Election Impact: Don’t Give Up on ‘The Media’
By Nathan Gonzales,
Inside Elections Editor and Publisher
Public Affairs Council Senior Political Analyst
I’m never going to stick up for everything “The Media” does, but a free press is a necessary component of a functioning democracy and there are a few things that could help restore some trust between the press and average citizens.
At the outset, let’s acknowledge that the media has plenty of room to improve. Reporters make mistakes. Some media outlets have a bias, whether it’s intentional or unintentional, implicit with its coverage choices or more explicit by promoting candidates and causes. CNN’s handling of former President Donald Trump’s recent town hall was not a shining moment for journalism in America.
But the media plays an important accountability role in our politics. For example, without the media coverage of GOP Rep. George Santos of New York, we might not ever have known the extent to which he lied about his background and finances. We wouldn’t know that the congressman who co-sponsored legislation aimed at cracking down on unemployment fraud allegedly committed unemployment fraud himself.
Now Santos is indicted on 13 federal charges in New York that include wire fraud, money laundering, theft of public funds and false statements to the House of Representatives. The normal course of the campaign wasn’t enough to uncover the multitude of falsehoods, since Democrats didn’t find his issues through the opposition research process and didn’t highlight them to voters before the general election he won by 8 points in a competitive district.
The media has been an important player in the Santos saga and was instrumental in holding other politicians accountable. And yet, there’s plenty of distrust in the media and complaining about press coverage.
Just 7 percent of Americans had a “great deal” of trust and confidence in the media’s ability to report the news “fully, accurately and fairly,” according to a Gallup poll last fall, while 27% said they had “a fair amount.” That’s in contrast to 28% of Americans who said they did not have very much confidence and 38% who said they had no confidence at all. Overall, that’s close to the lowest level of confidence in the media since Gallup started asking the question in the early 1970s.
It’s worth noting that there’s a clear partisan divide when it comes to trust in the media. Eighty-six percent of Republicans said they had no confidence or not very much confidence in the media, compared with 29% of Democrats who shared the same view. While GOP confidence in the media hasn’t been above 50% in 25 years, it noticeably dropped since Trump took the helm of the party and made demonizing the media one of his core messages.
More recently, YouGov got some attention for a survey rating the trustworthiness of individual media outlets. According to the poll, The Weather Channel, PBS and the BBC were the most trusted while Infowars, The Daily Caller and Breitbart News were the least trusted.
But, as with any survey, it’s good to analyze the methodology and numbers.
“What’s lacking here is any assurance that those being surveyed are familiar enough to accurately rate the outlets they’ve been asked to judge,” wrote Jack Shafer in Politico. “Almost nobody — not even press critics — keeps a close enough tab on 56 outlets, at least a dozen of which are paywalled or require a cable subscription, to render a fair appraisal of all of them. … Allowing respondents to judge the trustworthiness of outlets without determining how often they consume them is like asking a kid to rate the flavors from the Baskin-Robbins library he’s never tasted.”
Even though that specific poll has its limits, distrust of the media is clearly a problem. So how can we break the cycle of distrust?
There are at least a couple of concrete steps the media can take to restore trust with readers and viewers.
Stop endorsing candidates. First of all, I’m not convinced that media endorsements have a real impact on races. I have a hard time believing there is a large population of undecided voters waiting for an editorial board of a local or national paper to tell them how to vote.
Endorsing candidates feeds Americans’ distrust in the media and the belief that the media is biased. The average person probably doesn’t know or doesn’t believe there is a wall between the editorial board and reporters in newspaper organizations. So if a paper endorses a candidate, there is an assumption that the paper is friendly to that candidate, cause or party.
Be careful with adjectives. Using terms such as “right-wing” and “left-wing” or even “very” when coupled with “conservative” or “liberal” can be examples of bias. Terms like that are subjective, are difficult to quantify, and can be a tell for readers looking for evidence that a story is skewed.
My team at Inside Elections will tell you that I’m often asking for evidence to back up our usage of adjectives before we publish a story, and sometimes even asking whether an adjective is necessary at all. Instead of using amorphous boilerplate ideological language, it’s better to be specific about individual votes a politician has taken or quote them directly on something they said to inform readers about who the candidates are and what they stand for.
What can voters do to restore some of the media’s credibility?
Understand how the media operates. Former South Carolina governor and 2024 presidential candidate Nikki Haley recently said that senior White House adviser Susan Rice was running the country at one point, rather than President Joe Biden.
Yes, Biden is old. But the conspiracy theory that there’s a shadow president is outlandish because it means dozens of competing media companies would have needed to conspire together to suppress one of the biggest stories in U.S. history.
A lot of confusion, or even conspiracies, about the media can be cleared up by remembering that the vast majority of media companies are businesses, competing with other businesses, trying to make a profit.
A few publications are not-for-profit entities, such as The Texas Tribune and The Nevada Independent. But those journalistic models are the exceptions.
That means most media companies have a vested interest in working separately to uncover stories no one else is covering to gain a reputation as the best source of news. And on a practical level, reporters and editors are sometimes contractually prohibited from working with colleagues at another company. So the idea that media companies are conspiring to help a politician or a party is ridiculous.
Stop using the term “The Media.” Whenever someone says “The Media,” they might as well say, “news coverage I don’t like,” because the media doesn’t act as a single entity with a single voice. To be accurate, “The Media” would encompass hundreds of news outlets across the country, across various mediums, and sometimes across ideologies.
Reporters make mistakes, but that shouldn’t impugn all other media outlets. If you don’t like some news coverage, be specific about the outlet and story when pointing out errors or trying to hold them accountable.
Be part of the solution. If voters don’t like how media companies cover the news, they have an opportunity to influence the process. Keeping in mind that most media companies are trying to make money and are competing for readers and viewers. That mindset can drive editorial decisions, including what stories get covered and what gets ignored. That means voters reward specific types of news coverage with their clicks and eyeballs.
Americans might say they want nonpartisan news, but if they’re clicking only on right-leaning or left-leaning articles or watching ideological cable shows, then they’re incentivizing more ideological programming. The bottom line is that if you find a media outlet that covers the news the right way, watch it, click on it, read it, share it, and maybe even pay for it.
It’s easy to blame the creators, or the media companies, for news coverage, but consumers and voters are just as much a part of the process. And while it might be amusing to celebrate layoffs at media companies you don’t like or enjoy the demise of various outlets, I don’t think anyone wants to live in a society where there are no journalists at least trying to find shreds of truth in chaos.
Nathan L. Gonzales is a senior political analyst for the Public Affairs Council and editor of Inside Elections, a nonpartisan newsletter with a subscription package designed to boost PACs with a regular newsletter and exclusive conference call. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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