I have sat in two different churches and heard two different pastors criticize the media. One told the congregation the media was lying to them. He didn’t offer any specifics to back up his claim or even cite any evidence, but nonetheless, a lot of heads nodded in agreement. At another time and place in another church, the pastor told the congregation they should not believe the media. Again, everyone nodded in agreement and there were some quiet mutterings. Darn media. He backed this up by saying he once saw something happen three decades ago, the media account didn’t jibe with what he saw, so therefore, the media can no longer be believed. And at a recent concert I attended, one of the musicians in their song included some lyrics critical of the media. It was kind of a wide-ranging general criticism of America, albeit with a hopeful ending, so might as well include the media.
The point of all this isn’t to be too defensive when folks make broad, general statements about the media. That comes with the territory. Right or wrong, their concerns and doubts are justified, according to results of some surveys of the American public and journalists released Monday by the Media Insight Project. The effort is a collaboration between The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the American Press Institute.
One thing is clear: there is a growing suspicion of the media. Newspapers have some work to do. Yes, in reporting on what’s happening in this world, but in communicating with the very people we are writing for and writing about.
Let’s take a look at some of the findings of the surveys:
w The surveys found about 3 in 4 journalists believe the public’s level of trust in the news media has decreased in the past year. Yet only 44 percent of American adults actually say their level of trust has decreased.
w The public actually wants what most journalists say they want to give them — news stories that are factual and offer context and analysis, said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. But the public doesn’t feel like they’re seeing enough of that work, with 42 percent of Americans saying journalists stray too far into commentary, according to the new research.
These findings are not wrong. At TGI, we subscribe to the Associated Press wire service. They provide an array of stories, photos, cartoons and commentaries for an affordable price for small papers like this one. But even in reading AP news stories, some clearly include what is the reporter’s opinion and personal commentary. If reporters want to include their opinion in a story, the story should be labeled opinion and we can run it on the opinion page. In this area of President Donald Trump and his battle with the liberal media, more and more stories that are presented as news clearly include the reporter’s opinion. It goes beyond reporting facts, results and quotes. When Trump says most the media is unfair to him, there are times, in reading what is presented as news, he is right. Some journalists spin things to match their view. We need to stick to facts and let people decide what they want to think.
This is what Anna Retana, a mother of five from Enumclaw, Washington, had to say to why she cut back on her news watching and reading.
“Most people who watch the news or read a newspaper, they’re wanting to find out the truth,” Retana said. “They don’t want to have tons of propaganda to sift through, and that’s what we see a lot of.”
w Journalists can’t take for granted that the public knows what it’s getting, the AP said. Much of journalism’s shared language and structure is rooted in newspapers, yet many Americans get their news through social media streams, where it isn’t always clear from where stories come, Rosenstiel said. Newspapers have “op-ed” sections, yet half of the public doesn’t know what the term means.
The TGI Forum page is opinion. An editorial is commentary. Letters to the editor are the writer’s opinion. It’s not hard news, though news is often included in opinion pieces. Columns are first-person narratives, also opinions, which we publish on the Forum page from national columnists. I occasionally write a column for the Wellness section. Nick Celario writes a Friday column for the sports section. These, again, are first-person narratives, opinions. We publish guest commentaries, opinions, labeled as “Other Voices.” I generally write the “Our Views,” representing TGI. Allan Parachini writes both opinion pieces and news stories for TGI. His opinion pieces are published on the Forum page and include his column mug. His news stories start on page one and include a standard byline.
The surveys found that may contribute to the finding that most American adults aged 18 to 29 think the news is fairly inaccurate, while most above 30 felt it was fairly accurate.
Newspapers and TV folks would help themselves if we would leave our opinion at home. TV people are actually worse when it comes to letting their views reflect how they report. Sometimes, it’s so blatant, it’s just silly.
w TGI has run editorial cartoons critical of President Trump. This upsets Trump supporters. We have run conservative columnists who are critical of the left. This upsets liberals. We have had people cancel their subscriptions because they were upset TGI was publishing views they opposed on the Forum page, which should include a wide range of viewpoints. Some people, as we all know, are intolerant of other views because they are convinced they are right.
w There’s ’s broad agreement that journalists need to do a better job of explaining their work, the surveys found. Sixty-eight percent of the public said the media should offer more information about its sources — and 66 percent of the journalists agree. Nearly half of the public said journalists should explain how their story was reported and 42 percent of the journalists said the same thing.
The media does tend to refer to “reports,” “studies,” and “officials” without offering specifics as to who these folks are. We like to cite “industry leaders” and “sources,” because no one actually said it but we want to use it.
w Only a little more than half of the people said the press should act as a watchdog to powerful people and institutions, while 93 percent of journalists view this as their role.
w There’s some good news about journalism. When Americans are asked about their favorite news organization, a third of them say they trust it more than they did a year ago, while only about 1 in 10 say their level of trust has declined.
We will strive to improve — though I expect the media will continue to be included in Sunday sermons.
Bill Buley is the editor-in-chief of The Garden Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org