The American media (henceforth referred to as ‘the media’) has in the last decade lost the trust of the American public. According to the latest Gallup (2016) poll, only 32% of Americans trust the media to cover news fully, truthfully and farly. Contrast this with South Africa, where journalism as a profession is trusted by 65% of the population (GfK, 2014). Why is this?
In order to understand this, it is necessary to understand reputation. According to Aula and Mantere (2008) reputation is built on three fundamental aspects: being good, doing good, and looking good.
Being good refers to the identity of the organisation in question, in this case, the media. Identity is the self-definition of the organisation. WHat does the media define itself as? In this particular case in terms of their function and role, as well as their goals.
It is here that the first problem emerges. The media – based on its conduct, content and coverage – defines itself as a mouth-piece of its subscribed ideology. The media is known – uniquely – as partisan media. This mean that each channel and publication openly subscribes to a particular political party and ideology. They are unabashed in their support for their political candidates, talking points and arguments regardless of its factuality. FOr many media outlets their partisanship is even a point of pride.
Immediately this partisanship alienates a large portion of the demographic. American politics is bi-partisan; there are only tow parties, and the population is largely divided between the two. Openly declaring affiliation with, and support for, one of the two sides immediately garners distrust from those who do not support the same side as the partisanship being declared.
Doing good refers to the conduct and effect of the organisation. What does the organisation do? How do they behave? In this particular case referring to their conduct as reporters and journalists.
This is a slightly more complex question, as it covers both their conduct in terms of how they gather their information, how they present that information to the public, what news topics they cover, and – specifically in terms of live television news – how they conduct interviews and direct discussions between panel members and interviewees.
American news panels have largely deviated from what would, in South Africa at least, be considered ethical standards of journalism. The various news outlets cover almost exclusively topics that further their political and ideological narrative. And when they do cover stories damaging to their side, it is usually to defend their ideological or political side of the argument.
In furtherance of this goal, media outlets and journalists have frequently omitted and distorted facts in order to shape their coverage to benefit their narrative. Often times they have no fear of publishing articles of questionable truth, and soetimes complete fabrications, in order to attack their opposition, and to further their cause.
Looking good refers to appearing justified and morally opstanding in the eyes of the stakeholders. In this particular case, appearing honest, truthful, and ethically sound in front of the public.
Besides all of the matters mentioned above, there is one major factor that has damaged the media’s reputation, and their trust value with the public: hypocrisy. Media outlets, journalists, discussion hosts, and news anchors are quick to point out the flaws and shortcomings of their opposition – specifically referring to their opposition counterparts – whilst glossing over, failing to admit, or refusing to acknowledge where their own side has made similar missteps.
This hypocrisy can be seen as one of the final nails in the coffin for the reputation and trustworthiness of the media in the eyes of the public. A media that is quick to point out and attack the shortcomings and failings of their opponents, whilst refusing to admit their own wrongdoing, has very little moral legitimacy, nor any ethical standing in the eyes of the average person.
From bad to worse
Another nail in the coffin for the media, which is in part the fault of the public, is a failure to be held to account. America either has no ethics committees or oversight organisations that are responsible for investigating counts of illegal and unethical conduct and opholding ethical and legal standards of journalism, or they are so inactive and ineffective that they have faded into complete obscurity.
There have been countless cases where American media outlets published stories, handled information, or gathered information in ways that would not only be unethical, but also illegal in many cases, and have not been held accountable for their actions.
As stated above, this is also partially the fault of the American public. They seem to be largely apathetic to the unethical and immoral conduct of the media, tacitly accepting it as a part of life, and not doing anything to change it. Every now and again there is slight outrage at some media scandal, but nothing ever comes of it. Only rarely is there ever an investigation launched by one authority or another, and even more rarely does the investigation result in either an official reprimand, or court case.
The crumbling of public trust in the media rests in part on the shoulder of the public, who have largely accepted the faults of the media as intrinsic to the profession, and do not speak up and demand reform. The other part rests firmly on the industry and its practitioners. They have wilfully strayed from the path that could ensure strong trust from the public. By reporting biased news, loweing ethical standards, and even being proud of their biases, the media has atively created an image of not valuing truth, objectivity and fair reporting. By defining the role of the news media not as a platform to disseminate facts, and to inform the people of the truth, but instead as a form of entertainment, and a platform for opinions and feelings, they have missed the essential function of journalism.
But how can the media fix this problem?
In order to do this, it will require an in-depth introspection with regards to Aula and Mantere’s definition of reputation. It requires a fundamental rethinking of what journalism is, who it serves, and what its goals are and ought to be. The media will have to strip its corproate interests from its reporting, bury its biases and personal opinions, and focus on the facts, however inconvenient they may be to its interests.
Fixing the reputation the media has with the American public, and with people and populations from around the world, will be very difficult, and will be a very long process, but it can be done. I believe that the coing four years offers the perfect opportunity for such a redefinition.
The only question is, will the industry seize it?