A survey conducted by the Pew Research Centre for the People & the Press has revealed rising mistrust of the press in the USA. For the second time since 2002, public faith in the credibility of US news outlets has diminished: the ‘positive believability ratings’ for nine out of the thirteen news organisations included in the poll have experienced a sharp decline, recalling a similar downturn experienced between 2002 and 2004.
The survey covered both television and radio broadcasters and newspaper companies and asked 1001 people to rank the believability of individual news organisations on a 4-point scale. A rating of 4 meant that someone accepted “all or most of what the news organisations say” to be true and 1 indicates that an individual believed “almost nothing”. On average 56% of individuals who contributed to the study gave news titles, including USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, a rating of 3-4 points. This figure stood at 62% only two years ago, and demonstrates a considerable drop in public trust in the news media since 2002 when the average positive rating stood at 71%.
Partisanship appears to be a key factor in perceptions of a news organisation’s credibility. Those who identify themselves as Republicans have long been more sceptical of the news media’s credibility than Democrats, and the situation has been exacerbated according to this year’s Pew report. Two-thirds of Republicans view national newspapers to be unreliable, compared to ten years ago when only two news organisations were denied a positive rating by two out of three Republicans. The New York Times in particular has suffered from partisan divides. The title has only been included in the survey since 2004, but has seen the amount of people rating its credibility at 3-4 points drop 13% in the last eight years. At present 65% of Democrats believe that the NYTimes is highly credible, compared to 37% of Republicans. The two demographics do however reach a consensus on the believability of other publications, conferring a high ranking on both the Wall Street Journal and USA Today.
Diminishing faith in individual news titles is symptomatic of a more general and wide-reaching trend of public distrust for news media; the relationship between news companies and the general public has been in steady decline since the 1970s. In the months leading up to the US presidential election, the problem of partisanship and inaccurate reporting in American titles has become particularly relevant, and has led to some journalists questioning why the problem came about and how best to counter it.
The Associated Press has released its 2012 presidential election style guide, which not only contains practical advice on common grammar pitfalls ("congressman, congresswoman: Not formal titles, spelled lowercase. Rep. is the preferred title before the name of a U.S. House member"), but also aims to aid journalists in avoiding politically-loaded terminology that risks reducing political reporting to empty name calling. Reporters are, for example, advised to avoid using terms such as ‘rightist’ and ‘ultra-rightist’ “in favor of more precise descriptions of political leanings”.
Meanwhile, journalists like Carl Sessions Step are calling for a more balanced approach to political reporting from newspapers: “I see nothing to stop American reporters from asking better questions, digging deeper on tough issues, calling attention to demagoguery, and forcing debate away from silly bickering and toward more thorough consideration of truly weighty issues.” In the wake of this year’s Pew survey, it is perhaps sage advice that US publications would do well to reflect on.
Though not always an immediate reason for diminishing circulation revenue, a lack of credibility can only damage a newspaper’s reputation in the long-term, and could drive readers away at a time when every subscription counts.