Study: Americans, Media Coverage and Trust

You’ve heard stories before like this one from Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government:

Poll Reflects Continued Mistrust of Media Election Coverage.

Some statistics from the story:

"Most Americans do not trust what they hear or read in media coverage of the 2008 presidential campaign. Poll results just released by the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard Kennedy School and the Merriman River Group show that 62% of those surveyed are distrustful of campaign media coverage and that same percentage think that the media does a poor job of separating their own opinions from the facts in their reporting. The public’s trust has not improved since one year ago, when a statistically equivalent 64% said they did not trust the media’s election coverage."

And so on. The study concludes that the media has two grave options:

“One is to provide coverage that echoes the political views of a particular segment of the population, gaining their trust while alienating others. The other is to make a serious attempt to discover why so many viewers of all political stripes perceive bias, and to strive for political coverage that more viewers trust as objective.” (italics added).

No. This is not right. In fact–it’s very scarily wrong.

What if the problem lies not with the trustee, but with the trustor?

Americans and Media Coverage

What if the problem is not untrustworthy media, but partisan news consumers who have redefined “trust” to mean “I can trust them to dependably propagandize my preferred party line.”

Crazy? Not at all. The proof is right there in the survey.

• CNN [Cable news] and the Fox News Channel, are the clear leaders in Americans’ trust. 19.7% of Americans name CNN’s coverage as their most trusted and 13.9% name Fox as their most trusted.
• Those who trust Fox most support[ed] Senator McCain 86% – 6%, while those who trust CNN most support[ed] Senator Obama 55% – 27%
• 76% of those who trust Fox say they are conservative or very conservative, while 45% who trust CNN say they are moderate and 34% liberal or very liberal
• 76% of those who trust Fox say the media is too liberal, while 52% who trust CNN say the media is both, sometimes too liberal and sometimes too conservative and 23% say it is unbiased

Trust and Mainstream Media

The data suggest: the farther your views are from the mainstream, the less likely you are to "trust" mainstream views; and the more you interpret the absence of views as being "untrustworthy" because of the absence of overt support for your view.

The phrase “I trust XYZ news” used to mean “I believe XYZ has no overt political agenda which affects its reporting of the news.”

The phrase “I trust XYZ news” now means “I want XYZ to have an overt political agenda, as long as it’s the right one, i.e. the one I agree with. And it’s the wrong one, the one I don’t agree with, then I don’t trust them."

Chalk up another major hit on a relationship word from the forces of fear and suspicion.

Terms like “loyalty,” “relationship capital,” and “customer focus”—all words with ancient connotations of linking human beings—have been quietly subverted to connote separating people, to position people as mere means to corporate ends.

Nowadays, “loyalty” is no longer earned–it is suborned. The meaning of the word is turned inside out.

And when “trust” gets the Big Lie treatment, it’s particularly dangerous.

Many people who say the media can’t be trusted in fact have their own agenda—to force the media to become competing propagandist outlets–something that used to be synonymous with “untrustworthy.”

Partisanship is the new trust. It means the opposite of what it used to mean. Black is white, up is down.

If it doesn’t scream “fraud” at such efforts, the media is complicit in its own mugging. For “trust” must at its heart mean relationships between people—not objectification, fear, suspicion, and competition between people.

Here’s how depressingly easy it is to get suckered in. The very author of the cited study himself, Seth Rosenthal, is showing signs of infection. By characterizing one industry option in this way:

“to provide coverage that echoes the political views of a particular segment of the population, gaining their trust while alienating others”

he has already conflated “particular political views” with the phrase “gaining their trust.” That is: in his own words, he equates “trust” with partisan political views.

No, no, Mr. Rosenthal! The zombies are coming to bite you–wake up, wake up!