Commentary

Selling Credibility

By John McManus
Posted Oct. 8, 2004

The Gallup Poll recently reported that fewer Americans trust the news media than at any time since Gallup began asking the question in the 1970s.

Why?

No one really knows.

The extent that America is politically polarized between President Bush and Sen. Kerry almost certainly contributes to the impression that reporting is biased.

Psychology teaches us that the more partisan we are and the more important we consider the issue, the more likely we are to consider versions of reality different from our own to be biased.

John McManus

But there also may be broader underlying reasons for public mistrust of our messengers. After all, journalism's credibility has been falling for at least two decades.

That's the same period over which many news corporations have diminished their allegiance to the public service "oughts" of journalism ethics, to the more whimsical target of whatever the market values that day.

Here's an example of what I'm talking about. Some months ago a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle told me the editors had decided to place a story on the murder of Laci Peterson inside the paper because it wasn't that important.

But after they saw local newscasts leading with the murder, they bumped the story up to the front page. With the massive TV exposure, they reasoned, people were likely to be talking about the case around the watercooler. Despite its non-consequence it had value in the market for public attention.

Presto! It was transformed into front page news.

When journalism is market-driven, what its weakest practitioners do changes what's newsworthy for everyone else.

Once newspaper editors might have scoffed at the frivolity of local television news. Today they follow its lead, as it shapes what mass audiences consider interesting.

When journalism is market-driven, what its weakest practitioners do changes what's newsworthy for everyone else.

That lessens the credibility of news in several ways.

First, there is a sameness to the cheapest ways to amass an audience. Mainstream news is becoming more homogeneous.

Could you tell one station's coverage of the Peterson case from another's. Or from the San Jose Mercury News' or the Chronicle's? Understandably, but unfortunately, the public begins to lump all news media together.

So when CBS fails to vet its report on Mr. Bush's National Guard record, "the media" lose face. Not just CBS.

Second, the news sacrifices our trust when it pretends to seek truth, but instead plays to public passion -- which is always what the market values.

It's both cheaper and more popular to take dictation from an administration bent on war than to skeptically assess its evidence and the cost of unleashing violence across a nation. But when reality eventually intrudes -- as it always does -- we lose faith in those who claimed to be our watchdogs.

A third factor is the resentment the public may feel towards news organizations that proclaim themselves public servants but act like any other business.

News media claim special privileges like free use of the airwaves -- rather than paying as cellular phone companies must. Reporters tell judges they can't testify about crimes they witnessed or were told about by sources to whom they promised anonymity.

News media are quick to wrap themselves in the First Amendment as a way of both fending off government regulation and establishing their self-importance.

When they abuse those privileges for private gain, they risk losing our faith and gaining our ire.