Do you trust your newspapers? Radio stations? Broadcast news? Social media outlets? I wouldn’t be surprised if you said no. Americans’ trust in the news media has decreased in recent years. According to a Gallup survey from September, only 41% of Americans stated that they had a “great deal” or a “fair amount” of trust in the news media.
I experienced this lack of trust first-hand after covering a Shaker Heights Board of Education meeting to write an article for my introductory journalism class.
In all honesty, I was not looking forward to sitting through three hours of people cutting through school district red tape. However, I had an unexpected experience that shed some light on people’s attitudes toward the media.
After the introduction to the meeting, Board of Education Vice President Heather Weingart opened the floor to the public. An old man hobbled to the microphone and started going on about myriad topics, none of which had to do with the school district. I thought to myself, “So, this is how this meeting is going to go.”
I couldn’t have been more wrong. The next woman who stepped up to the mic was angry, and she wasn’t just complaining to complain. It was clear that she had a problem, had done her research and was not going down without a fight.
As a concerned parent, this woman gave a short yet powerful speech about an incident of racism that occurred at Woodberry Elementary School. While her emotion was fiery, her speech was vague.
I wanted to find out more about what had happened, but even after a few Google searches, I could not get a sense of what incident had this woman all worked up.
The next woman who spoke referred to the same incident and was equally passionate. She demanded answers from the school board, answers that I gleaned have been hidden for quite some time.
“There’s my story,” I thought to myself. “Assignment done.” This turned out to be my first incorrect assumption of the evening.
After doing more unsuccessful online research at the meeting, I felt discouraged. I couldn’t find any information about this mysterious incident, so I decided to ask these two ladies first and go from there.
As the Board of Education worked through agenda items about enrollment, the curriculum and school budgets, I kept my eyes on the two women who spoke, waiting for them to walk out so that I could follow them and ask my questions without disrupting the meeting.
Halfway through the meeting, they finally headed outside. Excited to be chasing a story, I fast-walked after them, introduced myself and spit out my journalism spiel: “Hi, I’m Josie Schuman. I am a student at John Carroll University writing an article for a journalism class. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions?”
I expected them to be more than willing to talk with me, as there was clearly an issue that needed to be addressed. This was incorrect assumption No. 2.
“I’m not talking to any reporters about the issue,” one of the women shot back. She walked away immediately.
Startled, I turned to the other woman, who seemed to be more open. I led with a seemingly simple question: “What happened?” As she began to speak, I asked if she would let me record her, so that I could pull a quote for my article. Strike three, you’re out.
“Now, this is just too much,” she said as she followed her friend out the door.
I was shocked. As someone who has only covered JCU events, I was used to people being open and excited to answer my questions, and I was surprised by the push back I received from these two women.
“But, I’m the good guy,” I thought to myself, as I headed back to my seat, feeling defeated. I just wanted to get the truth about the incident. I also made it very clear that this article was for a class project, so that the only person reading it would be my professor. Even then, these ladies wanted nothing to do with me.
Their reaction showed me that people don’t trust any form of media, even a college student writing an article for a class.
I am deeply troubled by the negative stereotypes surrounding journalists, which seem to lump reporting with gossip writing. Many people think that journalists are somehow just trying to “dig up the best dirt” to get the most exciting story, which is far from true.
This stereotype is exacerbated by the presence of fake news, putting public distrust of the news media at an all-time high.
A survey completed in June by the Pew Research Center showed that 50% of Americans believe the creation and spread of misinformation is a critical problem in the U.S., prioritizing it over other social ills, such as violent crimes, racism and illegal immigration.
This sense of distrust differs drastically across party lines, specifically regarding journalists in their “watchdog” role of holding powerful people and institutions accountable. In 2017, the Pew Research Center completed a survey exemplifying this difference, as 89% of Democrats believed that journalists keep leaders in check while only 42% of Republicans said the same.
While a partisan difference is not unusual regarding attitudes toward the news media, this division is rather stark. The Pew Research Center has been asking this same question since 1985, and the results from 2017 were the most extreme.
We also can’t ignore that this survey was taken in the early days of the Trump administration. The rise in media distrust has gained speed against the backdrop of Trump’s turbulent relationship with the press, as he has identified journalists on numerous occasions as “the enemy of the people.”
Journalists are battling against the prevalence of fake news and alarming political rhetoric.
As a result, NPR Public Editor Elizabeth Jensen offered a few strategies for regaining public trust, including an ethics code, transparency regarding funding and disclosure of the fact-checking process.
This type of ethical journalism is important now more than ever, as reporters are working against the stigma that applies to the entire profession.
The bad reputation that journalism has garnered over the years is extremely unsettling because it goes against everything I believe journalism should stand for, which is rooted in the truth. I’d like to think that most journalists are for the people, not the enemy of the people. We’re supposed to be fighting the good fight.
That’s why I was so shocked when the two women at the school board meeting refused to talk to me because all I wanted to do was tell their truth. I was on their side, and it saddens me that they, and so many others, don’t think so.