No one who’s been paying attention should be surprised by a recent Gallup survey showing that the American public’s trust in journalism is near rock bottom. As the polling company (again) makes clear, it’s been falling steadily for half a century.
What even I was surprised at were the results of another sounding that explains much of the reason why: A wide gulf has opened between the news media and its readers and viewers on the definition of journalism’s fundamental mission. Specifically, according to the Pew Research Center, although by landslide proportions, a majority of Americans believe that “Journalists should always strive to give every side equal coverage” in news reports, a smaller majority of journalists themselves – but still a sizable majority – doesn’t.
Also interesting and important (and seemingly consistent with the above finding), the same July 13 Pew findings make clear that the public gives journalists low marks on what the news media in recent years has often and loudly proclaimed to be its paramount purpose and contribution to American democracy: “Serving as a watchdog for elected leaders.”
First, the “evenhandedness” results. According to Pew, by a 76 percent to 22 percent margin, U.S. adults regard it as a hallmark of good journalism. But by 55 percent to 44 percent, journalists believe that “Every side does not deserve equal coverage.”
There’s a partisan gap in public opinion here, but it’s not enormous. Eighty seven percent of Republicans and Republican leaners value evenhandedness versus 68 percent of their Democratic counterparts.
More troubling, at least to me, the evidence points to a partisan gap that’s wider among news people themselves. The Pew researchers asked journalists who believe their audience “leans right” the evenhandedness question they endorsed this objective by 57 percent to 42 percent. But the journalists who believed their audience “leans left” rejected it by 69 percent to 30 percent. (News people who believe that their audience is “mixed” politically are split on this question.)
In addition, by 32 percent to 20 percent, journalists describe their news organization as leaning left versus leaning right, which strengthens the case for another important finding of partiality – most of it favors left-of-center views. For good measure, these data dovetail nicely with numerous surveys over many years (see, e.g., here) documenting a pronounced liberal tilt in their ranks.
In principle, this imbalance needn’t prevent journalists from effectively and evenhandedly holding the powerful to account. But the Pew results at least show that the public isn’t convinced that journalists perform well in “Serving as a watchdog over elected leaders.” Only five percent graded them “Very good” and just 24 percent “Somewhat good” at this task. The “Very bad” and “Somewhat bad” results were 24 percent and 21 percent, respectively. (Twenty six percent rated journalism as “Neither good nor bad.”)
I’ll acknowledge that the evenhandedness issue isn’t as clearcut as these Pew questions might suggest. For example, when it comes to reporting verifiable facts, every depiction clearly doesn’t deserve equal coverage. At the same time, aside from genuinely settled scientific or mathematical questions, the number of incontrovertible facts isn’t nearly as great as has often been supposed. Think of the Trump-Russia collusion claims, the mainstream media’s treatment of the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop, the CCP Virus lab leak controversy, and the whipping Haitian migrants charges. And before the Trump era, these news organizations overwhelmingly cheerled for the second Iraq War, the reckless expansion of trade with China, and Open Borders-friendly immigration policies.
Maybe most depressing: The Pew poll strongly suggests that the news media will keep covering stories in a one-sided manner. Specifically, it found that journalism’s strongest opponents of evenhanded journalism are the youngest journalists – who reject this aim by 63 percent to 37 percent if they’re between 18 and 29 years of age, and by 63 percent to 49 percent if they’re in the 30-49-year old cohort.