An oft-cited complaint around water coolers and bar stools is that of a biased media, and a deficiency in general credibility. Regardless of political affiliations or stances relating to individual issues, the average interested person will inevitably cross paths with media entities whose style of reporting or analysis will leave them infuriated. While that is an occurrence that appears unavoidable, real concern about the credibility of the conductors of public discourse is demonstrably on the rise, according to several polls.
A Pew Research Center survey dated from August of 2012 showed a 15 point decline in respondents’ perception of the credibility (presented as “positive believability) of an aggregated index of media institutions over a ten-year period. A Gallup poll corroborated the sentiment tangentially through the mention of there being near all-time lows in public trust towards news media. Several factors contribute to this trend, with a great deal of inter-relation between the myriad components of cultural evolution. Technologies grow and change, business models are developed to compliment or exploit them, and the values that the public respond to when choosing their preferred content providers are ever-shifting.
There is much speculation that it may be at least partially caused by changing habits in media consumption; as the family clustered around a television tuned to broadcast networks gave way to cable news centered around opinion and analysis, and onward to stories optimized for search engine performance and click-ability on mobile devices. The monetization strategies evolved with them. While the field widened and allowed more content providers room to exist, the tactical methods of “standing out” between them shifted from a focus on competing in terms of credibility, toward striving to catch eyes with editorialized headlines.
Synopsized and then clarified, there is an increasing financial incentive to cater to the public’s taste in media. The “Golden Age” of trust in the credibility of news organizations coincidentally occurred parallel to the period in which television both began to become common enough to overtake the majority viewership and still had limited options in terms of competing channels. In that environment, it was more practical and to greater advantage for networks to compete for business along moralistic lines, and so they strove to differentiate themselves ethically rather than taking the risk of assuming representation for politically polarized demographics.
The political polarization returning to media content presents the ethical dilemma of pressuring news outlets representing either side of the aisle to “turn a blind eye” to what can often be fair criticisms of the political affiliation that they represent. A recent example is the treatment of the Jonathan Gruber scandal across the news media. The story was largely ignored until earlier this week by outlets such as CNN and MSNBC as video after video emerged of Gruber seeming to revel in self-perceived intellectual superiority over the American public. Contrarily, the conservative foil to those networks, Fox News, ran daily stories and repeated updates, likely with the intent to parlay their duty to inform the public into maximum capitalization.
Former CBS investigative reporter and author Sharyl Atkinson sounded off on the media’s treatment of the Gruber revelations and the overall state of journalism in a recent interview with Larry King. The question was barely raised of whether or not it presents a conflict of interest that her decision to do the interview also served as an opportunity to promote her new book. That illustrates the problem beautifully; that the general, climatic decline of trust, credibility and ethics in news media, coinciding with cultural and technological changes to the monetization strategies of the same, have made a Gordian Knot of what was already the tangled web of media bias. Credibility, for the time being, is riding in the back seat.
Opinion by Brian Whittemore
Header Photo by Dave Bledsoe – flickr license