This shorter piece is lifted from my final exam response for my Media and Politics (J9018) course.
The news media enjoyed a positive image at the wake of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s (Gronke & Cook, 2007). That was the last time evaluations of the news media peaked. This year, a Gallup poll showed that 57% of Americans have little or no trust in the media—a record high since the group started polling in 1973 (Morales, 2010). In a survey last year, the Pew Research also found that 63% of Americans agreed that news stories had been inaccurate and 60% said news organizations are politically biased—the worst marks since 1985 (Pew Research, 2009).
It is easy to argue that it’s not just the news media that earned the disdain of the public. Other public institutions, too—the executive, the legislative and even the judiciary—are distrusted by Americans (Gronke & Cook, 2007; Pew Research, 2009). The distrust of the news media is apparently related to the erosion of the public’s confidence in many institutions (Gronke & Cook, 2007). That is difficult to reconcile, however, with the idea that the news media are the public’s main sources of information—the bases of the public’s perception of institutions. The news media have been criticized to be obsessed with what is negative (Bennett, 2003; Zaller, 2003), but what this eroding public trust seems to be showing is that reporting about institutions in a negative light rubs off on the news media as an institution as well. Patterson (2000) argued that negative news had diminished the public’s attachment to politics. The problem is the less attractive politics had become, so had the news (Patterson, 2000).
But in an analysis of the General Social Survey results from 1973 to 2004, Gronke and Cook (2007) found that different factors drive the erosion of trust in the press and in other institutions. They said: “Over the time period, strong partisans, the more religiously inclined, those whose preferred party was in power, and those who saw their family finances improve tended to be more sympathetic to existing American institutions, but not so toward the press.” There must be some explanation.
The mushrooming of blogs and other related sites brought about by the new media provided the public with alternatives. This leads to a declining reliance on the mainstream news media and an exposure to diverse perspectives and information online. It has become easy for the public to verify what the mainstream news media say. It has also become easier for partisans to expose themselves only to information sources that are consistent with their views, that a collection of contradictory messages in a supposedly objective account by the mainstream news media becomes alienating, if not repulsive (Stroud, 2008, 2010).
The claim that the distrust has grounds—the news media have been inaccurate and biased—needs to be proved empirically by analyzing news media content. But the number of times mainstream news organizations have apologized for inaccuracies—for instance, the coverage of the US war on Iraq—shows that the news media are far from being flawless. The flurry and popularity of satire programs that make fun not only of politicians but also of news organizations point to the presence of some hilarious materials from the news media. That news organizations have grown into giant corporations spilling over to other non-media industries also does little to help in protecting the news media from perceptions of bias. This economic design of the news media has made them vulnerable to economic pressures difficult to disentangle from political influence (Barendt, 1994; Davis & Craft, 2000). It is not surprising, therefore, if citizens see the news media no longer as a watchdog as what it was ideally perceived but as an institution “enmeshed with the other national institutions” it was supposed to monitor (Gronke & Cook, 2007).
The news media’s growing influence has become a source of caution for the public, if not hate. The hostile media effect, where partisans view the news media as biased against their own beliefs, is linked to the third-person effect: A potential source of worry is the perception of others as less informed and thus vulnerable to wrong information from the news media (Choi, Yang, & Chang, 2009; Gunther & Liebhart, 2006; Vallone, Ross, & Lepper, 1985). The hostile media effect is salient when news consumers are highly involved in an issue. It is thus possible that the perception of a biased media also comes with the increasing polarization of the American public, arguably a consequence of a liberal media that, for instance, treat election coverage as horse-race reporting rather than as a battle of issues (Patterson, 2005). The Gallup poll showed that 48% of Americans thought that the news media are too liberal.
What these arguments lead to is that it is a vicious cycle: in response to a shrinking audience, profit-driven news media focus on what would sell—negative and soft news; this has contributed to the polarization of the public that, along with media’s growing corporate power and influence, increased media skepticism and the hostile media phenomenon, which are manifestations of the public’s low trust on the news media.
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Morales, L. (2010). Distrust in U.S. Media Edges Up to Record High. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/143267/distrust-media-edges-record-high.aspx
Patterson, T. E. (2000). Doing well and doing good : how soft news and critical journalism are shrinking the news audience and weakening democracy– and what news outlets can do about it. Cambridge: Harvard University Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.
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