First Amendment survey says journalists regaining public trust

By GENE POLCINSKI

Inside the First Amendment

Attention you so-called “enemies of the people”: There’s reason to think fewer people than last year might see you that way, despite the ongoing, politicized attacks from multiple quarters on the news media’s credibility.

President Donald Trump hurled that “enemies” epithet at journalists earlier this year, complaining about the news coverage of his administration — and of his presidential campaign in 2016. But such criticism comes at varying levels of vitriol from a variety of political quarters, and started long before Trump took office.

In this year’s “State of the First Amendment” survey, conducted by the First Amendment Center of the Newseum Institute in partnership with research group Fors March, we found:

A solid majority of the public still believes in the importance of news media as watchdog of democracy — about 68 percent.

While less than half (43.2 percent) said they believe the news media tries to report the news without bias — a long-standing complaint that predates Trump by decades — the figure is a marked improvement from both 2015 (23 percent) and 2016 (24 percent).

While tough to quantify, there are some likely reasons for the shift: A significant amount of TV, online and print journalism has shifted from the softer “horse race” focus of the 2016 elections to this year’s hard news, issue-related reporting where factual information can be presented.

And  — with more than a bit of irony — as the number grows of Americans inclined only to watch news outlets that line up with their individual perspectives, there’s a likely parallel increase in the “trust factor” in those outlets, even if they resemble echo chambers more than truth-tellers.

Among those who believe that media tries to report unbiased information, most expressed a preference for news information that aligns with their own views (60.7 percent). Those more critical of media efforts to report news without bias were also less prone to report a preference for news aligned with their own views (49.1 percent).

So, no celebratory back flips in the nation’s newsrooms please, especially since the uptick only puts the “bias” figure roughly back to levels seen in 2013 and 2014 (46 percent and 41 percent, respectively) — though granted, those years seem much more distant than the calendar would prove.

Those inclined to support the work of today’s journalists — admittedly, my posture — hope the drop in those who see bias generally stems from that combination of dramatically increased visibility of news operations and reporting on serious news, such as health care reform and investigations of the administration around Russian influence in the 2016 elections.

In plainer terms, the more people saw reporting of real news — not fluffy “clickbait” features and dramatic but largely meaningless daily election polling reports — the more they liked it and trusted those delivering it.

Here’s an idea for journalists nationwide: Keep trying “hard news” — the kind that means accountability, reporting on issues that matter like jobs, health care, education and on local and state government. All of that is less sexy and more costly than opining about national events on endless cable programs.

For years, news industry moguls and newsroom leaders have sought ways to reverse the spiral of reduced income leading to fewer newsroom resources and less real journalism, which begets the cycle again.

Clearly, mushy stories about the travails of celebrities, so-called “aspirational” stories that bring a warm feeling, and valuing tweets over investigative reporting are not working out that well.

Yes, that will mean an emphasis on innovation and finding new ways to report on subjects that, in themselves, don’t necessarily draw in a new generation of readers. But therein is the opportunity for those who will be the news media success stories of the 21st century.

One year’s survey results are just that. But there is a message to be found in a 20-percentage point drop in those who presume journalists are incapable of reporting without bias: Attitudes can change, and trust can be regained.