A report from Gallup and the Knight Foundation released Wednesday highlights Americans’ plummeting trust in the news media.
According to the poll, half of Americans believe the mass media intends to misinform with its reporting. It’s evident in the data uncovered that Americans are trying to square an imaginary civic vision of the media with the realities of the industry.
The Gallup/Knight survey found that only 26% of Americans hold a favorable view of the news media, the lowest figure recorded in the survey’s five-year history. 53% have an expressly unfavorable view.
But the most notable figure is that 50% of Americans believe that “most national news organizations intend to mislead, misinform or persuade the public.”
In other words, it’s not that these Americans think the news media falls short of adequately informing consumers, they believe it is actively working to deceive the public.
This release was the second part of the Gallup/Knight study. Part one frames out what the survey authors and many Americans mistakenly see as the root of the problem—the tension between news as a business and news as a public good.
We’re all taught from a young age that a free and independent press is instrumental to the democratic process. That it’s the job of journalists to keep the public up to speed on the issues so they can make informed and rational decisions when choosing a candidate or voting on a proposition.
Yet 76% of those surveyed admit that “news organizations are first and foremost businesses, motivated by their financial interests and goals.”
In the report, the conclusion made clear in both the framing by the authors and the subjects’ answers is that the incentives of business corrupt the higher purpose of journalism.
But the truth is the exact opposite. It’s the aim for an impossible and undesirable democratic ideal that explains the rot in today’s news media.
The ideal is impossible because the press cannot operate independently from government and private forces. Journalism must be funded somehow, and media organizations will therefore be bound by the wants of government officials, advertisers, donors, or news consumers. There is no escaping this.
And it is undesirable because, like democracy itself, this idealized vision of the press rests on the assumption that a population gets to collectively make decisions for both minority groups within that population and for certain foreign groups against their will.
The “public” does not have any such right. But by acting like it does, the government can exert force all over the world and then tell us that it’s our responsibility to stay informed on all they’re doing because we collectively steer the ship. In other words, the government takes a bunch of things that are not our business and makes them our business.
The message that good citizens are up to date on the news mixed with the politicization of everything acts, in effect, as a subsidy of the news media that companies gleefully take advantage of.
It also hands news organizations a tremendous amount of political power. And they use it to benefit themselves and their friends in government and industry. Today’s media is a rotten, crony mess, and this survey shows that about half of Americans are now picking up on it.