A major report last month from the Media Insight Project on how the public and the news media view each other confirmed some troubles. More than half of Americans think journalism is on the wrong track, and nearly half trust the media less than they did a year ago.
That seemed pretty unsurprising to me, given the unprecedented contentiousness and partisan animosity of national politics.
The broad and detailed survey results, however, also point to how the media-public relationship can be rebuilt.
The top finding of the report, a product of the American Press Institute and a University of Chicago public affairs research center, was that the public overwhelmingly wants its news media to get its facts right, be fair to all sides and be neutral. From 68 to 87 percent of Americans said that’s what they want — “news reporting that mostly provides facts but also combines some background and analysis to give audiences context.”
Journalists, who were also surveyed, want those things too, by even slightly higher percentages.
And yet only a third of the public said most reporting strikes the right balance. Four in 10 think the news they see veers too far into commentary, while another 17 percent say it includes too much analysis.
Interestingly, although the survey found the expected lower trust in news media among Republicans than Democrats, it also found strong skepticism among Americans “who grew up within a disrupted media landscape … most adults age 18 to 29 view the news as fairly inaccurate.”
In light of these results, the report suggests that “journalists should reassess their attempts to interpret the facts they are presenting.”
That’s one of several opportunities the report sees for the news media. Chief among them is being more transparent about how journalists work and the challenges they face. That has been one of the missions of The Inside Story column from its start.
The report also advocates better labeling, public participation in the news and eliminating jargon. These Opinion and Commentary pages are all about the first two, and we try hard to keep the writing here as plain-speaking as possible.
One place the public and journalists differ significantly is support for providing diverse points of view. Count me among the 85 percent of journalists who think that’s important. Just 51 percent of Americans feel the same way, and I wonder if their appreciation of alternate views is somewhat outweighed by a desire to see partisan views they support presented compellingly.
One silver lining for regional news organizations in this cloud on the media is that the public has a more positive and much less negative view of local TV and newspapers than other forms such as cable news, network news and other online sources. That suggests there is an opportunity to build on the trust inherent in the public’s ability to know and understand its local journalists better.
The most reassuring thing, though, is that Americans still value news strongly, with 48 percent saying it is extremely or very important to keep up with news and information and another 42 percent saying it is moderately important.
That’s a big market that persists through the turmoil of the information age and remains ready to reward news media whose credible reporting merits the public’s trust.