Kentuckians’ trust in institutional media may be at an all-time low. According to Secretary of State Alison Grimes’ Kentucky Civic Health Index released in January, less than half of Kentuckians trust the media. Even more surprising is an Emerson College Poll that found more Americans believe the Trump administration is more trustworthy than the news media by 49-39 percent. So why the mistrust?
I had the chance to explore this last week when I participated in a panel discussion on The Cure for Fake News Disease: Truth and Fairness (and balance?). Joe Gerth of the Louisville Courier-Journal, John Stamper of the Lexington Herald-Leader, Katherine Urch of UK’s School of Journalism and yours truly were panelists at the forum hosted by Al Cross on the UK campus. The event was, shall I say, interesting.
The event kicked off by reviewing Gov. Bevin’s Facebook Live presentation where he charged Attorney General Andy Beshear with not defending the newly enacted Ultrasound Bill. As much as Joe Gerth disagreed with Gov. Bevin’s assertion, it became clear to me that the definition of “defending” was as precarious as former President Bill Clinton’s definition of the word “is.” Is there a real defense taking place when other indicators reveal that a true defense isn’t happening? In either case, one might have disagreed with Gov. Bevin, but his Facebook Live presentation was not fake news.
For too long, the established news media have disregarded and/or misrepresented stories important to conservatives. Consider last year’s headline in the New York Times: Hundreds Brave Snow at March for Life in Washington. The actual estimate was more than 40,000 marchers. Established news media have caricatured entire conservative communities by interviewing outliers as authoritative spokespeople. (See stories regarding Westboro Baptist protesters). And they’ve missed important stories like the recent ceremonial pro-life bill signing in the Capitol.
Media elite, disconnected from average Americans in so many ways, not only miss stories but are unaware of their own inconsistencies. A strong politically left bias is revealed when reporters use leading adjectives like “conservative” before a particular group but fail to use the adjective “liberal” for groups on the left. The same bias is evident when reporters say anti-abortion rather than pro-life. These may seem to be minor subtleties, but enough subtleties peppered throughout a story can move a news piece over the line of reporting and squarely into the camp of advocacy journalism.
When journalism becomes advocacy, it is vulnerable to becoming a tool of a partisan agenda. Political agendas and partisan worldviews shouldn’t drive issue-related story lines. Nor should news media neglect stories simply because they don’t fit into their particular political narrative. It’s clear that when a reporter questions and attacks politicians for their ideas and policy proposals—in the news section—then the news media becomes unfair and unreliable.
Chip Hutcheson, Publisher of the Princeton Times-Leader and former President of the National Newspaper Association said in a recent interview with my organization that national media elites are “disconnected” from people and have no “accountability” to the general public. “The liberal agenda always has its say, I don’t think the conservative agenda does,” Hutcheson said. He also shared that the faith community’s viewpoint is often hidden and when it makes the news, it’s often in an “unflattering light.”
Perhaps such marginalization helped birth Fox News 21 years ago. Fox News was the most watched cable channel in 2016. And in 2015, it was considered the most trusted national news channel in America. According to a 2015 Quinnipiac Poll, 29 percent of Americans trusted reporting by Fox News. Only seven percent trusted news reports by MSNBC, eight percent trusted ABC and 10 percent each trusted CBS and NBC. A total of 22 percent trusted CNN.
One of the most interesting things in the panel discussion was that the news media professionals didn’t seem to take a whole lot of responsibility for the demise of credibility in their field. It would have been good to hear a journalist on the political left (and they were all seated to the left of me) say that partisan tones from the political left finding their way into news stories eventually lead to a credibility deficit. Owning up to this reality and separating opinion from news reports is the first step for news media to reconcile with average citizens, that is, if they’re serious about regaining their trust.
Richard Nelson is the executive director of the Commonwealth Policy Center, a nonprofit Kentucky organization. He resides in Cadiz with his wife and children.