Under the microscope: Journalism

From fake news to the fourth estate

Hannah Murray

JACKSONVILLE, Fla.—Amidst our culture that breeds phrases such as “fake news” and “alternative facts,” the perception of a trustworthy media system is at an all-time low.

According to a poll conducted by Gallup in 2016, only 32 percent of the public report a trust in media. Gallup reported that number to be 74 percent in 1976 in the post-Watergate age.

According to the Pew Research Center, 68 percent out of a poll of 5,000 people say they see bias in the media. Only 21 percent reported having “a lot” of trust in news media.

The reasons for this mistrust can be traced back to a few key issues. Inaccurate information, lack of credibility due to opinion-driven reporters, and sensationalism were all given as reasons for the mistrust of media.

Inaccurate or misleading information, commonly termed “fake news” is nothing new to the media landscape. In the 1890s, the term “yellow journalism” was coined. Yellow journalism then was used to characterize the sensationalism and disregard for truth seen in the New York World and the New York Herald.

A quote credited to an English magazine in 1898 says,  “All American journalism is not ‘yellow’, though all strictly ‘up-to-date’ yellow journalism is American!”

In many ways, what was considered “yellow journalism” then, is “fake news” now.

According to the American Press Institute, or API, above all, the public desires a news media system that will deliver accurate information. And for the most part, journalists want the same thing.

The study, conducted in 2018, found that 87 percent of the public thinks news media should verify and get facts right. 99 percent of journalists agreed.

78 percent of the public said the media should be fair to all sides. 87 percent of journalists agreed.

What is surprising is that only 54 percent of the public said media should act as a “watchdog,” or what Edmund Burke called “the fourth estate.” Meanwhile, a whopping 93 percent of journalists thought this should be a part of the media’s role.

This idea stems from the fact that the press not only has a right, but a responsibility to inform the public of problems or happenings, specifically in the government. The idea is that the press acts independently from the government and is able to perform the role of a watchdog, to “bark” when there is an issue.

Drawing from these studies, we know the public distrusts media. We know that the public wants accurate information.

But what kind of reporting does the public want?

According to API, 63 percent of people want the media to report mostly facts but includes some background and analysis. 27 percent said media should strictly stick to just the facts. 5 percent stood in favor of mostly analysis, and another 5 percent favored just analysis and commentary.

However, this is not what the public says the news is today.

42 percent of the public said the news is just commentary and opinion, while 33 percent said the news is mostly facts with some background and analysis.

This presents a challenge for journalists. In trying to provide context, have they strayed away from truth towards opinion?

The Society of Professional Journalists provides journalists with a Code of Ethics to follow.

First and foremost is to seek the truth and report it. According to the API, a journalist’s first obligation is to the truth.

Their first loyalty, however is to its citizens. It is within the job of a journalist to put aside their own self-interest and seek first the public interest, according to API.

These first two standards seem to be where we, the press, have lost the people.

The media is no longer trusted by the people to give reliable and objective information.

This is not to say that public trust is beyond reach. By maintaining standards of accuracy and service to the public interest, it could be possible to build back an institution that the people can once again trust.

As Jonathan Foster, a retired lecturer at the University of Sheffield, once put it: ““If someone says it’s raining and another person says it’s dry, it’s not your job to quote them both. Your job is to look out of the (obscenity) window and find out which is true.”