reason: with the best will and most determination in the world, it is extremely hard for most people to believe a set of facts that isn’t accepted by the group around them.”

You hit upon why I decided to call this site PressThink. What I’ve tried to do is develop a critical vocabulary for what you called a “cognitive capture.”

However, I wouldn’t say most journalists are unaware of it. I mean: not always. Often–especially in political journalism–they are quite aware of the groupthink. They joke about such things as the “expectations game” while at the same time participating in them. This is part of what the cult of the savvy is about: ironic detachment. That makes it trickier to criticize.

Thanks for your analysis.

However, I wouldn’t say most journalists are unaware of it. I mean: not always.

I can’t say you surprise me, but I was trying to go for the most charitable possibility. Otherwise the portrait of some parts of the mainstream press has depressing Orwellian qualities: you have a community writing and publishing what they know to be untrustworthy and irrelevant stories, all the while asking each other, “Why doesn’t our audience trust us? Or even like us any more?” Leaving we peons in the audience to wonder whether we’re seeing a really impressive ability to refuse to draw inconvenient inferences from the data, or at an equally impressive degree of contempt for the assumed audience.

I’d like to think that it isn’t the latter, but there are times I suspect that I’m just whistling past the proverbial graveyard with that one.

Nate Bowman says:

Well said Maroc.
In the original post and here.

Inspired by commenters such as Sean, Tim Libert, Jeff Jarvis, Steven Engler (his first point) and Tom Watson, may I make a renewed plea for #9: “The Media Changed”?

Buried in #6 is the idea that the professionalized press, hubristically, made claims to provide “all the news” and ran its information “in a one-to-many or broadcasting pattern.” Surely these observations are of a different order from the other “Something Went Awry” examples, such as View from Nowhere and Production of Innocence. The former are media claims, the latter are press claims.

PressThink, fair enough, likes to concentrate on political journalism but the Gallup question does not confine itself so. It asks about news, generally. In Explanation #7, “Culture War!” the fundamental incompatibility of various groupings along the ideological spectrum is invoked as an explanation for the lack of trust-&-confidence in political reporting as a whole. But the phenomenon of mutual incompatibility does not confine itself to political topics. Different people also want more or less foreign-vs-domestic coverage; more or less human interest, true crime, tabloid sensation; more or less breaking news or analytic trend pieces; more of less on the economy, the environment, healthcare and so on.

Back in the day, the organs of the mass media — the front page of The New York Times, the broadcast networks’ nightly newscasts, the top-of-the-hour headlines bulletin on network radio — would make their judgment about the mix of the seven-or-eight top stories that the general population should be aware of in order to maintain its civic literacy. It was the delivery of that mix — “fully, accurately and fairly,” as Gallup’s question puts it — that determined whether the mass media earned trust-&-confidence.

By definition, that mix was bound to fall short: not only because different groupings in the audience had a (not just political) preference for more or less of some of the ingredients, but also for a second, just as important shortfall. Namely, in addressing a general audience, mass media journalism was bound to be too superficial and uninformative for some, too arcane and detailed for others. The audience not only embodies varying ideologies and interests, but varying levels of knowledge too.

All three of these problems have been solved by the fragmentation of the mass media during the 35 years of Gallup’s trendline: television broadcasters have been supplemented by cable news; commercial radio by NPR; local newspapers and newscasts by 24-hour local cable channels — all of these entries merely foreshadowing the thoroughgoing revolution in access to information represented in the past dozen years or so by the World Wide Web.

What if Gallup’s respondents were unaware that there was a generalist problem to be solved until the proliferation and fragmentation of media provided a solution? If so, the erosion of trust-&-confidence in mass media may be evidence of the improvement in the ability of the press (broadly construed, now mostly niche) to deliver journalism in a flexible and audience-appropriate, non-mass fashion. Not a problem at all.

Masterfully done.

PressThink, fair enough, likes to concentrate on political journalism but the Gallup question does not confine itself so.”

Great job interrupting our automatic thinking, Andrew!

Where is the evidence that a loss of trust has been limited to, or primarily resulted from, journalism’s biases acting on the political stage?

A broader (better?) explanation has been provided by MAROC and others:

… the more often each of us hears or reads a story that we know to be wrong/incomplete/distorted/misleading, the more chances we have to generalize the failure: to think, “If News Organization gets stories in my area of expertise significantly wrong, significantly often, how can I trust them in areas where I’m not an expert?” And the less each of us trusts journalism as a whole, the more we communicate our lack of trust to those around us.

Within the political frame, the timing of the decline might correlate well with the rise of the permanent campaign. How much has the media’s role in the permanent campaign contributed to the loss of trust in the media?

The permanent campaign is a loser in the long run for everyone. Over the past two decades that the political contest narrative has dominated the media, media credibility and believability have eroded along with politicians’ credibility. What matters isn’t who “wins” or “loses” but the quality of deliberation among governors and between governors and the governed.

Tim — if asked to take sides between MAROC’s observation that distrust grows from observing how our area of expertise is reported…

…and Rosen’s observation that distrust derives from the awayness of things…

…I would side with MAROC.

Nate Bowman says:

Me too.
By a large margin.

Which isn’t to say that awayness plays no role; just that it is far down on the list.

Nate Bowman says:

Though the media may have changed the mission, principles and ethics of journalism still apply.

To the extent that the changed media help people make informed decisions, does so transparently, etc. they earn the people’s trust. To the extent that they don’t they lose the people’s trust.

I find other causal factors secondary.

I’m not a journalist, although I work for the news industry. There was a time when we (news consumers) trusted journalists; there was a time when they were heroes. I am just old enough to remember the Nixon years. I remember how reporters focused on revealing facts even when it was dangerous to do so. On 4/16, the day before you wrote this (terrific) article, I wrote on the LinkedIn Newspaper Professionals forum: “Professional journalists are trained in fact-checking, and I believe that news consumers still trust professional journalists more than citizen journalists. At least we expect the pros to be held accountable. Sadly, the political polarization of the press–left and right–is eroding that trust, a trend that, ironically, sells news while it undermines the value of professional journalism.”

Today I might watch CNN for mindless entertainment, but I hardly trust it. (I trust The News Hour.) I also read both left and right-leaning journalism because I want some balance; I want to see what the other side thinks. But whenever I can see through the bias it undermines my trust. And I don’t just want to hear my own party politics spouted back at me, in a dumbed-down version. I want reporters to take some risks. People trust journalists who go to jail defending the right to a free press. Heroism engenders trust. War correspondents in harm’s way inspire trust. But political coverage today is hardly trustworthy.

In the LinkedIn forum I cited above, I also gave a plug for my previous employer (I have no ties with them today) as an example of how trust wins hearts: “It shouldn’t be hard for newspapers to sell themselves as the trusted source of facts if they indeed keep to the facts. At the rule mandated by the owner, Joe Ricketts, was to always remain objective (and the editorial director, Leela De Kretser, has always been adamant about fact-checking). We grew that purely digital news outlet from 0 to 1.2 million visitors/month in just 18 months, and I believe it was in part the objectivity of the journalism that did it.” Ricketts is politically conservative, and the staff he hired is largely not, yet the editorial rule is balanced reporting. That’s what builds confidence in the press.

“People trust journalists who go to jail defending the right to a free press.”

Except Judy Miller. With good reason.

Nate Bowman says:

“I believe that news consumers still trust professional journalists more than citizen journalists”

My experience has often proven the converse. As an example, Chaz Stevens, a Lauderdale Lakes blogger, has done yeoman’s work investigating the finances of his town. His work has resulted in the conviction of three members of the town government and the criminal investigation of five more. is an organization which is supposed to be a herald-bearer for journalism (standing for journalism, strengthening democracy). How do they choose to portray Mr. Stevens? By focusing on his abrasive style and the cease-and-desist order the town manager served on Mr. Stevens.

This is an isolated example. Citizen journalists routinely scoop main stream media. Rather than appreciating it, the MSM vilifies the “blogosphere”.

Great post, many thanks.

But every one of your hypotheses are based on half the picture. They all assume that the decline was in trustworthiness.

It’s a common and simple mistake made when talking about trust: to confuse trust, trusting, and trustworthiness.

Properly stated, if you get someone who has the propensity to trust, combine with someone who is trustworthy, then the result is trust.

No doubt trustworthiness of the press is partly to blame. But you also have to suggest a general decline in the average propensity to trust.

This is something that is studied, and has been for many years, in the General Social Survey. Scholars like Eric Uslaner have noted a long-term secular define in the propensity to trust.

Some countries – notably the Scandinavian countries – have a greater propensity to trust than, say, southern Italy or Eastern Europe. Trusting – as opposed to trustworthiness – changes very slowly.

Studies suggest that the propensity to trust is affected by two things: education, and income disparity. Lower education and greater income disparity lead to lower trusting levels.

So it’s not all just about the press, or about all the other institutions. It’s also that if people become less educated, if they make less and less than others and on top of that social mobility declines, than you get less trusting people.

Basically if you think the world is good and you are the master of your life, you will be trusting. If you think the world is a terrible place and they’re all out to get you and keeping you down – you’re not likely to be trusting. I’ll leave others to connect what dots they may.

Are there patterns of less trustworthiness? Sure. But trust also lies in the eyes of the “beholder,” not just the beheld.

Thank very much Charles. I get the distinction between trustworthiness and the propensity to trust. It makes sense. And I’ve read Robert Putnam’s great book, Making Democracy Work, which is about the very differences you spell out here….

But a few complications arise when I try to map this distinction onto my subject here. The first is that the U.S. since 1973 has become a more educated country, not less. Would you propose that the decline in trust extended toward the news media is a result of education declines of some kind? Which kind would be those be?

Second complication: as Chris Mooney argues in his new book…

The more educated Republicans are less likely to trust both journalists and scientists on global warming. How does that factor in?

Nate Bowman says:

Charles’ analysis, though probably accurate, is to me a secondary factor.

To the extent that a northern European trusts more and a southern European trusts less, it is beyond the journalist’s control. And so, though it may partially explain the decline in trust it is, similarly to “awayness” a secondary factor.

If journalists fulfill their mission of helping people make informed decisions, they will gain trust. When they don’t, they don’t.

I would like to add a few other reasons why I personally have come to distrust the mass media:

(1) Blatant and Unreported conflicts of interest, including spouses-who-assist-each-other. I’ve had a lot of letdowns in this area. The most memorable was a takedown I read about George Will’s conflicts of interest about 5-8 years ago, but there have been too many to recount.

(2) The political horse-race media see everything as “Republicans” vs. “Democrats” without seeing deeply enough to recognize that both parties are used as tools by the interests who donate to them. The candidate-selection process guarantees that those willing to “support both sides” will not see their interests threatened. To the mass media it’s probably not even on the radar that both candidates are heavily funded by Wall Street interests… But it will be no accident that neither Romney nor Obama will rock the boat on Wall Street, when financial fraud and the nations’ utterly unsustainable economic path remain among the greatest legal/justice and political issues facing the country. I would urge the honest voices in the media to raise this issue in September when the national debt limit will need to be raised again. (We are spending through Obama’s Congressionally-granted credit card even faster than expected!)

(3) Spin and opinion have replaced intellectual honesty and truth-seeking objectivity. Opinion and editorial content is now routinely presented as factual reporting. Dean Baker at the Center for Economic Policy Research runs a fun blog, “Beat the Press”, which is a great watchdog for economic reporting, and although I completely disagree with some of his economic ideas, I find that he blows apart mainstream articles with distressing regularity. Similarly – I subscribed to Newsweek for over 25 years, and used to read it cover-to-cover every week, but reluctantly gave it up when it turned into “BlogWeek”… or at least when I recognized it was “BlogWeek”, a weekly collection of prima donna opinion essays masquerading as statements of truth. The Economist, which ought to be better, is in my opinion even worse.

(4) Writers and sources who are just plain wrong don’t get weeded out. This is especially true in economics reporting, where predictions and explanations have testable consequences, and yet those whose explanations and facts prove wrong are somehow permitted to continue reporting or serving as sources. This is true on both the editorial pages and in the allegedly non-editorial articles. It is even more true on TV, especially at CNBC. One starts to ask why it is that people who have destroyed their credibility (and in many cases, have done so repeatedly) are still being given a voice by the mainline media. Then one realizes the answer… and the answer condemns all advertising-supported, embedded-in-the-halls-of-power media sources…

Nate Bowman says:

Wisdom Seeker
Well said again!

On #2, I’d like to add the effect that the Republican/Democrat, liberal/conservative, left/right, etc dichotomies have: they perpetuate divisiveness and while the populace is busy arguing with one another, the powerful get to do what they want without supervision.

On #4, I’d like to offer the additional example of the pundits who urged us into the Iraq war. These are the same ones that are now being trotted out to tell us that war with Iran is inevitable. And the same writers who were correct in their assessment of the Iraq war and were marginalized, ignored and vilified are again being ignored.

I’d like to add #5:
The selective umbrage at the breach of journalistic principles and ethics. When Ian Murphy, a Buffalo, NY blogger at an admittedly “alternative news site with heavily slanted views that are neither fair nor objective” called Governor Scott Walker of Wisconsin and pretended to be David Koch, the Society of Professional Journalists saw fit to pen a scathing press release decrying the incident.
They have been conspicuously silent on issues such as Andrew Breitbart, James O’Keefe, Bill O’Reilley, Rush Limbaugh, (well, you get the picture)

What are people supposed to think when this is the only time the trade association of journalists has spoken out about bad journalism?

Kaleberg says:

I remember a comment from back in the 30s [from Berle & Means on the Modern Corporation] to the effect that no one believed what the press said because most reporting was lousy, except for business reporting and other reporting that people relied on to take action. The idea was that business decision makers would stop reading sources that didn’t provide good information. I think this is still true. We’re seeing it now with the WSJ moving out of business reporting and Bloomberg stepping in to replace them.

To be honest, very few newspapers have good business reporting, and there is no visible weeding out effect that I’ve seen. I think a lot of it is that reporters have to respect the prevailing business ideology (taxes are bad for business, regulations are evil and so on), so there reporting reads like something from a 1970s issue of Soviet Life or Pravda. Very few people took Soviet Life or Pravda very seriously back in the 70s, not even in the Soviet Union

Perhaps it’s something to do with the rise of the MBA and money men running companies. When the professional managers are running a company news just becomes another commodity. Attempting to maximise short term profits can cause long term damage to the brand.

Responding to both me and Ezra Klein is political scientist Jonathan Ladd: Why Don’t People Trust the Media Anymore?

Very interesting!

This and other responses are being collected in AfterMatter….

so if you have suggestions for AfterMatter eave them here or email me.

Nate Bowman says:

On Jonathan Ladd:

I read his take and have the following comments:

“Perhaps it is the political scientist in me, but I tend to be skeptical of any explanation for broad change that hinges of human nature simply improving or degrading.”

I agree with Jay that this was not inherent in the points Mr. Ladd claimed it was. I think Mr. Ladd is confusing how people behave with human nature (similar to nature vs. nurture). The fact that people BEHAVE differently, does not mean that human nature has changed.

“First, the political parties have become much more polarized in their policy positions.”

I don’t think this happened unabated. The press, especially the main stream media. I won’t discuss here what I think are the reasons for this, but the complicity of the main stream media in perpetuating the propaganda of the powerful and, worse, not only leaving unchallenged, but echoing the lies in other media sources.

“Party leaders convince their partisans in the mass public to resist informative messages from the mainstream media and ideologically hostile outlets, and instead rely more on ideologically friendly new outlets.”

I think this is false (see last paragraph)

“Media fragmentation produces more partisan outlets, and also leads to more outlets that eschew “hard news” and cover more entertainment and tabloid topics, as John Zaller and James Hamilton have shown. I found in survey experiments that tabloid style coverage tends to reduce general media trust.”

I find it self-evident that that relationship is directly proportional to the quality of the journalism.

Nate: please be wary of over-posting. Ten of the last 13 comments have been by Nate.

Nate Bowman says:

Sorry Jay

Was anything I said not germane to the comments to which I replied? I wanted to read all of them before giving my take on the issue and found that I was inspired to clarify/disagree/praise.

Anyway, you don’t have to worry about it in general. This topic is close to my heart.

How about the evolution of network television into an unserious medium?

Nate Bowman says:


Thank you for tackling an important issue. I have read your post and all of the comments.
I’d also like to thank the commenter Wisdom Seeker whose writing helped me clarify my thinking.

I believe that my assessment that the ever-increasing corporatization, commercialization and conglomeration of the media which began in earnest during the Reagan administration is the simplest and most fitting explanation for the loss of trust. The result of that process has been that the mission, principles and ethics of journalism have become subservient to profit and manipulation of public opinion. And things that have nothing to do with journalism (Jay’s #2-bad actors in tabloid media and #4-working the refs) are allowed to pass for journalism. Thus, the media decreasingly empowered the populace to make informed decisions and so, lost their trust.

Part of this process was the transformation of journalism from a trade to profession (Jay’s #5). I believe that, besides making journalism more elitist, it served to make it more opaque and less accessible to the general public. Just as Dean Baker shows us with economics, simple issues are made unnecessarily complex to lead the public to believe that it is beyond them and that they have to depend on the “professionals” to tell them what is really going on. “You couldn’t possibly understand on your own.”

The lists of principles and ethics that are developed are then selectively applied depending on how they affect the powerful (I discussed this more in one of my comments)

The increased homogeneity of the corporate media has marginalized and eliminated dissident voices. The celebrity status and huge salaries of the media stars gradually created a gap between those they were supposed to empower and themselves. And then, access to the more powerful becomes more important than fulfilling their mission and so they strive to become part of the power structure (Jay’s #6). This was always to for some journalists and to some extent for the trade as a whole; it has now become so prevalent that the industry is sufficiently insular to be impervious to any critique. And thus, journalists do not feel it necessary to avoid (or even report conflicts of interest) or they invoke the too-big-to-tell condescending excuse for not doing their job (Jay’s #8).

Conversely, journalism has always, by nature of its mission to help people make informed decisions, been a populist venture. Corporate media centralize power for the profit of the few. It’s natural then for corporate media to misrepresent the populist mission of journalism as liberalism (Jay’s #2) and thus create a division that doesn’t exist. Corporate media, in general, help those in power exploit real or imagined differences between people to keep them fighting amongst themselves and create the illusion of a divided country to such a degree that it becomes real (Jay;s #7) so that the powerful can go about their business in unencumbered. And the press (corporate and non-) has enabled this divisiveness by not calling out those who incite it. In this context, I’d like to add one more item: the “If it is true that this person whom I trust had this in mind, then it would be inhuman; I trust this person not to do inhuman things, so it can not be true that that was their motivation.” By giving bad acts and actors a free pass, journalists allow this thought process to proliferate.

Related to this, the use of pundits to justify the actions of the powerful has become unrelated to the accuracy of the analysis or prediction of the pundit. The same pundits who justified involvement in the Iraq war are now being trotted out to tell us why war with Iran is inevitable, The same people who were right about what was going on and what would happen are being marginalized or ignored now just as they were then.

To the extent that the corporate press protects the interests of the powerful and the status quo, it also partially explains Jay’s #1. Though all of Jay’s points can also find non-journalistic causes, I think the loss of trust in all institutions does so to a much greater extent,

It’s ironic that Watergate is so often cited as a watershed or high point, because I believe that one can explain the loss of trust by following the money. In a way, Watergate was a high point because people were held accountable for their crimes. When they are not, then that criminal behavior becomes the status quo and the baseline for unacceptable behavior becomes ever-more egregious. This happened with Iran Contra and led directly to the behavior that got us into the Iraq war.

I know that I often paint with a broad brush in talking about journalism, the media and the press. There are many sources who value journalism and its integrity. I often rely on them and want to give them credit here as some may get the impression that I think there are no journalists that do good work. And, I want to say that Jay is one of those people on whom I rely to help with my thinking about journalism.

Nate Bowman says:

“I think you should see #3 and #4 as mirror images: One is the argument the right has used to erode trust in the press. The other is the argument the left has used to erode trust in the press. Both, it should be said, have their roots in real events and real grievances. The rush to war really was an example of the media — including me, as a dumb blogger in college — getting worked. But both are also the result of organized campaigns to take those real events and real grievances and turn them into a durable distrust of the media that can be activated when convenient for the two parties.”

On Ezra Klein’s response:
“I think you should see #3 and #4 as mirror images: One is the argument the right has used to erode trust in the press. The other is the argument the left has used to erode trust in the press.”

I think that assessment is a perfect illustration of what is wrong with journalism today. They are not mirror images in the way Mr. Klein would want us to believe:

1. It creates a false equivalency between something that is misrepresented to create an allegation (which even if true, does not mean the journalism is bad) and something which is fact: Conservatives like to misrepresent the populism inherent in journalism’s mission (to empower people to make informed decisions) as liberalism. Most populist notions go against of today’s conservative tenets such as free markets, less regulation, smaller government, trickle-down economics, security at the sacrifice of civil liberties, etc. So, it is natural that when the press empowers the populace, conservatives will rail against it. Mislabeling populism as liberalism serve a great purpose. On the other hand, most conservative voices exclaim this accusation even when it is not true or is trivial. Their loud voices serve to cow dissident voices. I have witnessed this personally while commenting over at NPR. Anytime the loud voices of conservatives find something that supposedly offends them, NPR is quick to point out that NPR failed; when populist voices object to something, like the airing of a report without disclosure on the product of a corporate sponsor, NPR is quick to say it is, in fact, OK.

2. Mr. Klein implies that these mirror images exist in the realm of politics and are beyond the realm of journalism. I disagree. When journalists become stenographers and practice he said/she said reporting, they contribute to this. When trickle-down economics have been shown to not be true for decades yet their opponents are quoted uncritically, journalism prostitutes itself. When austerity measures are shown to self-defeating in producing any real recovery and “journalists’ simply report on what the next measures are going to be, they are allowing themselves to be used. When corporations have repeatedly shown to be untrustworthy in putting people’s welfare first and journalists don’t point it out in the context of creating new regulations, they are contributing to deaths. When the politicians who propagate these same myths are allowed to no only say them, but are quoted extensively and uncritically, journalists are not journalists.

3. I am not sure how Mr. Klein “got worked” when he was a “dumb blogger in college”. I feel that if journalists just do their job, they can’t get worked.

“That doesn’t mean Republicans or Democrats have stopped reading, or caring about, the news media. Indeed, the loss of trust in the press has, as I understand it, coincided with a rise in the actual consumption of news media. I think we should take that revealed consumer preference for more news and news-like goods at least as seriously as we should take these poll numbers. The parties certainly do. That’s why, rather than trying to persuade their folks to abandon the media, they have contented themselves with trying to persuade them to simply mistrust the media.’

I find this paragraph convoluted. In short,
People have lost trust in the press at the same time that they are consuming more of it.
RATHER THAN ABANDONING THE MEDIA, the parties have CONTENTED themselves to trying to persuade them to mistrust THE MEDIA.

1. I don’t know of any group that has ever advocated for abandoning the media. I don’t know where Mr. Klein gets an evidence for this invention. How would Mr. Klein propose that the parties reach their constituents regularly without the media? To me, it would be self-defeating. All politicians have always TRIED to influence what happens in the media. To the extent that the media do not acquiesce, they practice journalism. To the extent that they do, they practice propaganda or stenography.
2. Once Mr. Klein assumes #1, then it is easy to use the word “contented” in reference to the parties trying to influence their constituents’ view of the media. It makes it seem to me like he is saying, “lucky for the public that the parties did not decide to get them to abandon the media”.
3. I think Mr. Klein misspoke in saying that the parties have gotten At least, I hope he did. As far as I know, neither party has attempted to persuade their “folks” to not trust the media in general. They have tried to persuade them to not trust the media that do not promote the view of reality the party wants to promote. And that changes from one to the other even for individual sources. When the NYT writes something Republicans don’t like, they rail against the Times. When it is something Democrats don’t like, THEY vilify the Times.

Here’s one more possibility, from Charlie Pierce. (Deliberately misspelled NSFW language included.)

Nate Bowman says:

Another idea via Ralph Nader:

“The media regularly cover awards for their reporters, editors and producers. They regularly cover award ceremonies for movie stars, athletes, and business leaders. But they regularly ignore the far more important awards for people who ethically blow the whistle on corruption and suppression in both business and government, risking their careers and more to tell the truth to the American people.

Sure, the Pulitzers, the Academy Awards, the Heisman Trophy and the many business awards may seem exciting. But protecting the health, safety and economic well-being of the American people is important and serious. It is hard to conclude that recalling millions of defective automobiles and dangerous pharmaceuticals, exposing serious contamination of drinking water, lies about the BushObama wars and the huge subprime mortgage crimes should be outside the realm of news coverage.”

Nate Bowman says:

I read the 1996 Fallows article “Why America Hates the Media” that Jay included in Afterthoughts.

I find it the most poignant and very convincing in explaining why people trust the media so much less. In short, it covers a litany of ways that journalists behave that is different from what citizens want and need from them. Not only have none of these things improved, most have gotten worse in the 16 years since Mr. Fallows wrote his essay. I think all of these things are primary and simple causes.

Of course, I think that this resulted from the corporatization, commercialization and conglomeration of the media.

Here are the highlights:
“Journalists justify their intrusiveness and excesses by claiming that they are the public’s representatives, asking the questions their fellow citizens would ask if they had the privilege of meeting with Presidents and senators. In fact they ask questions that only their fellow political professionals care about…They are interested mainly in pure politics and can be coerced into examining the substance of an issue only as a last resort…issues don’t matter except as items for politicians to fight over…the media’s language of political analysis is utterly separate from the terms in which people describe real problems in their lives..There was no overlap whatsoever between the questions the students asked and those raised by the anchors. None of the questions from these news professionals concerned the impact of legislation or politics on people’s lives. Nearly all concerned the struggle for individual advancement among candidates…Competing predictions add almost nothing to our ability to solve public problems or to make sensible choices among complex alternatives. Yet such useless distractions have become a specialty of the political press. They are easy to produce, they allow reporters to act as if they possessed special inside knowledge, and there are no consequences for being wrong…she refuses to acknowledge that secrecy about financial interests undermines journalism’s credibility…There is an astonishing gulf between the way journalists—especially the most prominent ones—think about their impact and the way the public does…This is why the most depressing aspect of the new talking-pundit industry may be the argument made by many practitioners:the whole thing is just a game, which no one should take too seriously.”

The whole thing is worth reading.

Except the first section which contrasts/compares ethics of journalists and military personnel. I disagree with the assumptions, assertions and conclusions of that section which mar an otherwise-brilliant essay.

[Re: my Ezra Klein response: Sorry! I meant to delete that first paragraph before posting.]

Nate Bowman says:

Another idea from Cenk Uygur attending the White House Correspondents’ Dinner. (The whole think is worth reading)

“It’s one thing to have this event be the aberration and be the one time of the year where the watchdogs let down their guard and have civil, polite and even friendly conversations with the people they cover. Again, I would really enjoy that. But the over-chumminess of the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is not the exception, it’s now the rule…

But I guess I was looking for some indication of a recognition that this was a one time exception and that tomorrow morning we would go back to the hard questions about Yemen and dead civilians. But how many of you think that’s going to happen?”

While reading it, another item that could be added to Jay’s list cropped up from me. It came from this from Mr. Uygur:

“…it churned my stomach to see the press so chummy with the guys who run the war machine. That’s not some liberal, anti-military spiel. We need a military, obviously. But shouldn’t the press be the most vigilant in their watchdog duties with these guys?”

The point is how holding any kind of position AUTOMATICALLY marks someone as liberal or conservative or whatever label. (This is related to Jay’s #2 {bad actors] #3 [liberal bias], #4 [working the refs] and #7 [culture wars].) People are not allowed these days to hold views that seem to be against whatever their party bosses say should be the party line. People are not allowed to look at the facts and form opinions on their own without them being marginalized if those opinions don’t toe the party line.

I’ll call this “The elimination of party heterodoxy” but I do it partly tongue in cheek. The interrelatedness of all of these reasons and the resulting over-complication of causality makes me think that the reasons lie elsewhere. And for me it is the deterioration of the practice of journalism resulting from the corporatization, commercialization and conglomeration of media outlets.

Nate Bowman says:

I forgot to post the link to the Cenk Uygur article.

Nate Bowman says:

Another reason the public is losing trust in the media:

“Media silent when administration targets sources…

‘The administration’s aggressive pursuit of leaks represents a challenge to the practice of national security reporting, which depends on the availability of unauthorized sources if it is to produce something more than “authorized” news.’

What’s behind the administration’s fervor isn’t clear, but the news media have largely rolled over and yawned…

But that silence constitutes an abdication of the media’s role as a voice in shaping public policy. After all, the ultimate purpose of reporter shield laws and the defiant tradition of protecting confidential sources isn’t to make writing stories easier for reporters, it’s to ensure that publicly significant information comes to light.

If the news media publish sensitive information, fully believing it ought to be made public, how can they stand by without protest when the government punishes the people who furnished it?…

The challenge now is for the media to rediscover their voice.”

The primary point of contact for most people, at least for those who are less press and Internet savvy, when it comes to the press, is the broadcast media. Print while still relevant in some sense and in some circles, largely irrelevant to the masses, up to the point their reports end up in the broadcast media.

The primary problem with even the better broadcast media is that they continually destroy their own credibility with the worst kind of pandering and screw ups.

For example the CNN’s report in the Travon Martin story which presented an audio recording which after enhancement created the impression that George Zimmerman had said ‘these fucking coons’. A report that was later refuted when another enhanced audio which made it sound like ‘these fucking punks’.

That’s an enormous error, the kind of thing that inflames people and sways opinion, yet what did CNN do about it? Better questions might be how did such a thing happen in the first place? Who was responsible for that decision, how did they make the decision to air that report, and how did they choose the supposed professionals who did the audio enhancement?

That’s the kind of thing that destroys people’s confidence in an organization like CNN and organization in my view that is already almost irrevocably compromised. My trust in them was already very low, yet I didn’t believe them capable of incompetence on that level, now I do. They do it to themselves by hiring people who are not qualified, by allowing people to make decisions who shouldn’t be in a decision-making position. It’s that simple, and that’s what you get when Press jobs, specifically the jobs in the trenches where the real work gets done, no longer attract the best people. When the pay level is so low, that you have to settle for what you can get. I believe that’s what’s going on at CNN as well as at press providers around the world.

Another incident, CNN’s reporting in Haiti, Where Anderson Cooper decided to make himself the story, when they chose to air the video of him supposedly coming to the rescue of a young boy who had been hit in the head with a rock or some such object. In that moment, Anderson Cooper became the subject of the story, no longer a reporter but now an active participant in the chaos being reported on in Haiti. I don’t fault Anderson for helping the boy, I fault him and his CNN staff for airing that video, specifically in the context of a news report, specifically in the manner in which they did so.

To me that looks like nothing more than self-serving promotional-ism, on Anderson Cooper’s part, who in my view is was engaging in brand building at the expense of the people of Haiti. I would call that going over the line. If it had been included in a larger report, instead of made the focus of the report, that would’ve at least been somewhat acceptable, yet I still cannot ignore the much larger ramifications of journalists becoming the story.

New media have got everybody trying to figure out what is acceptable and what is not, but when it comes to ethics, there should be some kind of standard that folks, especially folks who are at the top tier of the journalistic pyramid, must adhere to.

There was a time that I trusted CNN, I counted on them for reliable information, I no longer feel I can do that, even at the most basic level.

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