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Winning back the trust of the American public

Larry French, Community Voices • Mar 15, 2018 at 8:30 AM

The Spring 2018 edition of Quill, the official magazine published by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) — and an organization I’m a member of — addresses the issues relating to the eroding public trust of the media and fake news.

SPJ President Rebecca Baker poses this question: “How can the media rebuild public trust? That’s a question journalists have grappled with for decades,” Baker said, “(but) now it’s more important than ever to examine the causes of and possible solutions to this vexing problem.”

According to Baker, “A study by the American Press Institute and The Associated Press last year found 85 percent of adults surveyed cited accuracy as a critical reason they trust a news source and 72 percent value news reports that are concise and get to the point.”

Of course, any individual interested in the transparent truth would include “accuracy as a critical reason (to) trust a news source.”

In this instance, however, it becomes increasingly difficult to define accuracy as it relates to public trust of the media, especially when looking at the next survey Baker alludes to.

The Knight Foundation and Gallup published a survey of 19,000 U. S. adults about trust in the media. “What (the survey) found,” Baker said, “was striking:”

• When asked to name an accurate news source, Republicans overwhelmingly mentioned Fox News. Democrats’ responses were more varied — CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, etc.

• 45 percent of Americans say there is “a great deal” of political bias in news coverage, up from 25 percent in 1989.

• 54 percent of Democrats view the news media favorably, compared to only 15 percent of Republicans.

• 40 percent of Republicans said accurate news stories that cast a politician or political group in a negative light should “always” be considered fake news.

And while the above information may or may not surprise individuals who lean either to the far right or far left politically, the next two answers from the Knight Foundation and Gallup survey are the most alarming and markedly dangerous to a democratic society.

• 25 percent of those surveyed admitted to getting news from only one perspective.

• 46 percent claimed to have firm views that rarely change.

Twenty-five percent of those surveyed equates to one-in-four Americans respectively. Or to put it another way; one-in-four Americans aren’t critically thinking and assume their news source is trustworthy and accurate.

These individuals fail to ask pertinent questions, do not assess statements and arguments, are not interested in finding new or alternative solutions, do not have the ability to listen carefully to others and give logical and unbiased feedback and are unable to reject information that is incorrect and irrelevant.

Sadly, and the most unhealthy of all are those “46 percent (who) claim to have firm views that rarely change.”

These individuals maintain characteristics that parallel an illiterate and/or prejudicial society. For them, critically thinking is simply non-existent.

Literacy is learned, while illiteracy is passed along by parents who cannot read or write or who fail to impress upon their children the importance of learning to read and write.

Illiterates are unable to admit a lack of understanding or information and cannot search for evidence to support their assumptions or beliefs. They are, for a better choice of words, an immediate danger to society.

Or as A.A. Milne, celebrated playwright and author said, “(For them,) an A is just three sticks.”

On the other hand, we are not as individuals, born prejudiced; someone had to teach us. Individuals who are prejudiced are not willing to examine their beliefs, assumptions and opinions and weigh them against the facts. Furthermore, they are not willing to change their opinions nor do they search for the truth because they have been wrongly taught. Until this issue is addressed openly, society will ultimately fail the next generation.

As Dr. William Wallis, noted poet and author said, “The disease of racism is still alive and well among the contemporary ruins of an evil legacy.”

While the abovementioned surveys have given journalists acumen as to the various reasons behind the public’s distrust of the media, there remains, however, the daunting task of “possible solutions to this vexing problem.”

As journalists, we too must remember to critically think, especially before putting pen to paper. Otherwise, the distrust will continue.

We are bound by a code of ethics and must never waiver from it.

“Ethical journalists must act with integrity, seek the truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, be accountable and transparent.”

But above all, “We must abide by the same high standards we expect of others.”

Larry French lives in Butler. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists, National Society of Newspaper Columnists and teaches composition and literature at East Tennessee State University and Northeast State Community College. You may reach him at [email protected]

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