Blog on the Run: Reloaded

Wednesday, April 14, 2021 4:39 pm

America doesn’t value journalism’s values, and why that’s a bad thing


For America to function well as a democracy, more Americans need to adopt the values of journalists rather than disdaining them.

Media columnist Margaret Sullivan of The Washington Post brings news of a new study that finds that when you ask Americans what they think of common journalistic values, without telling them that the values are from journalism, people don’t think much of them.

The study tested five core journalistic values — oversight, transparency, factuality, spotlighting wrongdoing, and giving voice to the voiceless — and found that only one, factuality, enjoyed support by a majority of Americans surveyed (about 70 percent). Sullivan also notes:

The value drawing the least support is the idea that a good way to make society better is to spotlight its problems. Only about 3 in 10 agree.

And only about 1 in 10 Americans fully support all five of the journalism values that were tested.

Researchers believe the lack of support is attributable more to people’s moral instincts than to their politics.

The report divides respondents into four groups, according to their various moral principles: Upholders, Loyalists, Moralists, and Journalism Supporters. Alas, that last group is the smallest of the four. But we have a chance of making inroads with some of the others.

Upholders, for example, put a high value on respect for leaders and groups [and therefore do not rate the journalistic value of oversight highly]. “They worry that some of the things journalists believe in can be intrusive and get in the way of officials doing their jobs,” the report notes. They would like to see more stories about what works, not just what is going wrong. In general, there is an appetite for more solutions-oriented journalism.

I was doing solutions-oriented investigative journalism back in the ’90s, and I wasn’t alone, for whatever that insight is worth.

The study couches its findings in the context of public trust in the news media, which, Sullivan notes, has dropped from about 70% in the early 1970s to about 40% today. And she raises the question: If journalism’s values aren’t popular with the public, does journalism need new values?

I’m going to argue just the opposite: For America to function well as a democracy, more Americans need to adopt these values of journalists rather than disdaining them. The fact that Journalism Supporters were the smallest identified group among study subjects explains a helluva lot about what’s been going wrong in our country over the past 50 years. There is some corroborative evidence in the report, which finds that support for journalistic values correlates with education level, for example.

You also cannot talk about American trust in news media without talking about the unrelenting conservative campaign against news media that dates at least to the Nixon administration. When conservatives haven’t been trying to squelch news media, they’ve been trying to co-opt it, as the Reagan administration’s Michael Deaver did, or discredit it entirely, which has been Donald Trump’s approach as he developed the concept of “fake news” — news that reported information that he didn’t like or that made him look bad. His epithet had its roots in the Nazi phrase lugenpresse, or “lying press.” So Trump, in the memorable phrase of Trump advisor Richard Bannon, set out to “flood the zone with shit” — so much shit that our news media, as big and wealthy as they are, literally could not keep up. Nor could our institutions, such as the Congress and the courts.

Relatedly, you cannot talk about that trust without acknowledging that the real decision makers in U.S. news media — the people who decide how much money there will be for news coverage and where that coverage money will go — are almost all wealthy people who identify with the wealthy and powerful, not the man or woman on the street and certainly not with racial/ethnic minorities, LGBTQ folks, and so on. They are not about giving voice to the voiceless, and the people whom journalists try to hold to account frequently are their friends.

But the Framers of the Constitution understood how badly the nation they had created would need these journalistic values. That’s why they included freedom of the press in the First Amendment. And they did so even though the press of the day was in many ways as antagonistic, partisan, and virulent as it is today; it is no coincidence that among quotes about journalism attributed to Thomas Jefferson is at least one that praises newspapers and at least one that damns them. The Framers envisioned that in the nation they were creating, any man — at least, any propertied white man — might function as a journalist. Societal moves toward more equity as time passed and the advent of the Internet and portable devices have brought what the Framers envisioned into full view.

And can anyone seriously argue that the country would be better off if journalists did not value oversight, transparency, factuality, spotlighting wrongdoing, and giving voice to the voiceless? Can anyone argue that the country would be more democratic without those values? Certainly the Framers would not.

If we are to keep the Republic the Framers vouchsafed to us, the country needs journalism more than journalism needs the country. Journalism and its values should be taught as early as elementary school, and American citizens who are serious about protecting and improving our democratic republic should embrace these values not just in their own lives but also in their political and moral choices.

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