Public view of news accuracy hits lowest levels in two decades. Why?

October 13, 2009

The Pew Research Center for People & the Press reported on September 13 that now only 29% of Americans think the press gets it right. 63% say that news stories are often inaccurate. That compares to just twenty five years ago when 55% said the press got it right. The chart on this report shows the startling decline in public trust in the press.

More findings: 60% say news organizations are politically biased.

What’s going on here? There are many possible theories–here are a few:

– news media news staffs are shrinking fast and so don’t have time to make sure things are accurate

– competition for audiences is all based on immediacy and so editorial caution is thrown to the wind in order to beat the competition (note Sept 11, 2009 “terrorist attack” reported by CNN)

– news organizations are relying more and more on citizen journalists, such as I-Report and these non-professionals don’t get it right (note CNN’s airing of a false I-Report stating Steve Jobs died)

– news has become “infotainment” where facts don’t matter but entertaining audiences does

– most cable news is based on political pundits spouting off in a semi-news environment leading people to conclude it is all opinion (and mostly vacuous at that)

– Fox News has destroyed America (many will probably vote for this one)

– Fox News has demonstrated what many conservatives knew and the mainstream always denied that there is wide-spread political bias in most major news organizations

– the news media has been so busy bashing our business and government institutions for so long they didn’t notice that the “collateral damage” would include them as big, powerful organizations and therefore also not to be trusted

I think all of these play a role in this huge decline in trust and credibility. But I think there is another far more important reason and in that I have hope–because the loss of a fourth estate in which we as the public can place our trust is potentially devastating for our society.

I think the key is in what Eric Newton, vice president of the journalism program at the Knight Foundation, said in the current issue of PR Tactics: “The public’s ability to spot errors is at an all-time high.”

We live in a post-media world, or at least a rapidly increasing post-media world. We don’t get our information from the media exclusively or even primarily. We get it online, and probably more importantly, from those who are very well connected online. We don’t have to be online to benefit from the speed and accuracy of online communication–all we need to be is within cellphone range or earshot of those who are.

Wait a minute, some of you are saying. Did he say the “accuracy” of online communication. Yes, because I think one of the great myths of our time is what you get on the internet isn’t true. True, a lot of what you read and see or hear is not true or accurate. But in the mish mash of multiple people being involved, the truth almost invariably comes out. One of the most stunning examples of this was related in a white paper by Jeanette Sutton of the University of Colorado. Following Virginia Tech shooting, students from U of Colorado when to Virginia Tech to study use of Facebook in that horrible event. They discovered that the Facebook community was able to identify all 32 shooting victims by name well before the authorities could officially release those names. Even more remarkably, they did it without error. Surprised? Then you may also be surprised to hear that Wikipedia is at least as accurate as the Encyclopedia Britannica.

With many millions providing input into critical stories, the some total is something closer to truth than we have ever had through the most rigorous editorial policies. It remains true that effective editing and true objectivity will win the day over almost any blog or Facebook page, and so should be a shorter path to the facts or truth. But increasingly it is becoming clear that the accumulation of information and knowledge available through social networking is demonstrating that far too much of what is provided via traditional media is neither true nor unbiased.

So, has the media been declining in reporting and editing so that the decline in trust is justified? No, I don’t think so. While there are notable exceptions, we are still benefiting from most of the editorial rigor we always had. But we are just now starting to find out that the rigor did not mean there were no errors or no subjective opinions entering in. Anyone who has been interviewed or the subject of a story will tell you that: “I was misquoted” is the common complaint. But the very people who were misquoted believed the stories about everyone else because in a vacuum of competitive information, how would anyone know? Now the competition is bigger, broader and more comprehensive than we could have ever imagined. And the result is the trust we had 25 years ago was misplaced.

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