The larger trends we see in the data on content, audience, economics, ownership, and newsroom investment all could add to public distrust of the news media. There is something, in other words, of a vicious cycle in the public attitude data. As declining audience leads to newsroom cutbacks and other financial fixes, these reinforce the public’s suspicions that news organizations are motivated more by economics than public service.
There is little sense in 2004 of a quick or simple way out. Some news organizations have clearly tried to respond, with efforts like civic journalism, or credibility initiatives by editors groups, or ethics training by television news directors groups, or attempts by news organizations to be more responsive to the public by inviting them into the newsroom.
These steps seem to address the problem, at least in small ways, that newsrooms can control. Yet they have not shown up in the numbers. Indeed, there is only one up-tick in the last 18 years in the general approval or attitudes toward the news media, in the survey data. That came in November 2001, after the terrorist attacks.1 The only measurable differences in press performance during that period were these: the press had suddenly become far more serious in what it covered, and more factual and less interpretative in the way it covered it; the media suddenly devoted enormous resources to covering a story of paramount importance even if it cost them money; as a nation we faced a crisis that made the need for journalism more urgent.2
Those changes in news agenda, though, were not sustained. Within a few months, as the urgency of events subsided, studies found virtually no difference in the local news agenda and only a partial change in the agenda of nightly network news than before September 11.3 And by August 2002, Pew Center Surveys found the rise in trust to have fallen back.4
It is possible that the public is simply of two minds. It wants a more entertainment-infused, more sensationalized, more interpretative style of news, and the media have given it to them. The public then feels repulsed and derides the messenger for delivering it.
It is also possible that this declining trust has only a little to do with the press, that these attitudes toward the news media are only a reflection of a declining trust in all institutions.
Brushing off these issues as a sign of public hypocrisy or general skepticism, however, seems too glib. The public attitudes aside, something is changing in the news media. Faced with declining audiences, many major news institutions have changed their product in a way that costs less to produce while still attracting an audience. The public senses this and says it doesn’t like it.
Blaming the news media for these changes is too easy. Journalism faces more difficult economic circumstances than it once did. Yet the way the news industry responded has helped erode public trust. How long can the profession of journalism endure if people increasingly don’t believe it? To reverse the slide in audience and trust will probably take a major change in press behavior, one that will make the news more relevant and customizable and at the same time suggest to the public, as it did briefly after September 11, that the news industry is more concerned with the public good than Americans suspect.
1. “Terror Coverage Boosts News Media’s Images,” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, November 28, 2001, available at http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=143.
2. “Return to Normalcy: How the Media Have Covered the War on Terrorism,” Project for Excellence in Journalism, January 28, 2002, available at http://www.journalism.org/resources/research/reports/normalcy/default.asp. “Before and After: How the War on Terrorism Has Changed the News Agenda, Network Television, June to October, 2001,” Project for Excellence in Journalism, November 19, 2001, available at http://www.journalism.org/resources/research/reports/agenda/default.asp.
4. “News Media’s Improved Image Proves Short-lived,” Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, August 4, 2002, available at http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=159.