Trust in media continues to drop

How low can we go?

Hello Tuesday that’s actually Monday, which is fine since most of us haven’t known what day it’s been since March. Hope you had a good weekend. 

A quick housekeeping note: the 6-year-old starts virtual school today, so timing of this newsletter may shift as we figure out the whole routine. In one very weird way, it’s a good thing I’m not working (though I’d very much like to; if you’re hiring in a newsroom, let’s talk to see how we can complement each other), as my wife will be with the 6-year-old while I entertain the soon-to-be 3-year-old. This remote learning is going to be incredibly stressful for parents, so please be empathetic to your colleagues who are parents. And good luck to all the teachers and students and parents out there.

On Friday, we talked about The Atlantic’s anonymous-filled story about President Trump’s thoughts on the military. We talked about how his strategy over the last four years, chipping away at the trust of the media by decrying “fake news” as often as possible, can set up a thorny election night. 

Over the weekend, CBS and YouGov put out a poll that found “voters” are rapidly losing trust from important sources when it comes to information about coronavirus. 

The biggest drop in confidence? The CDC. It’s not hard to draw a line back to the president. 

Richard Besser, a former director of the CDC, told PBS News Hour in July:

And then we hear politicians, starting at the White House, talk about how there's nothing to worry about, how public health is overplaying this. And the injection of politics into a public health response is extremely dangerous for the nation.

CDC is the nation's public health agency. And their guidance informs what states do, what local public health does. By injecting politics into it and undermining the trust that we need to have in that guidance, it puts people's lives at risk.

But we can’t ignore how only 35 percent of registered voters trust “the national media” for information about the coronavirus. The media’s function is to inform society with the closest thing possible to the truth. Ideally. As the New York Times’ Ben Smith argued this weekend, that sometimes isn’t the case. Journalists, he says, often play to their own egos than informing an audience, where they’re the star of their own show:

toward self-importance, toward making ourselves the story and toward telling you exactly what you want to hear. And you’re leading us into a dangerous temptation at a time of maximum pressure on the free press.

But in the for-profit world of the media business, the incentives of both subscription sales and personal brand-building pull journalists in the opposite direction. Operators in the subscription business — which includes cable and a growing share of online and print outlets — have found success in telling you what you want to hear, and in signaling that they are, in some sense, on your team.

There’s some data behind this thinking, too. Last Monday, Pew Research Center dropped its year-long study into how Americans view the media. And...it’s not pretty.  

We know that trust has been declining for years, and Pew found that

Many Americans remain skeptical toward the news media, questioning not only the quality of journalists’ work but their intentions behind it. For instance, no more than half of U.S. adults have confidence in journalists to act in the best interests of the public, or think that other Americans have confidence in the institution. And the public is more likely than not to say that news organizations do not care about the people they report on.

While most Americans (61%) expect the news they get to be accurate, nearly seven-in-ten (69%) think news organizations generally try to cover up mistakes when they do happen.

The reasons for why Americans think these mistakes happen underscore the distrust that substantial portions of the public feel: Many say that careless reporting (55%) or even a desire to mislead the public (44%) are major factors behind significant mistakes in news stories, although other, less negligent or nefarious reasons such as the rapid pace of breaking news (53%) also are seen as responsible for mistakes.

Again, it’s hard not to put these thoughts into context of two huge motivating factors. First, the president of the United States railing against the media (I’d also wager that President Obama’s attitudes and actions towards the media were a harbinger); two, the proliferation of social platforms playing to our base instincts of tribalism while at the same time creating and propagating narratives from unreliable narrators. 

Conspiracy theories are a cornerstone of America, but they were once relegated to the margins, if not only one particular locale. If Facebook existed in 1692, Salem wouldn’t be the only town known for having witch trials. 

When it comes to the spread of misinformation of the coronavirus, researchers are looking at the platforms’ responsibility in how the election turns out. The platforms’ role  is, in a word, vital. 

Nieman Lab reports:

The social platforms’ policies are filled with gray areas that don’t always make it clear which types of election-related misinformation must be taken down. A recent report from the Election Integrity Partnership — a collaboration between the Stanford Internet Observatory and Program on Democracy and the Internet, Graphika, the Atlantic Council’s Digital Forensic Research Lab, and the University of Washington’s Center for an Informed Public — finds that “few platforms [out of 14 studied] have comprehensive policies on election-related content as of August 2020,” and that the category of misinformation that “aims to delegitimize election results on the basis of false claims” is particularly problematic because “none of these platforms have clear, transparent policies on this type of content, which is likely to make enforcement difficult and uneven.”

One last thing, though. The political press has often, over the last 30 years, shown poor news judgement, leaning into both-sidesims and false equivalencies. 

Press Run’s Eric Bolling pointed out the AP’s role in this campaign (click through to see a deeper look at the AP’s “long history of allowing Republicans to shape the wire service's campaign and presidential storylines.”):

The AP stressed the "dizzyingly different versions of reality" offered by the two candidates, and that their "conflicting messages carry at least a sliver of truth, some much more than others."

Incredibly, the AP never informs readers which "version" of reality is accurate (Biden), and which one is a complete fabrication (Trump). And the AP never details what "sliver of truth" is attached to Trump's claim that the pandemic is basically over. For the AP, the news story is that Biden and Trump are painting different portraits of America — that's what's defining the campaign.

At a time when the nation desperately needs clear-headed campaign reporting as the incumbent abandons all traditions and guidelines for a presidential campaign, the AP provides the opposite — a Both Sides bonanza that helps Trump muddy the waters.

Whether it’s focusing on the extra-marital affairs of a president, the wall-to-wall coverage of emails, “gaffes” of 47 percent, baskets of deplorables, or clinging to guns and religion, the press, it can be argued, has hit many unforced errors. So combine the self-inflicted wounds over the last couple decades with the constant drumbeat of the current president, and throw in the conduit of spreading lies faster than even Mark Twain imagined, and we have a moment where a third of Americans trust the people who inform them about a pandemic. We need to do better. 

Thank you for allowing me in your inbox, today and every day. If you have tips or thoughts on the newsletter, drop me a line. Or you can follow me on Twitter. If you enjoyed this edition, please consider sharing across your social networks. 

Pink Floyd, “Another Brick in the Wall”

Some interesting links:

For streaming:

  • How Netflix’s Reed Hastings rewrote the Hollywood script (Forbes)

  • ‘Mulan’ Criticized for Crediting Chinese Bureau Tied to Muslim Concentration Camps (The Wrap)

  • `Susan Rovner Exits Warner Bros. for Top NBCUniversal Entertainment Programming Post (Hollywood Reporter)

For publishers:

  • Gannett Hires Spotify Veteran in Push for Digital News Subscribers (WSJ)

For media criticism:

  • Publisher locks Capital Gazette staff out of their building in Annapolis (WaPo)

For marketers:

  • Why those prescription drugs are now oh-oh-oh so sexy (Ad Age)

For agencies:

  • WPP CEO Apologizes For Ageist Faux Pas (MediaPost)