Can the gap between journalism and people be bridged?

Color me skeptical about the latest poll purporting to show that journalists aren’t doing a good enough job of explaining how journalism works.

The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and the American Press Institute have released two surveys — one of news consumers, one of journalists — that show about three in four journalists believe the public’s level of trust in the news media has decreased in the past year. Yet only 44 percent of American adults actually say their level of trust has decreased, the AP reported.

What we have here, the AP says, is a failure to communicate:

The public actually wants what most journalists say they want to give them — news stories that are factual and offer context and analysis, said Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute. But the public doesn’t feel like they’re seeing enough of that work, with 42 percent of Americans saying journalists stray too far into commentary, according to the new research.

That’s one reason that Anna Retana, a mother of five from Emumclaw, Washington, said that she’s cut back on her news consumption.

“Most people who watch the news or read a newspaper, they’re wanting to find out the truth,” Retana said. “They don’t want to have tons of propaganda to sift through, and that’s what we see a lot of.”

Journalists can’t take for granted that the public knows what it’s getting, Rosenstiel said. Much of journalism’s shared language and structure is rooted in newspapers, yet many Americans get their news through social media streams, where it isn’t always clear from where stories come, Rosenstiel said. Newspapers have “op-ed” sections, yet half of the public doesn’t know what the term means.

That may contribute to the finding that most American adults aged 18 to 29 think the news is fairly inaccurate, while most above 30 felt it was fairly accurate.

Unquestionably, a fair amount of news — we’re looking at you, TV — is trivia. But there’s more to it than that. There are too many definitions of what news is, too many people calling what’s on cable TV “news” and using that definition to provide a sweeping verdict of the state of news and their trust in it, and, most important, too many people who define “factual” as what they want to believe to be the truth.

Trust? Same thing. If you tell me what I want you to tell me, I trust you. That’s the problem.

There’s also that refusal to pay for what the people say they want:

Curiously, the AP project puts the burden on journalists to cure the public’s ignorance about basic facts about news they ought to know.

Half of those surveyed — half! — said they don’t know what an op-ed is.

Whose fault is that? Pick up a paper sometime. Keep turning the pages. When you get to the editorial page, the one opposite it with commentary and opinions — op-ed, get it? — that’s the op-ed page.

A lot of the math in the twin surveys doesn’t work.

Sixty-eight percent of people said they want more information about sources in news stories. Sixty percent of journalists said the business should be providing more of that information.

Forty-three percent of the people surveyed said they don’t know what “attribution” means.

Journalists aren’t going to fix that problem.

  • MrE85

    I would agree that the unwashed masses who wish to remain willfully ignorant are not journalism’s problem to fix. It makes me wonder just whose problem they are. Our schools? Our civic organization? Our entertainment media?

    I don’t know.

    • I think civilizations have a way of “recalibrating” themselves when the inhabitants reach a certain level. It’s not pretty. And it won’t be for us, either.

      • BJ

        >It’s not pretty. And it won’t be for us, either.

        Every time I think it might happen someone comes along and makes a slight course correction. I’m not sure if this next 2-4 years a slight course correction will be enough.

      • Sonny T

        By “recalibrating” themselves I hope you mean watch more PBS. Or read more newspapers. Or attend a caucus. Otherwise you’re scaring me.

    • Jeff

      Seems like there should be some cost to the uniformed masses, but the informed masses pay the price as well. Of course thinking you’re informed is matter of opinion.

      …I’m sorry, but if you can’t be bothered to take an interest in local affairs, that’s your own lookout. Energize the demolition beams.

      • Barton

        Everything always comes back to the Hitchhiker’s Guide…. and I do have my towel handy.

    • RBHolb

      >Our schools?

      Put this down as yet another thing schools should be teaching. Back in the old days, we were taught how to read a newspaper. It covered basics like what an editorial is and how a story is supposed to be structured. While the specifics of newspaper reading may seem quaint to some, learning how to be an intelligent consumer of news media is not outdated. It’s still an important skill. Learning how to make sense of the news is an intelligence of the people that has a direct impact on the stability of a republican form of government.

      • MrE85

        “…we were taught how to read a newspaper.”

        I don’t ever recall anything like that in my K-12 education. I would say a “News 101” class would be beneficial to all, covering print, broadcast and online media.

        • We had a lot of “current events” assignments as i was growing up. We’d have to report on something happening in the news so we’d mostly clip newspapers, which was pretty the only news we could clip back then.

          I know a few teachers — at least one here who uses NewsCut — still do this sort of thing.

          • MrE85

            I have worked with (and briefly as) the news media for 30+ years, and I’m still learning new things about the business. I try to keep up as best I can.

          • Pose your questions here, old timer.

          • MrE85

            Thanks, To be a good pitchman/spokesperson, you really need to try to understand what journalists need and are looking for. You have to understand what could catch a news editor’s eye, and what never will. Understand beats, deadlines, AP style, and the special needs each medium requires, and you might just succeed.

      • Guest

        That and a dose of basic statistics. Did you know your odds of getting a brain surgeon who graduated in the bottom half of his class are 50/50 🙂

        • But they’re not really, right?

          • Guest

            This just in. Half of all rocket scientists are dumber than the other half. 🙂

      • Susan WB

        Speaking as a literacy educator, I can tell you that “media literacy” is one of THE hot topics in our field right now. For an example of the materials we use, check out the wonderful educational resources of the Newseum:

  • 212944

    The Seymour Hersh interview on this week’s “On the Media” might be of particular interest to those reading this. Hersh’s interview begins just after the 24-minute mark in the link posted today of the 6/8 show:

    The host – Brooke Gladstone – closed with the note that a longer version of the interview will be posted later in the week.

  • Sonny T

    These surveys can be very deceiving. People often say what they think the surveyor wants to hear, or they are intimidated, or they panic… Also a survey of 2,019 respondents isn’t anywhere close to enough to draw definite conclusions. If you did ten times that you’d get a little closer to the truth, and of course a wildly different result, possibly.

    As for distrust in the media, people aren’t as dumb as we might think. They can sense when they are being told what to think, and they’re rebelling.

    • kevins


      • Sonny T

        yeah. All those surveys predicting a Hillary landslide were right on the money.

        • Surveys don’t predict. That’s people’s misunderstanding about what a poll and survey is. Surveys can only tell you what is at the time a survey is taken.

          • Sonny T

            I want to be careful, since a lot of this discussion has involved intelligence, so I looked it up.

            “A poll is used to ask one simple question while a survey is generally used to ask a wide range of multiple questions.”

            Not seeing a lot of difference. A poll sounds like a survey with one question 🙂

          • A survey and poll does the same thing regardless of how many questions are on it/them. It tells you the response of people at the time they answered a question.

    • // people aren’t as dumb as we might think.

      I suppose it depends how dumb you think they are.

      I think they’re “40 percent favor government limits on the free press” dumb.

      • Sonny T

        I meant street smarts.

        • I don’t know what street smarts are. Is that when you’re sure you know something or when it’s an undisputable fact you know something? I don’t know.

          I’ve seen enough to know over the years that reader and listener bias is very a real thing that nobody wants to factor into anything.

          To me, it’s like people who take video of tornadoes when the best information available is that they should take cover. But they don’t (a) want to take cover so they (b) assume the information is wrong and it won’t affect them.

          I don’t call that street smarts, either.

          • Sonny T

            Street smarts is changing your own tire, instead of having the butler do it.

            Bias is agreeing with everything your wife says because she’s your wife. And you’re street smart 🙂

          • Guest


          • Jerry

            Street smarts are the prejudices we learn as children and never bother to question later. Or maybe I’m thinking of garage logic.

  • Jerry

    I’m shocked that the photo at the top consists only of white men. Shocked I tell you.

  • Guest

    Unbiased info. Newspapers think printing side A Monday and Side B Wednesday is balanced but folks don’t feel that way.

    IF a newspaper would sit two folks down in the same room with an editor and have them write a joint article, both agreeing on the facts, presenting reasons for their conclusions and responding directly to the points of the other side THEN folks would look to newspapers to get the full picture of an issue without the rants.

    Sure it is hard work, but who better than print to calmly work thru points of an issue.

    • I’ve never seen a story in a newspaper in which “one side” is printed one day and the other side printed another day (unless you’re talking about commentaries). Also I think the notion that there are two sides that are black and white is pretty much a myth.

      • Guest

        I AM thinking about commentaries and I grant you sides may not be black and white.

        BUT do you see the benefit of a written article with two sides actually talking to each other and giving responses to exact points rather than platitudes?