Turns out that while newspapers may be hurting for revenues, they still have a bit of what Rodney Dangerfield couldn’t get – respect.
A new survey of likely voters in the 2012 election confirms what many media watchers have been tracking for some time: trust in national media, particularly newer forms such as blogs and social media, is extremely low, hovering between six and 13 percent.
The most reliable source of election news, as gauged in this January survey of 1,000 cell and land-line phone respondents – are print newspapers, with 22 percent of respondents saying they are trustworthy. Broadcast and cable TV came in a close second, nestled right at 21 percent, while talk radio and Internet news sites ranked much lower.
According to the report released Thursday – and sponsored by the man behind craigslist, Craig Newmark himself – fewer than a quarter of those who took the time to answer questions felt that election news coverage was reliable.
Yet, at the same time, points out Mr. Newmark, who has posted an infographic detailing the survey results on his craigconnects website, “people want news they can trust.”
However the media as a whole are following a downward path led by the politicians they cover, points out Dr. Ben Agger, director of the Center for Theory at the University of Texas, Arlington’s Sociology Department.
Since Watergate, he points out, people haven't trusted politicians. Now, he says by email, “they don't trust news media to provide anything but infotainment.”
There is some irony in the fact that it was young Washington Post sleuths who uncovered the truth about the Watergate “plumbers” and brought down a president, he says, noting that journalism had “instant credibility.”
Yet few get their news from newspapers anymore, Dr. Agger notes. “The Internet provides instantaneity, but little depth,” he adds.
He notes there is also no small irony in the fact that these trends are being highlighted in a project sponsored by craigslist founder Newmark.
"Craigslist itself is to blame: The eclipse of classified advertising in pulp journalism has required papers to trim their investigative staff, cut column inches and rely on wire services,” he adds.
Irony and hope mark this survey of Americans' trust in various media, says presidential scholar Charles Dunn, editor of “The Presidency in the 21st Century.”
“Who would have thought that a survey sponsored by a non-media person, Craig Newmark, and an organization responsible for much of the decline in the traditional media, craigslist, would offer compelling results favorable to traditional media?”
The survey results should encourage traditional media, however, points out Mr. Dunn, “particularly newspapers, which have bled readers and lost revenue for many years.” The survey also stands out as a testament to the wisdom and insight of the discerning public, he notes, “without which a democracy cannot long endure.”
People value trustworthiness, notes Dunn, “precisely because we've seen so many high-profile violations of trust. The more that people read about fakery, plagiarism, and wild bias, the more they want the straight story.”
Even in 2012, the traditional mainstream media remain the major source of basic reporting, he points out. “With some exceptions, what appears on the Internet is a presentation of, or commentary on, journalism that comes from mainstream news organizations,” he notes via email.
Other media analysts looking at the study results are less impressed with the numbers for print media, pointing instead to their still low trustworthy ratings as a precipitous fall from grace.
The traditional media share the blame for their reduced readership and loss of respect, says Lara Brown, an assistant political science professor at Villanova University in Philadelphia. For years, news media tailored their coverage to niche groups in the hopes that a dedicated following, though smaller than what they had had before, “would make up the revenues for a general public that was more variable,” she notes via email.
After two decades of news organizations moving to attract and reinforce specific ideological groups, she notes, “they have ruined their collective credibility as an unbiased arbiter or neutral observer.” It is not surprising to see people in this survey wish for trustworthiness, she observes, “which means being a neutral observer and historical recorder of the facts, not a spin machine for one or the other party.”
The public also appears to understand that it may take time to get it right, says Ms. Brown, “and now, they'd rather have it right, than be forced to digest a misleading press release delivered to the news organization by an interested party.”
This perspective is likely why the respondents trust the older news sources, she notes. They likely either have residual trust from the past when they behaved in a more neutral manner, or they may believe that these organizations might have if not the same personnel from an earlier era, then at least, the same ethos or institutional memory, “which keeps them honest,” she says.
In short, she says, the public is hungry for facts, not just entertainment, and the news organizations that jump on that trend may find themselves as kings of the hill “because when everyone is doing ‘partisan politics,’ it’s a good idea to position oneself as ‘post-partisan.’”