Trust me; I’m a journalist.
If Gallup’s recent survey results are accurate, you’re laughing hard right now. I’ll pause for a moment while you regain your composure.
But I don’t blame you: According to Gallup, just 21 percent of the public said they had “high” or “very high” trust in newspaper reporters as a profession. Television reporters scored slightly lower, tying with lawyers at 20 percent.
Then again, we journalists are still above lobbyists (6 percent), members of Congress (8 percent), car salespeople (9 percent), state officeholders (14 percent) and advertising practitioners (14 percent). So, in your face, Don Draper!
It’s tempting to dismiss the mistrust of the public outright — even clergy are less trusted than ever, with 47 percent saying they have “high” or “very high” trust in men and women of God. It’s the first time clergy members have dropped below 50 percent since Gallup started asking about them in 1977.
And who can really compete with the genuine life-saving professions that ranked at or near the top of the survey, such as nurses (82 percent), pharmacists (70 percent) and doctors (69 percent)? Grade-school teachers (70 percent) and military officers (69 percent) round out the top five.
But I suspect there’s something more to the low trust in news media. It wasn’t that long ago — September 2012, to be precise — that Gallup recorded the highest level of mistrust in the media ever. In that survey, 60 percent reported having either “not very much” or “none at all” trust and confidence in the mass media. Just 40 percent said they had a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust.
Thanks, mom and dad!
Gallup reports that negativity toward the media and distrust increases in each election year, as reporters cover political stories more often. Republicans reported the lowest level of trust in the media, at 26 percent, while independents weren’t much higher, at 31 percent. Democrats were more trusting, at 58 percent. Perhaps ironically, Republicans were the group who reported they were most closely following news about politics, at 48 percent. Democrats were down at 33 percent when it came to following news about politics closely, according to Gallup.
Needless to say, mistrust of the media isn’t a good thing for democracy. Actually, Gallup said just that: “On a broad level, Americans’ high distrust in the media poses a challenge to democracy and to creating a fully engaged citizenry,” Gallup wrote. “Media sources must clearly do more to earn the trust of Americans, the majority of whom see the media as biased one way or the other. At the same time, there is an opportunity for others outside the ‘mass media’ to serve as information sources that Americans do trust.”
I believe they may have been referring to “The Daily Show” there. I could be wrong.
As a person who’s worked in print and television newsrooms, let me just speak up for my colleagues. (I’m not a reporter myself. I’m an opinion columnist, and my writing is by definition supposed to reflect my individual slant. To this day, my favorite criticism is when people say, “Your opinion is biased!” It’s akin to criticizing a pilot by telling him his plane is flying.) But the real reporters — the people who go out every day and try hard to gather the news, speak to the participants and fashion some kind of intelligible narrative — generally try very hard for accuracy, fairness and balance. In fact, the tendency toward “balance” goes too far sometimes, at the expense of stating a true but politically controversial fact.
Still, Gallup is right: The media need to do a better job earning the trust of Americans, at least of those Americans who still care about the truth, and not just being told what they want to hear. That’s just as corrosive to democracy as the mistrust we’re trying to fix in the first place.
Steve Sebelius is a Las Vegas Review-Journal political columnist and author of the blog SlashPolitics.com. Follow him on Twitter (@SteveSebelius) or reach him at 702-387-5276 or firstname.lastname@example.org.