Who: Christopher Joseph Westgate, Ph.D., associate professor and co-director of Media & Communication Studies at Johnson & Wales University
Agree or Disagree with Article: Disagree
His Defense: The question asked in Derek Thompson’s article “Why Do Americans Distrust the Media?” is not an interesting one. Does the ability of a journalist to do good work really depend on the confidence levels of audiences? Monitoring those levels is not part of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics. While the code tells journalists to "seek truth and report it," seeking and reporting are processes that do not necessarily hinge on the confidence of readers, listeners, or viewers. The code also states that journalists "should encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media," but trust enters into that equation only to the extent that the general public believes the media will listen to feedback.
Misinformation existed long before the dawn of the Information Age, so any decline in trust cannot be attributed to the latest technology. The need to verify information — and, I would argue, to seek multiple truths — has never not existed, though we may have become more conscious of that need over the last century. Thompson would do well to spend more time researching the question of whether readers had more confidence in the news business before 1997, when the Gallup line graph in his story begins. Could the diffusion of the Internet into more private and public spaces help to explain why 1997 is the first year on that graph? Certainly the answer is more complicated than what a technological determinist could conceive of—and we need more diachronic data than what the line graph provides before we can begin to answer the question that Thompson asks in his story’s headline.
Connecting trust to politics is shortsighted, after all, because journalists cover many other issues. Consider the bigger picture: what is not covered during presidential election periods? Are trust levels lower because too much time is spent on politics and so many other stories are left out of the news cycle? One contention may be that editors use political stories to block less explicitly political issues from becoming part of the news agenda. The problem, then, becomes one of selection, not the bifurcation of an electorate, as Thompson suggests.
Objectivity may have been practiced more often decades ago than today, but partially at best —even Walter Cronkite selected what to leave in and out of his evening newscasts. While journalists can approximate objectivity, the reality is that facts are still gathered by human beings who selectively observe and listen. Even algorithmic media depend on human writers, coders, and programmers. Indeed, Thompson acknowledges his own lack of objectivity when he writes that it is "often a good thing" that "journalists are more comfortable taking strong positions on partisan issues than they used to be.”
Possible Solution: Americans don't "distrust the media" due to a lack of objectivity but rather a lack of self-criticism. There have long been criticisms, however softly communicated, of large institutions that advance a particular school of thought at the expense of another, but these critiques have come from outside of the institutions themselves. We need only look to the Occupy movement as an example of how distrust does not pertain to any one kind of industry — media or otherwise — but rather applies to an entire system founded on the tenets of capitalism. Today, that distrust manifests in demonstrations of income inequality, but the issues continue to change. Checks and balances are needed, but those who hope to perform a final check or balance will quickly realize the expectation that they be held accountable as well. All commercial organizations need to be critical of themselves and the larger neoliberal structures in which they operate.
An alternate title for Thompson’s article could be "How Often Do Americans Think Critically?" The alternate article would require supporting data that show climbing rates of critical thinking. While an increase in critical thinking may be a plausible answer to the question "Why do Americans Distrust the Media?" (or any other institution), such rates seem to be unevenly acknowledged, if at all. Until the level of critical thinking about private and public institutions ticks upward, we will continue to remain distracted by red herrings.
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