Why don’t we trust the press?

I have been using Gallup data for years to hammer home the point that blogging and bloggers are a response to the loss of trust in the professional press, not a cause. Gallup released this year’s data this week, and it continues the trend. Press trust has been slipping since 1976, and today just 47% of Americans have trust in the press.

latest Gallup numbers added

For the eighth year in a row, more people distrust the press than trust it, but the curious question is why? There’s the obvious issues of bias and the he said/she said matter and others concepts of which Jay Rosen writes, including his brilliant “Church of the Savvy.”

But I think there’s something else going on that is a direct result of the Web and the exposure people are given to other ways of thinking and, most importantly, varieties of journalistic output. People can now see the same “story” in many different forms — as it develops — and that poses a serious problem for those institutions who pretend that theirs is the only voice that matters. Moreover, horizontally-connected consumers can now share their thoughts with each other, which has the unintended consequence of destroying the authority that comes with any single voice. News competition is seen for the silliness that it really is, and all of the hype that professionals have come to believe about ourselves is laid bare for all to see.

Nobody ever mentions anybody else in the world of news gathering unless a copyright claim forces it. Before the Web, this was understandable, because as far as anybody knew, our reporters had all the angles on everything. The idea that the guy across town had it first was irrelevant, so why mention it? As far as our viewers or readers were concerned, we were the font of all knowledge. Besides, we had the time to gather everything we needed anyway. It was the world of the “finished” news product.

But now, with news in real time, everybody can clearly see stories develop across all sources. We know who got it first. We know when something is exclusive. Our hype is just nonsense.

Aggregation has made it possible for news junkies (let’s not underestimate their influence on everybody else) to be simultaneously informed by anyone of their choosing, and in the development of a story, they can “see” many things and ask logical questions, such as:

  • why don’t we attribute facts to other outlets?
  • why don’t we link to other outlets?
  • why don’t we quote other outlets?
  • why don’t we curate the work of everybody to bring the audience the whole story?
  • why is our “business” more important than the news we’re trying to cover?

Without any of the above, it appears to the average reader or viewer that we’re in it for the competition — to show them that we don’t need anybody else’s efforts — not to serve the information needs of the community. This has the effect of gutting our own predispositions and the very methods by which we operate, and I think it produces a cynicism in the audience that wasn’t there just ten years ago.

The people formerly known as the audience have always been more hip to our ways that we would ever admit, but the Web has further crystallized everything. We can “channel change” to determine for ourselves who has the best coverage, but the truth is we’re only interested in the story, not in any one outlet’s coverage thereof.

News is a process, not a finished product, and the Web is making that perfectly clear these days. Trust in the process is different than trust in the finished product, and this is doubtless impacting overall views of trust in the press. Professionals want to point to the product when examining the matter of trust, but I think the evidence suggests something entirely different. Moreover, I think we’re going to have to address all of this in order to rightly prepare for a future that is much more interested in the process than the finished product.


  1. I wonder what the graph would look like for blogs. I agree that blogs are a response, not a cause, but I wonder if, despite that, they’re still considered less trustworthy than mainstream media channels.

  2. I’ve been considering putting this into blog form… but, your post left out what for me is the biggest reason for the cynicism.

    In the past 12 months we have had two family stories go through the CBC news cycle here in Canada. In both instances, they have added a tweak to the story to make it ‘newsworthy’.

    In the former, my wife was discussing the marketing strategies of the local children’s hospital. In the news story they added the word ‘complaining’ to the title, even though her position was clearly not one of complaint. We issues a formal complaint, as well as trying to deal with some nasty commentary in the comments.

    This week, we were in the news as we used the people on twitter to identify the a poisonous berry that our daughter had eaten. the story read ‘twitter helps save the life of toddler’ which, when you read the story, is patently not true.

    They are small examples of a greater sensationalism that abounds in media circles. It is considered normal and necessary to LIE about a story to make it interesting. There are any number of terms that are substituted for the word lie, and it is a standard part of the profession to do this, but with the added transparency provided by the things you describe, the lying is now also transparent.

    Tough to trust an industry that claims to be devoted to information gathering and interpretation when misleading people is central to the process.

  3. Debbie Brady says

    In our household it has frequently been observed that it’s not just the stories that we’ve been involved in or familiar with that have often been mispublished by the media. We rarely watch or listen to the news. I’ll also mention that ‘news’ more often than not is synonymous with ‘stories about negative happenings’. With all the stress and business consuming our lives it would be nice to have a bigger percentage of celebratory items in the news…it doesn’t always have to be bad.

  4. Great post, Terry. One further point I’ve been making is that journalists always blame partisan discontent or crazies on the Net, but there is a simpler problem at work: simple factual inaccuracies that were once hidden from view or seen as isolated incidents become, in the Web era, a networked quilt of unreliability. People can see that their individual experiences of having their names misspelled or stories misrepresented when they (or their business or local community) get covered are not isolated but part of a larger pattern.

    Journalists need to take much more seriously their basic commitment to getting the facts right and being responsive to the community when they make mistakes, which they are bound to do. Yet a ridiculous number of news organizations still make it hard for people to report the simplest kinds of errors and problems. (This is the logic behind my MediaBugs.org project, local in the Bay Area right now but going national soon…)

  5. While I think that what you say it true — it *makes sense*, it is consistent with what I see, but it is *not* condistent with the graph that you posted. The Web hit in 1994, but there’s nary a hiccup at 1994. The slide started way back in 1976, so there is something else going on.

    The graph also looks a bit funny — much too smooth for much too long starting in 1976. It would be nice to show the actual data points instead of a line between them.

  6. I’m not sure all readers want a non-finished product.
    The most vocals, those with time on their hands, bloggers whiching they were journalists, people with an opinion not represented by major media, or by the media they are reading ask it, vocally — but paradoxically, they also demand that you include links to articles that they have already read, assuming other readers might have missed it.

    Regarding over-simplification and sensationalism, I’m afraid “social media” is guiltier than classical media: at least, editors tend to curb it, to appease their conscience. ReTweeters usually don’t have so much qualms… I’m not saying trying to judge or innocent either: I’m saying we need a distinct tool to enforce realism in the titles, because so far the most read sources care for audience an little else, and sensationalism still drives that. Please re-read carefully: I didn’t write “most writers” but “the most read sources”, those with audience in mind who tend to succeed in maximising that.
    We need to rate titles, tweet, after having read the piece, with a dedicated tool — and we need to associate the average score to the author’s reputation.


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