Can we trust the news?
Is it any surprise that people are having trouble knowing who or what to believe anymore? The public seems polarized on contentious issues (i.e., decisions about whether or not to wear masks or actively practice social distancing during the pandemic). I’m not a news-junkie but I do like to be informed. I read three or four news sites a day and watch the evening news when I’m following an issue of importance. I have become very selective about which news platforms I access however, and personally avoid news that comes to me via social media. These days, my approach to all news information includes a healthy dose of skepticism. I question the source, the facts, and the motivation behind the reporting. This is a practice that has gradually developed as I have become increasingly concerned about who I can trust when it comes to the news.
Let me back up a bit. As a university student in the seventies, I was taught that the medium is the message. We discussed the controversial phrase developed by Marshall McLuhan and posited in his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. To be truthful, I found his work a little mystifying and overly theoretical at the time. It was the seventies after all, long before the widespread explosion of social media. And although early communication networks began to be put in place first for military and then other specialized applications through the eighties, the widespread public use of email, instant news feeds, Facebook, Messenger, Instagram, Twitter and a host of other such platforms were not yet part of our day-to-day experience.
Fast-forward to the last few years. New terminology has once again entered our lexicon. We use phrases like: alternative facts, fabulists and fake news. Truth-telling must be separated out from among the other sound bites of information that we are constantly subjected to. Societal norms have devolved to the point where we apparently find it necessary to qualify our remarks by categorizing them as “transparent” or “research-based.” Beyond what we once knew as advertising, careers have now been established by people who twist words for a living and call themselves spin-doctors. The presence of fact checkers, lie counters, and myth busters quite often follow contentious articles, public statements and speeches. Social media influencers are the people who utilize their personal platforms to establish trends, fads and to set public opinion. They have become very much a part of the mainstream cultural and economic discourse.
It’s astonishing to me how quickly we have adjusted our moral compasses to embrace this new normal in our communications. The American Press Institute published an article, “The lost meaning of ‘objectivity,’” Dec.23, 2020 The lost meaning of ‘objectivity’ – American Press Institute ) which I found particularly helpful. In the article, the authors Walter Dean and Tom Rosenstiel, both senior in the API, explore the concept of journalistic objectivity and bias. It’s an enlightening read. They acknowledge that journalists have always had bias but have purposefully adopted objective methods of gathering facts and evidence and attempt to present these in a neutral voice. Evidence-based journalism follows a scientific model where the journalist aspires to present the results of a “common intellectual method and common area of valid fact.” Despite the desire for such professional ethics to be held universally, we can all think of instances where public figures, in particular, have been aggressively targeted by contemporary media reporting.
Michael Schudson in the Columbia Journalism Review, wrote a piece called, “The Fall, Rise, and Fall of Media Trust” (Winter 2019, The Fall, Rise, and Fall of Media Trust – Columbia Journalism Review (cjr.org)). Schudson traces the public distrust of newspapers as far back as George Washington. His recap of the distrust between former President, Richard Nixon and the media was especially interesting: “Nixon judged journalists to be his opponents… and declared to his staff that ‘the press is the enemy’ a dozen times…” For those of us who lived through the Nixon era, this might not be particularly shocking. Schudson continues his piece by explaining how the “the limitations of straitjacketed objectivity came to be understood and journalism began to embrace the necessity of interpretation,” and that this shift took place at a time when trust in government was eroding. Today, the presence of public figures actively decrying the truthfulness of news reporting and flatly denying objective facts and evidence, further contributes to the overall erosion of trust.
The widely understood objective of journalistic reporting, in the political sphere in particular, has long been to seek and share truth and to hold the government and its public servants accountable. It’s no wonder then, that there should suddenly be such huge conflicts between certain public figures and the media. Our reliance on social media is not exempt from these discussions. In a piece published in SocialMedia Today, on February 1, 2020, titled, “New Report Shows Universal Distrust in Social Media as a News Source,” (New Report Shows Universal Distrust in Social Media as a News Source | Social Media Today), Andrew Hutchinson reviewed a report on the public perception of social media platforms. The report revealed levels of “far more distrust than trust of social media sites as sources for political and election news. And the most distrusted are the three giants of the social media landscape – Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.” Essentially, the public appears to hold social media responsible for the dissemination of “fake” news. This is a troubling finding, considering that research also indicates that “68% of Americans now get at least some news content via social media.” What Hutchinson posits is that while “more and more people are getting their news info from social media, informing their opinions on the issues of the day… no one trusts the information they’re reading.” While I do not have Canadian statistics on this issue, it would seem that at least some aspects of the same dichotomy would apply here as well.
Contributing to our general distrust is an awareness that both viewer/reader engagement (i.e., ratings) are the drivers for success. This has tempted platforms to include sensationalist material and entertaining news coverage in order to boost their numbers. The very real danger of the erosion of truth in a society is that when people become accustomed to dishonesty, when they lose their ability to distinguish between fact and fiction, when they don’t recognize bias, they then become subject to manipulation and may fall prey to the potentially damaging consequences of misinformation. We do not need to look very far to find examples in recent political events of how and when concrete facts and evidence have been challenged, disputed and discredited. We all need to practice media scrutiny in order to safeguard ourselves against those who might wish to shape our behaviours and belief systems.