Why Do So Many Americans Mistrust the Media? [u]

Commentary2.jpg[ Updated Nov. 14, 2016 with more thoughts after reading initial comments.]

There were two themes that struck me forcefully from our recent election: First, was the vast number of people who no longer trust the media. Second, that actual facts are not as important as our belief in what the facts “should” be.

Seeing as the media industry is where we all work, this lack of respect has a direct impact on what we are doing and how it is perceived.

This lack of trust seems to me to reflect the continuous blurring of lines between news to documentaries to docu-dramas to dramas. The boundaries between fact and fiction are almost non-existent.

It also seems that the majority of Americans don’t fact-check what they see and hear. Just the opposite, there seems to be a willing acceptance that what we see and hear is, by default, accurate. The truth is what we believe it to be.

Hollywood has long said that viewers are clearly able to distinguish between the fanciful entertainment it creates and the real-world which viewers inhabit when they are not watching movies. I think that statement has been proved false, if it was ever true, by the amount of time, money and intellectual resources put into television commercials and political ads, all designed to persuade, if not purposefully mislead.

Are movies any less persuasive or compelling than a commercial? Does not the reality within a movie extend into the real world? If not, why did Universal build “The Wizarding World of Harry Potter?” Or the incredible growth of cosplay, superheros, and Comic-Con. This leads directly into: “If it is true in a movie, it must be true in the real-world.”

What troubles me the most, I think, is that disrespect for the media translates into disrespect for what we do. We are already pressed with decreased budgets and fewer clients. When you combine that with diminishing concern about craft or veracity, you end up with a media environment that rewards sensationalism and dramatic falsehoods; all designed to attract the largest audience.

“Truth” no longer matters, its all about attracting eyeballs and sparking controversy. And its not “our” fault if people believe the false “truth” we are selling. We’re just doing what our clients tell us to do.

This is not a good place for us. Its a place that rewards low-budgets and bottom-feeder scripts. Worse, it means that whatever we create is not respected. We aren’t changing the conversation, we are reinforcing each other’s worst fears.

This descent into darkness did not occur quickly. We each contributed by decisions that seemed good at the time. Bigger audiences are generally a good thing. But something got lost as we chased larger audiences and bigger buzz. We lost our way and we lost our respect.

Its going to take us a while to get out of here. And, I suspect, it won’t be easy.

UPDATE: Nov. 14, 2016

After reading many of these comments, I realize that I am less interested in specific candidates and more interested in why fact-checking was not valued? As one commenter wrote, the ability of the Internet to invent its own facts is very scary. Why have accuracy and truthfulness fallen into disfavor? What are the ramifications when we can make up facts to suit our world-view?

I will be moderating comments going forward which focus principally on candidates.

As always, I’m interested in your comments.

30 Responses to Why Do So Many Americans Mistrust the Media? [u]

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  1. Billy Walker says:

    Couldn’t agree more Larry. The news has turned into the e-channel. Much of the election coverage appeared to be heavily biased in my opinion.

    I guess I’m dumb enough to think that news in particular is to toss aside favoritism and report the news. How foolish of me.

  2. Jim mcquaid says:

    I think the problem has nothing to do with budgets. It’s a question of style = context. What I mean is that a “documentary” is believed because it looks like a documentary – it has rough handheld B roll and interviews. Who made it, the nature of theirs sources and all the rest of the context is now secondary. People discredit sources they dislike but imitate their style to gain credibility. Find a copy of “From The Picture Press” an exhibit at MOMA years ago of news photos. Basically the actual “news” content is in the caption. Detached from that context many of the images could be used to portray any number of meanings.

  3. Tim says:

    Great thoughts Larry! I agree…I am hoping that this election will also be a reset button for all media to do some introspection and assess how they covered the events that took place in “real” life as opposed to some reality they hoped to possibly create. I was both saddened and encouraged by the recent statement from the New York Times that they are going to look more closely how they can report facts and truth…I’m glad they came to that conclusion, but it is a bit gut-wrenching that they had to come to that conclusion! Thanks for all you do in producing great content for all of us editors out here!! It is MUCH appreciated!!

  4. Mark Suszko says:

    This is the logical fallout from losing the Fairness Doctrine/Equal time provisions, along with the “Cash = speech” ruling of Citizens United. Most votes today are gained or controlled thru the effects of TV ads, so all the money being raised is for paying for that ad time, and the people who influence campaigns most are the ones that can contribute the most money to buy the ad time. The typical new freshman Senator or Representative has to spend as much as 70 percent of their time fundraising for ad dollars, versus actually working in the legislature. The broadcasters are in no hurry to change this set-up because it is ridiculously lucrative for them as it is now. But if I could use magic powers to change things, I’d make all political ads from recognized, official candidates, free of charge, with a one for one equal time provision, and no single campaign to have more ads run than any other. Short-circuit the cash-grabbing contest. I’d like to see broadcasters greet incoming political ads with: “Oh crud, not ANOTHER one!” This would also give a shot in the arm to newspapers and magazines to fill-in the voter education gap, along with the web.

    As far as news, that’s been severely damaged by commercialism and the cable news practice of “wheeling” stories across the hour and the day, instead of actual journalism. Much cheaper and easier to fill time with satellite interviews of spokespeople reacting to the critique of the reaction to the OTHER reaction from one original story from yesterday, than to go pound the streets getting new stories. Local news is even worse. Three (maybe) stories, too much sports and weather, or car crash/fire reporting,superficial government/education beat reporting, time-wasting sweeps eye candy, and too many teases/intros/outros. All bread and no meat.

    Now I need to go watch Holly Hunter and Albert Brooks again.

    • Fred H Nesbitt Jr says:

      1000 extra thumbs up Mark!!!

      Thanx to the repeal of the FCC Fairness Doctrine…for the past 30 Years Most of the mushrooms in rural America have been kept in the dark & fed a steady diet of bull excrement.
      These Right=trash radio signals are even beamed down our Freeways…in most localities the republiCON message is all they get to hear, 24/7.

      “citizen’s/united” flooded the media with tons of money & added almost an extra year to the media’s election cycle.

      What America should be asking: How did trump know

    • Mike Janowski says:

      Nail on the HEAD!

      We need to rid our legal culture of the idea that “money=speech”. ALL people have a right to speech, but not all people have money…so do those who have money have MORE right to speech? I think not.

  5. Clayton Moore says:

    Speaking of budgets The entertainment complex has also been reeling by the youtube phenomena for a while now too. When little Johnny is more interested in watching his cousin light up farts on Youtube instead of going to an 80 million dollar movie (marketed for kids) thats a problem. Then there are video games. Budgets are being impacted all over the place and lines are as blurred as it gets. “Big Brother” and “The Bachelor” et al…….. talk about blurred lines.
    Actual reality appears to be way to boring and the media has fallen to the temptation of easy money at the expense of objective and (evidently) very dry reporting.
    We need to get back to a time with the lines between whats real and whats not are more clearly defined.

  6. Unfortunately the 4th Estate is dead. Solid News journalism is not clickable and we (I) fell under the spell of salacious coverage and I allowed myself to be blinded and shielded from what I didn’t want to know. The system is failing many Americans and the News media doesn’t want to report it. Be careful where you click, you could be supporting the wool manufacturers so they can continue to spin it their way. Larry, I recommend you to every new producer I meet.

  7. Chris says:

    Yes I think you are right. It’s all about standards really – standards of impartiality as well as standards of production. It is difficult to be wholly impartial – wholly detached – but that is what news should be. The problem is that reporters are ‘reporters’ with a view – nothing wrong with that as long as they report the facts and make it clear when they are giving a view of the facts. And of course express both/all sides (or give everyone the ‘same’ fair hearing in a programme).

    Here in the UK our newsreaders were initially that – ‘readers’ – relying on the news editor to make sure that the script was ‘impartial’ and accurate. Now we have news readers who are sent out as reporters and they sometimes seem take a stance / point of view. They are journalists and even the BBC is chasing viewers.

    Also, being aggressive when someone does not give a proper answer is more to boost the reporter’s ego than to get to the bottom of the issue. The other day I found myself sympathising with the rogue being interviewed because the reporter was so aggressive towards him. I don’t suppose that was intended – and it certainly did not result in any proper answers being given !

  8. Mario Tenorio says:

    I agree with most said here except that there are two hats we must wear one of the Holiwood persuasion and the other of telling the truth as we see it. We can say it’s business nothing personal and it’s valid but at the end of the day we have an independent and individual responsibility to create and produce material that can set the record straight. Documentary is a perfect tool. It’s not easy though, because it’s a double edged sword. Your personal views may clash with that of your clients potentially severing ties. But we are filmmakers and we have untold power to tell a story which ever it is that we print. In the end who do we work for?

  9. Bob Cole says:

    The media deserves skepticism – even my favorite paper, the NY Times. I’ve noticed that even their photo editing tries to make editorial points that aren’t necessarily valid.

    The day after Trump and Obama met, the NY Times and our local Baltimore Sun ran strikingly different front-page photographs of the two men sitting together. In the Times, they were scowling at one another; in the Sun they were smiling. I suspect that neither was a perfect choice, but the Sun’s was probably the more accurate, as the meeting was reportedly much longer and more cordial than anticipated. You never would have gotten that impression from the photo the Times ran.

    In the same issue of the Times, its writers were engaging in hand-wringing over their coverage of the campaign. Well… look at your front page, ladies and gentlemen.

  10. John says:

    The media bias against Trump, and all of his voters, was (and continues to be) simply mind-boggling. Papers like the NYT and Washington Post give the entire media a bad name, by prioritizing their ideology above reporting what people are thinking and feeling with fairness on both (or more) sides, and respecting them enough to think that based on that they can actually make an intelligent decision. I suspect a good number of votes for Trump were deep down a vote against this type of reporting.

    • David Baird says:

      To the supporters of our next President, The New York Times and Washington Post’s coverage seemed so unfair because they insisted on reporting what he actually said, what his business history was and pointing out blatant lies. The candidate was more than happy to cast the media as the villains. When confronted directly on camera that he re-tweeted a meme that had been proven false our future President response was basically a shrug and I heard it on the radio. He is a pathological liar with no respect for the truth. I suspect a good number of voters didn’t see that because they liked what he said. To Bob Cole, I’m sure you’re right. The meeting between the man who called Obama the worst president of the United States and a president who called him temperamentally unfit to be president was much more cordial than that old sour puss photo the Times published

      • Bob Cole says:

        Agree about some of the criticism of the media for simply reporting what Trump says. What I’m talking about is more subtle – it’s a bias that puts blinders on the eyes of the reporters so that they can’t see what’s right in front of them. Where were the reports, before the election, that are coming out after? e.g. the enthusiasm at Trump rallies vs. Hillary’s? The indifference in the inner city? The evangelicals who rallied behind the non-church-goer serial adulterer? As a HC voter, I say to the NYT “Oh, NOW you tell me.”

        re the photos: I get the sarcasm, and it’s a pretty good example of just what I’m complaining about in the media. You dismiss the reports of how the meeting actually went, with your preconception of how it should have gone. That’s exactly what the NYT did with its election coverage, until it was too late.

        The electoral result is, at least in part, on the media. Clearly, they did not get the story right this year. I think the SNL skit on the Brooklyn Bubble captured the problem perfectly.

        • David Baird says:

          Larry has asked us to focus on the question of mistrust of the media and not the candidates. Yet we should acknowledge one of the candidates vocally and relentlessly stoked that mistrust by calling it “dishonest” and “unfair” without actually refuting these allegations with facts. Indeed, when the press reported that groups of Muslims did not celebrate 9/11 in New Jersey, as the candidate had said, the candidate didn’t issue a correction. Instead he mocked the reporter who’s story become the basis for that internet distortion. His supporters didn’t seem to mind either that the incident didn’t happen, that he didn’t take it back, or that he mocked a person with a disability.
          Your criticism seems to be that the press failed to report the enthusiasm and emotions of his supporters. There were reports of his rallies and interviews with supporters. If the people in the media had a blind spot, it would be thinking that most people would see this level of dishonesty and pettiness as disqualifying for the office of President. It turns out they were right, but not by much. It turns out that more of the ones that didn’t lived in states who’s voters are over-represented in the Electoral College. The result is that we will have a President willing to spread untruths and condemn the press for pointing out when he’s wrong. The media is in for some difficult times.

          Perhaps my comment on the photos was cynical. There were no doubt many emotions during the meeting of the two men. I look forward to the future play. Neither of us were there so we will not know the facts. The premise that one photo represents an event is not valid. I should have said as much the first time.

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