Ann McFeatters : Why doesn't the public trust media?

Published 12:00 am Sunday, September 20, 2009

You don’t trust us. You really don’t. That’s the message to the media from a new poll by the Pew Research Center for People and the Press. It’s a devastating look at how little respect Americans have for mainstream newspapers and television news.
Interviewing 1,506 adults, 18 and older, in July and August by landline and cell phone, Pew’s researchers found that only 29 percent say news organizations “generally get the facts straight.”
A whopping 63 percent insist news stories are “often inaccurate.” In 1985, in the first survey, only 34 percent said news stories were often inaccurate. Two years ago, 53 percent expressed concern.
Why is this?
In a huge nation such as ours, if people don’t believe they have the facts, how can they make decisions on everything from overhauling health care to deciding if more soldiers should be sent to Afghanistan?
Trying desperately to stay afloat in a diabolical recession, news organizations have become more opinionated. Fox News gives the conservative point of view; MSNBC slants to the left; CNN tries to straddle the middle.
Networks, in only a few minutes each night, try to give viewers the big news of the day but anger many by what they leave out.
Newspapers, struggling to survive, are constantly changing focus. They veer from the big picture to local news, ditch international and national news in favor of celebrity news and fluff, put more readers’ opinions on the editorial (opinion) pages and cut staff and resources.
And readers complain, rightly, about mistakes in obituaries.
Sadly, nobody has yet found a formula that works to increase revenue in an age of twittering, blogging and instant communication.
Some of the enmity toward traditional media is their arrogance, not admitting or correcting mistakes quickly and not giving readers and viewers enough bang for their buck.
Most newspaper people work incredibly hard to produce the same amount of copy in an atmosphere of fewer, less experienced staff members and salary cuts. That doesn’t excuse inferior products.
Another reason for distrust of the news media is virulent political polarization. More people want their own views directly mirrored in the media they see and read. Many are impatient and even angry with other views.
But most people are so stressed out with finances and jobs and family duties, they have insufficient time, inclination or money to pursue a variety of news outlets. Instead of reading a daily newspaper, watching the evening news, listening to the radio and checking cable channels, blogs and web sites, they catch the news however they can on the fly and complain loudly if it is not to their liking.
Liberals and conservatives alike believe the news they get is biased, incomplete or erroneous.
There is even a belief that news organizations are “too critical” of America by exposing things that do not reflect the best face of the country.
Sixty percent of Republicans, 33 percent of Democrats and 41 percent of Independents believe the media is anti-America.
But there is some strange, even comforting news. Americans overwhelmingly agree that it would be “an important loss” if major news sources disappeared.
Some 82 percent said that if all local television news programs went off the air and shut down their web sites, the country would suffer. Sixty-eight percent said it would be a blow if large national newspapers such as USA Today, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal stopped publishing and closed their Web sites. As for the future, 83 percent of people aged 18 to 29 said national news sources must stay in business.
Ironically, Republicans and Democrats agree in almost the same numbers that the loss of major news outlets would hurt the nation.
So we’ve got a classic Catch-22. Readers and viewers want more thorough and accurate reporting but aren’t willing to pay for it unless it dramatically improves.
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Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. E-mail address: amcfeatters@nationalpress. com.