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Three ways national media will further undermine trust

“It’s not that journalists shouldn’t engage in fact-checking, nor is it that journalists should avoid presenting facts as verifiable and trustworthy claims about the world — it’s that they shouldn’t be so obnoxious about it.”

The most important question we can ask is not what’s next for the future of the news industry or for news more generally. It’s: How will national news media continue to undermine trust in journalism?

As news observers and journalists, we’ve placed a lot of blame for declines in trust in journalism everywhere but where it’s most rightfully owed — national political journalism. We say news consumers aren’t media literate enough to distinguish good journalism from the fake stuff, or that news consumers are caught in their own partisan echo-chambers, or that [insert platform here] is to be blamed for [insert moral panic here].

But let’s leave factors like partisanship, platforms, audience knowledge, and bad actors aside for a second. In fact, let’s leave local and regional journalism out of the discussion entirely; local TV news is still highly trusted and local news outlets are hard at work building engagement and community partnerships. Instead, I submit to you three ways that national journalism — and national political journalists more specifically — are likely to further harm the relationship that the public has with news.

Sin 1: Political journalists will continue to make the story about themselves.

Yes, yes, the president antagonizes the national press corps, over and over and over, and threats against the free press are not to be taken lightly. However, journalists often present their mission as saviors of the free press against a tyrannical White House determined to quash dissent — which can ring a bit hollow when journalists are posturing for personal stardom and news organizations are reaping an economic windfall from the heightened interest in national news.

But the Jim Acosta tale of woe or April Ryan’s latest fight with President Trump are examples of the kind of story that reveals that journalists haven’t quite internalized that people don’t think as highly of journalists as they do of themselves. The shooting at The Capital Gazette was indeed horrible, but why was it more horrible than any other shooting that month? Journalists were killed doing their jobs, but in many other shootings, people are also killed doing their jobs. Sanctimony gets us nowhere fast.

Most journalism students are able to tell you that if there’s a cardinal rule about what to avoid when covering a story, it is to avoid making yourself the story. Journalists are there to tell us stories and what we need to know to better understand the world.

Sin 2: Political journalists will continue to believe that facts (and good journalism) will change people’s minds.

Sanctimony is annoying, as is its closely related sentiment, smugness. Journalists presume that if only the right facts are presented to the public, then people will be well informed and, in turn, behave as good citizens. The rational-actor model of a deliberative public should be considered dead at this point, as legions of research on hyperpartisanship and political psychology make clear. Any new investigation into Trump is unlikely to be the one that changes a vote — nor is any single fact check (or series of fact checks) likely to change views, even if it leads people to accept they are wrong. Journalists are unlikely to change people’s minds about core political beliefs, regardless of what their stories say.

The sanctimony often present with regard to new developments (“I told you so”) does more to antagonize deep partisans to spin off into yet another conspiracy than it does to prompt us to rethink our preexisting opinions. It’s not that journalists shouldn’t engage in fact-checking, nor is it that journalists should avoid presenting facts as verifiable and trustworthy claims about the world — it’s that they shouldn’t be so obnoxious about it. Taking the outrage factor down a notch would help a bit too.

The undertone of coverage about the massive climate change report unveiled by the U.S. government had a distinct Captain Obvious ring to it — climate change is so real that even U.S. agencies in the Trump administration were acknowledging it. The New York Times’ homepage headlines read a bit like “Ugh, FINALLY these losers admit to what the rest of us all know, which is that the climate situation is no bueno.”

Jay Rosen has been among the best commentators on the state of journalism in the Trump era, and he has made the point time and time again that outrage means nothing if outrage is constant. Journalists shouting about inequity, abuse, wrongful treatment, corruption — treating all sins of the administration or Congress equally — diminishes the efficacy of any one particular revelation overall.

In another arena, though, we do know that those in positions of authority can make matters worse. In one study, when vaccine information was presented by a doctor or an expert, anti-vaxxer parents tended to dig into their positions, not change their mind. Researchers who study cognitive bias and political information have yet to fully consider the role of sanctimony as it connects to feelings about the press or trust in journalism more generally.

Nonetheless, when it comes to journalism, the hypothesis that being obnoxious and know-it-all about a particular subject makes it harder to convince someone to accept your argument, even if factually correct might well be used to guide how national political journalists present their truth claims and their investigations.

Sin 3: Journalists will continue to amplify conspiracies, bad actors, and moral panics.

NBC “dystopia beat” reporter Ben Collins beamed into my class this semester over Skype. He was careful to explain to students that he is cautious about reporting out stories about bad actors until they are newsworthy, so as not to bring undue attention to their efforts. This kind of careful consideration of who and how to cover the dark fringes of the internet was well taken, but unsurprising from someone who has helped define what this beat looks like.

Here’s the rub: Journalists who amplify conspiracies or highlight bad actors lend legitimacy to their causes. This sort of exposure might draw concerned attention from news consumers, but it can unwittingly undermine what journalists have set out to do. In their efforts to prevent people from being tricked or to alert them to danger, high-profile news outlets are actually lending even greater credibility to the bad actors and helping further spread their messages.

All too often, the first time a news consumer without a hyperpartisan right-wing media diet learns of a conspiracy theory comes via the national news media. QAnon burst into the spotlight not just because Roseanne Barr tweeted about it, but also because journalists covering Trump rallies decided that it was newsworthy to highlight the supporters in the crowd carrying pro-Q signs.

Flat-earthers have their message spread and shared journalists who are rightfully agog after hearing explanations that, no, the North Pole is actually the center of the world. In an article about a flat-earth conference in Denver — something which would not meet most standards of newsworthiness — The Guardian copped to the media’s culpability in the spread of the movement, noting “their increase in relevance is primarily due to social media and an endlessly curious media.” The piece noted that The Washington Post has run six different articles about an amateur rocketeer attempting to kiss the sky and video-record that the world is flat.

The bad actors and fake-news creators who have received profile attention by major outlets are too many to count — the college student looking to make some extra bucks, the liberal Angelino determined to make the hard-right look stupid (and produces massive misinformation to make the point). Coverage of the dark corners of Reddit and of Gab have highlighted nastiness on the Internet that should have remained there rather than drawing further attention to these activities.

Journalists cover suicides with great caution and increasingly take the same care with mass shootings, worrying about contagion effects. But they ought to be applying the same principles to coverage of these bad actors and conspiracy theories. The end result of drawing attention to bad actors and bad information is the amplification of these caustic players in the news ecosystem, with journalists themselves undermining trust in journalism and facticity more generally.

What’s next?

The ills of journalism that scholars have been shouting about for the past few decades have been well illustrated by national political journalists — among them, false equivalency, a quest for immediacy, conservatives’ success at “playing the ref,” horserace journalism (not to mention pressure-gauge data journalism), personality-driven journalism, and beyond.

These sins are nothing new, but with a non-traditional president in the White House and a sharply polarized, digitized, and platformed media environment, making these mistakes seems far more consequential today. These problems are variations on these themes, different cases of the same general trends.

Perhaps the fact that journalism scholars have detailed these problems so well but have failed to make any sort of systemic or structural change in the news industry is a reflection of our disconnect between theory and practice. Nieman Lab is a place to fix this, so take this as a salvo from those concerned about press performance and the future of the news industry.

Nikki Usher is an associate professor at George Washington University and the University of Illinois.

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