Unlike India, the United States has an empirical approach to measure the decline in trust in the media. A recent study by the Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, shows two phases of decline. The slide started in the pre-Internet decades between 1972 and 2000. It seems rather ironic as this period was dominated by some of the finest investigative reports such as the Watergate investigations by The Washington Post and the Pentagon Papers by The New York Times . The impact of these journalistic endeavours went beyond the shores of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
The second phase of an accelerated decline happened between 2000 and 2020. The confidence in the media fell by 11 percentage points, from 51% to 40%.
The interesting element here is that the decline in trust is high among those who support the march of the political right but there is a surge in trust among the liberals. The study reveals that among the Republicans, the decline is steep from 47% to 10% and it pulled down the national average despite a surge in trust among the Democrats from 53% to 73%.
The study provides new insights that help us understand trust in the media and raises many fundamental questions about the core values of journalism. Though it is a stretch to do a direct comparative analysis between the behaviour of Americans and Indians, the study does provide more than a clue to the challenges facing Indian journalism. In India, too, we are witnessing the decline in trust in the news media among the privileged right.
The key finding is the disjunction created by partisan considerations where people do not even endorse key journalistic values. The study focuses on five key journalistic values and sought citizens’ response to each one of them. The five core values, which themselves were distilled from the idea of peaceful coexistence in a pluralistic society, are oversight, transparency, factualism, giving voice to the less powerful, and social criticism. The study reveals that while journalists consider all the five values to be universal, non-journalists do not share that world view. It reveals that only 11% of the public supports all five of the core journalism values unreservedly. While the majority endorse factualism (67%), values such as oversight, transparency and social criticism do not get a resounding endorsement.
When I became a journalist in 1985, my editors were almost unequivocal in their faith in social criticism. They were convinced that shining a spotlight on problems is the best way for society to solve them. But the study reveals that most people do not endorse this idea; only 29 % of Americans support it.
A fundamental problem
Though I do not have the empirical richness of the American Press Institute, I do have the advantage of reading feedback from readers on specific issues. When this newspaper flagged issues regarding the shortcoming in the management of COVID-19 that led to the present second wave, there were voices that did not endorse the newspaper’s position to shine light on the failures. This poses a fundamental problem, and it is not limited to the U.S., where the study was conducted, or to India, where I am a witness to cynicism about the act of scrutiny.
The study argues that rather than tying distrust towards the media only to the perception of partisan bias, it is possible that at the heart of the media trust crisis may be scepticism about the underlying purpose and mission that journalists are trying to fulfill in the first place. It succinctly points out the existential irony that is governing journalism today: “When journalists say they are just doing their jobs, the problem is many people harbour doubts about what the job should be.”
Herein lies the conundrum. Why are people not accepting the arguments put forth by journalists? At what point did the core values of journalism lose their universal appeal and get reduced to a mere professional creed? When did the dialogue between journalists and citizens become a concurrent monologue? Why do people look at journalists’ averments that they are doing their jobs as proof of dishonesty?
The acrimonious social media space is not encouraging dialogue but is instead generating new forms of silos. We need imaginative silo-breakers to create an inclusive public sphere.