The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Chip Minemyer

October 2, 2011

Chip Minemyer | Distrust of media reflects national angst

— Do you trust me?

The answer to that question – which cuts to the very heart of journalism – seems to be trending in the wrong direction, at least at the national level.

A new study from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press shows that people, more than any time in recent history, believe the news media favor one side in issue stories, are influenced   by people in power and produce stories that are not accurate.

Ouch.

I joined a news ethics class Tuesday at Penn State, where professor Tony Barbieri, former managing editor of the Baltimore Sun, asked his students: “Do these findings concern you?”

Then, speaking to the lecture hall full of budding young reporters and editors, he answered his own question: “Well, they should concern you.”

Those findings ought to alarm every media professional in America – and in every area of news: Print, television, radio, online.

And we should all be analyzing them – as Barbieri did with his students – from various viewpoints.

My take, as I expressed to those students, was that this is a national phenomenon with local implications.

Ours is a fragmented society, thanks in large part to the struggling economy and the nasty “it’s their fault” political environment that has risen from the ongoing recession.

Ours is also a fragmented media landscape, and news consumers increasingly turn to the outlets that seem to tell it as they want to hear it.

The middle ground is eroding – both for our country and for the media who attempt to report from that position of neutrality.

And that’s how a national survey arrives at findings such as these:

* 66 percent said stories are often inaccurate, compared with 34 percent in 1985. (This also could be attributed in part to the fact that there are fewer people working in newsrooms these days, which means fewer checks and balances. But I sense this is less about facts and figures and more about portrayals and perceptions.)

* 77 percent said the news media lean to one side or another, rather than reporting objectively, as opposed to 53 percent who felt that way a quarter-century ago.

* 80 percent said they believe the news media are influenced by powerful people and organizations, up from 53 percent in 1985.

But things look less grim, at least for local news organizations such as this newspaper, when you dig deeper into the Pew findings.

More than two-thirds – 69 percent – said they trust their local news source. That number is not great, but it’s good.

And, the news media got higher trustworthy scores than big business, state government, Congress, federal agencies, the Obama administration and even candidates running for office – which doesn’t bode well for future surveys.

Most people who responded to the study said they got much of their news from CNN, Fox News or the major networks. Publications such as The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and USA Today trailed behind.

People gave the news organizations they prefer higher marks than they did other outlets – not a shocker. So folks who watch Fox News said their network gets things right, so to speak, but others do not. And vice versa.

And – I find this quite interesting – while distrust of the media among Republicans has leveled off, such feelings among Democrats and independent voters have been climbing steeply since 2007 – the year before Barack Obama was elected to the White House.

Media distrust among Democrats jumped from 43 percent to 64 percent in those four years. And Demo-crats now join Republicans in criticizing the media for their watchdog approach to covering politics.

It’s the old adage: It all depends on whose ox is being gored.

“Since Barack Obama took office, the proportion of Democrats saying that news stories are often inaccurate has risen sharply,” the Pew Center said, “and they are now nearly as critical as Republicans.”

In the news business, when both sides are mad at you, you’re doing something right.

We recently surveyed our readers on a long list of topics such as shopping habits, entertainment preferences and travel plans. We also asked them how they felt about The Tribune-Democrat.

About three-quarters of the respondents said either that this newspaper does not lean one way or the other politically, or that the readers couldn’t tell if it did.

As an editor, that’s the best news you can get.

And here’s some good news that came out of the national report: 57 percent of the people believe members of the news media are “highly professional,” and 62 percent of the people said news professionals and organizations care about how well they do their jobs.

Yes, we do care.

That’s why we embrace our complex role in the local community; have and adhere to a code of ethics; regret our mistakes and correct them quickly; strive to get both – or all – sides of a story; work hard to treat people fairly.

Those are the pillars that hold up this newspaper, and have for many years.

You can trust me on that.

Chip Minemyer is the editor of The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at 532-5091.

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