For The News Media, It May Already Be Too Late

Published in Online Spin, June 23, 2017

You might not agree, but I believe most people want to know the truth. 

Pro-Trump. Anti-Trump. Left wing. Right wing. Republican. Democrat. American. Russian. I don’t think anyone says to themselves, “What I really want is a news outlet that actively lies to me.”

We are not divided in wanting to know the truth. We are divided in whom we trust to tell it to us.

My pro-Trump taxi driver says he gets his information exclusively from the Trump team’s emails or from listening to the man himself. This way, he explains, it comes direct from the source — no lying intermediaries to twist the truth.

My left-wing cousin says he gets his information from Michael Moore and Rachel Maddow — not from the rest of the lying media.

On both sides, fact-checkers abound, but few care. Once we’ve decided whom to trust, we don’t need no stinkin’ fact-checkers.

Jeff Jarvis, a professor at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism and the author of multiple books, said recently that our problem isn’t fake news; it’s trust (or lack thereof) and manipulation. 

He argued that we need to bring “greater transparency and accountability to our institutions. In journalism’s case, this means showing our work, recognizing the danger of speed…, and learning to listen to the public to reflect and serve communities’ distinct needs. In the platforms’ case, it means accounting for quality in algorithmic decisions and helping users better judge the sources of information. In the ad industry’s case, it means bringing tools to bear so we can hold brands, agencies, and networks responsible for what they choose to support.”

Reasonable, regardless of your political leanings.

But read the article, and it’s clear Jarvis is a Hillary supporter — and so the majority of the comments address the author’s political beliefs rather than the substance of his statements. “The Liberal-biased Media is NOT ‘hacked’ by Russia or anyone else,” comments RLA Bruce. “[I]t is deliberately lying, purposefully and on their own, without any outside hacking, in order to promote the Liberal agenda and their values — or lack thereof.” Charles Ingram adds, “C’mon we’ve known for a long time that there’s lies, damn lies and the New York Times. Now we can add CNN, The Washington Post, BBC and a few other previously trustworthy news sources.”

See the problem? Because Jarvis revealed a personal belief system, the follow-up conversation devolved into an argument about that belief system, rather than a discussion about journalistic standards.

But the problem is worse than that. 

Let’s say Fox, CNN, Breitbart, and MSNBC all change their tactics. Let’s say they all start being, as Jarvis recommends, more transparent and accountable. Would we, as a result, reconsider our own beliefs and opinions?

Not likely. In a New Yorker article called, “Why Facts Don’t Change Our Minds,” Elizabeth Kolbert explores our irrationality. We consider information credible if it confirms what we already believe, and when presented with facts that dispute our beliefs, instead of changing our position, we double down.

After Kellyanne Conway referenced the non-existent Bowling Green Massacre in February, journalist Mark Lavie suggested that TV networks should do two things: ban live interviews (so that everything they air can be subject to fact-checking before it goes live) and rebuild the wall between news and opinion — going so far as to suggest that news media do away with editorials altogether in order to regain trust that they are reporting fairly. 

Again, reasonable, regardless of your political leanings.

But would it work? Or would we all just switch to the sources that give us quick if not necessarily accurate info — especially if that info happens to confirm what we already know in our hearts to be true?

There’s lots the news media can do better. But if we really want better outcomes, there’s only one way to begin: with ourselves.

Kaila Colbin