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- Restoring Trust in Journalism

The Commission Finds:

  • A free and open press, and the strong protection of the First Amendment, preventing the government from restricting the freedoms of speech and press, are basic tenets of this country.
  • The rise of partisan news organizations is producing more bias in news reports, and the increasingly blurred line between news and opinion in traditional mainstream media is contributing to perceptions of bias more generally. Combined with the sheer volume of opinion expressed on digital media and cable news channels, and the rise in polarized politics, this blurring is leading to significantly diminished trust in news and information.
  • Journalism continues to face extreme financial pressures. In many localities, news organizations have vanished or are struggling to survive.
  • Technological innovation has enabled promising new methods of newsgathering, citizen journalism, data visualization, storytelling, reader engagement, and revenue and distribution.
  • Yet the internet and related technologies have disrupted the traditional business model for journalism and have given rise to hyper-partisan online news sites. In addition, the manipulation of major technology companies has contributed to the spread of misinformation and disinformation, an increase in echo chambers, and the ability for both foreign countries and domestic operatives to manipulate news and information during the U.S. election process.
  • When newsrooms do not reflect the demographic and economic diversity of their communities, the distance between the journalist and the reader grows, and can diminish trust.
  • Principles for quality journalism should apply across all news industry sectors, addressing solutions to functions rather than particular entities.

The Commission Recommends:

Recommendation 1 TRANSPARENCY
  • Encourage radical transparency and community engagement from news organizations.
Recommendation 2 JOURNALISM
  • Increase support for quality journalism at all levels with a focus on rebuilding local journalism.
    1. Accelerate a national push to create and foster nonprofit, hybrid and for-profit models of quality local news organizations.
    2. Encourage more collaboration among journalism entities at all levels.
Recommendation 3 INNOVATION
  • Use technology to enhance journalism’s roles in fostering democracy.
    1. News companies need to embrace technology to support their mission and achieve sustainability.
    2. Use technology and collaboration to help defeat disinformation.
    3. Use journalism to combat polarization.
Recommendation 4 DIVERSITY & INCLUSION
  • Build a news and information ecosystem that reflects the diversity of individual communities and our nation.

At its best, journalism informs the public on matters of civic concern, gives citizens a common set of facts, provides context that lends greater meaning to the news, independently monitors and holds those in power accountable, and strengthens the public discourse. Good journalism helps us to understand others whose lives and challenges are very different from our own.

That is the ideal.

Today’s reality is more complicated and more problematic. News media, mostly at the national level, have lost the trust of many Americans, though the degree of trust varies significantly by political affiliation. Republicans generally see “mainstream journalism” as deeply biased, whereas Democrats tend to be more trustful of these media. Independents, as could be expected, are in the middle, though are typically closer to the Republican perspective.

Local media, while still trusted by over 70 percent of the population,i face a growing need for funding to serve their communities. Consequently, the free flow of consistent, reliable news and information in American society is in jeopardy.

The Crisis in Journalism

According to Gallup, 41 percent of U.S. adults trust the media (defined broadly as newspapers, TV and radio) in terms of “reporting news fully, accurately and fairly,” compared with 72 percent of U.S. adults in 1976. Among those who identify as Republican, this number drops to 14 percent. Following the Watergate scandal of the 1970s, Americans’ trust in journalism reached a high point. Through the ensuing decades, trust in the press fluctuated amid political polarization, technological advances and the decline in the business fortunes of local news outlets.

Journalism also faces a financial crisis. In less than two decades, the traditional advertising-based business model for journalism—particularly print journalism—collapsed. Print advertising dollars have turned into digital dimes and mobile pennies. Meanwhile, just two companies, Google and Facebook, have captured 58 percent of the U.S. market share for digital advertising. Since 2008, more than 25,000 journalists have lost their jobs, accelerating the decline of regional and statehouse coverage and of costlier investigative and specialty journalism.ii

Meanwhile, the number of journalists working in broadcast television news has remained stable since 2008. But the relaxation of federal limits on ownership of local broadcast stations has led to consolidation of ownership, which in some cases has diminished the commitment to local coverage in favor of centrally produced content.

Though many news organizations and journalists are continuing to do outstanding work, other journalists, executives and owners of news media have made strategic decisions that have led to further erosions of trust. In the quest for profits, clicks, shares and ratings, the spectrum of ills includes headlines that overpromise and mislead, advertising designed to look like journalism, and journalists and partisan commentators who blur the line between fact and opinion. It also includes newsrooms at the local and national levels that have failed to keep up with the demographic and political diversity of their communities, and those that have lagged in adapting to the latest ways that readers and viewers consume news and information.

Without faster, more effective innovations in business models, coupled with substantial reinvestment, even the higher levels of trust in local journalism are not enough to sustain healthy local news operations.iii

That said, we recognize that for commercial and political interests, some news outlets have strategically and intentionally embraced a specific political bias to attract a distinct audience. For some readers/viewers, this is how they prefer to consume news and information. To them the bias is clear, accepted and, indeed, trusted. In any event, having a strong political perspective does not absolve media organizations of the responsibility to be accurate and truthful in their reporting of the news.

The shift to online delivery of news and the rise of social networks has increased news consumption overall and is producing promising new methods for journalism and civic engagement. But not without a cost. Technology has made news instant and global at the same time. It has enabled the rise of echo chambers and made it easier for foreign countries to interfere in the U.S. election process and for domestic operatives to spread disinformation. For all the advantages provided by technology and unfettered free expression, the current news and information ecosystem presents a complex challenge confronting journalism, technology companies, politicians and America’s political institutions.

An organization committed to produce quality journalism, whether nonprofit or for-profit, established or new, online or off, must generate revenue to survive. As advertising revenues continue to disappear, consumers have begun to replace at least part of that lost revenue with direct subscriptions and voluntary contributions. Declining trust in news media hurts these efforts, raising greater doubts about journalism’s capacity to fulfill its civic mission.

Good journalists do not assume that the public will blindly or automatically trust their work. They know they must earn that trust. Yet the solution is not simply to recommit to the guiding principles of journalism (see “The Elements of Journalism”). The challenge, says Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute, is to apply those ideals in ways that grow public confidence in journalism.

The Commission agrees, and finds that this crisis of trust demands bold action and major investments into the practice of journalism at all levels.

The Presidency and the Media

Before presenting our recommendations to increase trust in the news media, this Commission would be remiss to ignore the explicit antipathy the President of the United States has expressed towards much of the press.

This Commission is bipartisan and includes several members who strongly believe that the President has good reason to be critical of the coverage he has received. They can cite examples where they believe the press is prejudicial in its coverage of him, his actions and policies. That sentiment has come through clearly in the hearings we held across the country in 2018 and in other writings. We understand that criticism and address it elsewhere in this report.

Presidents from the inception of this country have had their difficulties and differences with the press. The first Congress passed an ill-advised and short-lived Sedition Act that criminalized criticism of the government. But for most of the post-World War II era, leaders of both parties have embraced the value of a free press, even as they chafed under its spotlight.

As Ronald Reagan said in 1983, “Since the founding of this nation, freedom of the press has been a fundamental tenet of American life. There is no more essential ingredient than a free, strong and independent press to our continued success in what the Founding Fathers called our ‘noble experiment’ in self-government.”

Two decades earlier, John F. Kennedy noted, “There is a terrific disadvantage in not having the abrasive quality of the press applied to you daily. Even though we never like it, and even though we wish they didn’t write it, and even though we disapprove, there isn’t any doubt that we could not do the job at all in a free society without a very, very active press.”

As difficult as it can be for any leader to be under press scrutiny, American political leaders have maintained an understanding that a free and robust press is a critical part of an open society. It is, indeed, the essence of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

Nevertheless, beginning at least with a tweet on February 17, 2017, the President has accused the press, as a whole, of being “the enemy of the American People.”iv He has continued this line of attack ever since,v even bringing up the possibility of challenging broadcast licenses held by his critics.vi

To be sure, the decline of trust in the press as well as other democratic institutions has a 40- to 50-year trajectory in this country. Nearly everything in this report can be understood and implemented without reference to the current president. But many feel we are at a particularly tense and precarious moment in this relationship.

The sustained disparagement of journalism and the news media as a whole challenges our shared understanding as Americans of the importance of a free press, and more generally the importance of sources of information and expertise independent of those who wield political power. As Chris Wallace of Fox News warns, delegitimizing the press is a way to “raise doubts about whether [the press] can be trusted when [it reports] critically about his administration.”

The Commission, in sum, stands for a free and open press as an essential element of the great democratic experiment this country celebrates. It is as basic a value as self-governance itself, and it must be preserved. We are unanimous that a free press is not, and must not be seen as, the enemy of the people.

Download the full chapter here.


i 76 percent of Americans across the political spectrum have ‘a great deal’ or ‘a fair amount’ of trust in their local television news, and 73 percent have confidence in local newspapers. That contrasts with 55 percent trust in national network news, 59 percent in national newspapers and 47 percent in online-only news outlets.” Lakshmanan and Edmonds, ‘Finally Some Good News.”
ii At the turn of the 21st century newspapers were making triple the profit of the average American business but were seriously cutting state house bureaus. Gene Roberts, Thomas Kunkel, and Charles Layton, eds., Leaving Readers Behind: The Age of Corporate Newspapering (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2001).
iii Lakshmanan and Edmonds, “Finally Some Good News.”
iv The text of President Trump’s tweet was “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBC News, @ABC, @ CBS, @CNN) are not my enemy, it is the enemy of the people.”
v For a list of instances where the president has continued his attacks on the press, see, for example, Glenn Fleishman, “CNN’s Jeff Zucker Blasts Trump’s Repeated Attacks on the Media and Journalists After Potential Bomb at Network,” Fortune, October 24, 2018, https://perma.cc/VF2X-73B7; Brooke Seipel, “Trump Claims News Media Turned Off Cameras at Rally as Live Coverage Goes Uninterrupted,” The Hill, August 27, 2017, https://perma.cc/6FD8-LB7D; Harper Neidig, “Trump Renews Threat over NBC’s ‘License,’” The Hill, September 4, 2018, https://perma.cc/5D7N-SSQR; Alex Mallin (@Alex_Mallin), Twitter, May 26, 2018, https:// perma.cc/F5YH-G7NV; Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump), Twitter, October 11, 2017, https://perma.cc/ ZXW6-BGRJ; Matthew Choi, “CNN Personalities Accuse White House of Posting Altered Video,” Politico, November 8, 2018, https://perma.cc/3TS4-9YJC.
vi See, for example, Max Greenwood, “Trump Pushes to Challenge Media Network Licenses,” The Hill, October 11, 2017, https://thehill.com/homenews/administration/355051-trump-news-network-licenses-must-be-challenged-and-if-appropriate and Harper Neidig, “Trump Renews Threat over NBC’s ‘License,’” The Hill, September 4, 2018, https://thehill.com/policy/technology/404923-trump-renews-attacks-on-nbc-license.
 
 
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