Nation needs media to heed founders’ call
By Michael Ryan
“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”
– Thomas Jefferson
Our Founders knew the critical importance of a free press to a free people. That’s why, through the First Amendment, they protected the press from government intervention.
“In addition to educating and reporting, the press serves as the public’s independent watchdog, charged with keeping governments, businesses and other organizations in check,” Caroline Little, then the CEO and president of the Newspaper Association of America, wrote in 2013.
“Thanks to diligent reporting,” she added, “citizens are empowered to take a stance on critical issues, enact change and demand the best from their leaders.”
“First Amendment freedoms like speech and press are essential rights. Self-government is impossible without them,” notes BillofRightsInstitute.org. “The Founders saw press freedom as a bulwark of liberty and a means of assuring justice in government.”
Scottish social commentator Thomas Carlyle once wrote of the British government, “Burke said there were Three Estates in Parliament (clergy, nobility and commoners); but, in the Reporters’ Gallery yonder, there sat a Fourth Estate more important far than they all…”
Yet, consider: The United States – the land of the First Amendment – last year ranked just 41st in the world in press freedom, according to an index by the international organization Reporters Without Borders.
Nor are the media regarded well today: Gallup announced last year that “Americans’ trust and confidence in the mass media ‘to report the news fully, accurately and fairly’ has dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with 32 percent saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media.”
Republicans were especially tough on the media in the Gallup poll last year, with only 14 percent saying they trust the media. With Democrats, it was 51 percent.
White House press secretary Sean Spicer used his first media briefing to berate the mainstream media.
Why is this happening? A number of reasons.
First, there’s been an explosion of media outlets, the vast majority of which don’t include trained journalists – and some of which not only have an agenda but also spread false information (sometimes knowingly).
As a result, “fake-news” became a big issue toward the end of 2016 – though it must be said much of the fake news angst might have come from disappointed Hillary Clinton supporters looking for a scapegoat for her loss. But Donald Trump also recently lashed out at what he called fake news.
So, while some fake news really is fake, there’s another category of fake news: that which a politician or partisan simply doesn’t like.
Another reason for the decline in trust of the media is bias. There’s a reason Republican trust in the media plummeted last year, during the election, from 32 percent: They perceive, rightly so in many cases, that so-called mainstream media outlets are in the tank for Democrats. Even some in the mainstream media have acknowledged it at times.
With the explosion of agenda-driven and largely unaccountable media and social media outlets, it’s never been more imperative for the traditional media – those well-known, time-honored brands in print, television and radio – to get their act together. The media’s credibility, and their lens through which we view the world, has a direct impact on the public’s trust of society’s other institutions, particularly our government.
Today’s widespread lack of trust and increasing cynicism in our institutions endangers our nation’s very future.
National media organizations should make it their highest priority in the coming years to restore trust in them, and in the institutions they cover – by covering them without pride or prejudice, and by focusing on the most important issues facing the nation, rather than on the shiny object or the flash-in-the-pan trivial story that constantly distracts us.
That requires having a game plan – and taking stock of what those important issues are, such as those in this section.
For example: While our mushrooming national debt has become a national security issue – thanks to our leaders’ abject inability or unwillingness to balance our budget and live within our means – it was hardly mentioned in the omnipresent, multi-year presidential campaign just ended. Our leaders and prospective leaders might not have wanted to talk about it, but the press and the people should’ve insisted on it.
We in the traditional media must set ourselves apart from the ambient noise with quality, thoughtful and objective coverage of the challenges facing America.
Michael Ryan is editorial page editor of ‘The Augusta Chronicle’ in Georgia.
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
OF US ADULTS THINK NEWS MEDIA TEND TO FAVOR ONE SIDE WHEN COVERING SOCIAL ISSUES
Source: Pew Research Center
• Trust in media is at an all-time low
• An explosion in media outlets dilutes accountability
• Real and perceived bias taints traditional outlets
• There’s no discernible plan for staying focused on major issues
1. Increased civic and media literacy, which schools and media could teach
2. Better social media policies on news vs. fake news
3. Better fact-checking and more trustworthy fact-checkers
4. Resurgence of traditional journalistic practices
5. More government transparency
Source: “5 Steps Toward Rebuilding Trust in the Media,” www.aspeninstitute.org/blog-posts/five-steps-toward-rebuilding-trust-media/