February 1, 2017

When one of the president’s strategists labels the media the “opposition party,” and President Trump speaks of a “running war” with journalists, here is a hypothetical question:

If you had to choose between having a government or a working press, which would you choose?

Thomas Jefferson posed that question to himself and came down on the side of the press. Governments, he reasoned, can do sinister, self-serving things with no watchdogs around. But the press, he felt, was that watchdog: the eyes and ears of the people, a source for honest information sharing.

That was then, and this is now.

Many people have grave misgivings about both government and the news media.  According to recent polling data from Gallup, public confidence in Congress, television news, and newspapers all dropped by 10 percentage points between 2006 and 2016, with confidence in newspapers reaching an historic low last year.

Setting aside issues about government, if we’ve lost faith in the news media’s trustworthiness, might that trust be revived?

What we call media has certainly morphed from that of Jefferson’s day.

News reporting has always been a business, despite its altruistic justification. But the rise of digital access has sent traditional news organizations scrambling amid fierce competition from digital startups, individual bloggers, and social media to an extent never before anticipated. In that scramble, cost-cutting has shaved newsroom populations and replaced many experienced journalists with others of limited backgrounds. Note, also, that in some online newsrooms, reporters earn bonuses based on page views. Gossip and lightweight polls, anyone?

This is a familiar trope. In the 1950s, Edward R. Murrow, in a talk to the broadcast industry, famously said of TV technology that it was a marvelous tool which can teach and inspire, but only to the extent that those who use it, do so in that way. “Otherwise,” he said, “it is only wires and lights in a box.”

Apply that thinking to Twitter and trending stories on Facebook, et al. Social media, which was supposed to level the playing field for universal communication, has lowered the thoughtful input and take-home value of what’s shared. As consumers, we’ve developed an appetite for juicy, damaging gossip masquerading as news, with some websites pretending to be legitimate news sources.

There are also subtle forces at work. On a recent Sunday morning talk show, New York Times executive editor Dean Bacquet mused that shifting from hard copy sources for news to the smartphone has removed the literal, visual space between hard news stories and editorials or columns. This is no small thing: it forces us to determine what is news and what is opinion, and draw our own conclusions based on that.

In other words, we need to work harder to know what we’re absorbing.

It’s unsettling, because the public needs hard information to ensure democracy. But we are made to work to understand our world by checking sources, visiting a variety of news sites, and drawing our own conclusions. And we don’t want to work that hard.

Can we break this counter-productive cycle?

Traditional media journalists need to look carefully at their own behavior and biases. They can hold more newsmakers’ feet to the fire, as has been suggested in light of journalism’s slow take during the recent elections. They can work at better understanding the concerns of everyday people, and by rethinking news coverage, which can be riveting even while offering substance and depth.

And our school systems might revamp their civics classes, says chief political correspondent for the New York Times, Matt Bai, we need to produce a new generation of savvy news consumers. Teach media literacy, he urges.

Yet, we the public could be the real culprits.

Even our living habits mold our views of local or global issues.  We are not the melting pot we once were. From neighborhoods we inhabit, schools our children attend, social groups we join, to sources we turn to for news, the “echo chamber” is at work. We surround ourselves with similarly-thinking people and may thereby justify raw, untested conclusions through their sheer repetition.

Those of us with hardened points of view or who want to seem current and trendy, drink whatever potentially toxic brew may be tweeted by others with parallel viewpoints.

Let’s smash that echo chamber and expose ourselves to a variety of perspectives: watch a different cable news channel, visit a website we’d never considered before, have conversations with people of backgrounds different from our own. Courage; it may challenge us.

We’re going to have to work harder.

Deborah Lev is an associate professor of communication and media-related courses in the Communication and Fine Arts Department at Centenary University in Hackettstown.

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