Trustworthiness in the media at an all-time low

William Whisler-5

The meaning behind the term "fake news" can be explained in different ways depending on the person.

According to a Gallup poll released on Sept. 14, 2016, 32 percent of Americans say that they have a “great deal” or “fair amount” of trust in mass media — down from 40 percent last year. 

Gallup began polling the public on trust in the media in 1972 on a yearly basis, and 2016 produced the lowest number yet. In 1976, America’s trust was at an all-time high at 72 percent, after investigative reporting on Vietnam and Watergate led to a strong public perception of media, according to Gallup. Today, media trust is at its lowest point. What has led to this steady decline?

Alex Hayes, the managing editor of the Gettysburg Times, attributes the decline to inaccuracies in articles from rushing to get a story out to be first to break the story.

“First off, the media needs to slow down,” Hayes said. “When Watergate happened, those stories went through so many different editors before they went to print. Now, any reporter can go out and cover a story, come back and type it up and may or may not get their story vetted by an editor and check their facts before they hit post. I don’t think anyone purposely spreads false information, but that adage of needing to be first is terrible. Nobody remembers who was first, everyone just remembers who was wrong.”

On Dec. 1, ABC News got it wrong. ABC News investigate journalist Brian Ross incorrectly reported that during the 2016 presidential campaign Donald Trump directed Michael Flynn to make contact with Russian officials before the election, according to the Washington Post. Later that night, he read a retraction stating that Trump asked Flynn to make contact with Russia after the election, the Washington Post reported. The damage was done, however. 

Major political reporting errors like this one have led to a lot of distrust in the news media, especially as Trump as gone on to call journalists “enemies of the people,” “pathetic,” “very dishonest,” “failing,” or even “a pile of garbage,” and the biggest growing term following the election — “fake news,” of any news considered unflattering to the president, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“We need to do a better job of teaching people to consume media,” Hayes said. “It doesn’t help that we have a president that can’t consume media. We have a very egotistical president who doesn’t like bad things to be said about him even if they are true or not. We need to be able to decipher what is really ‘fake news’. Even though the president is screaming fake news, it doesn’t mean he’s correct, but there is a lot of fake news out there because we have allowed so many untrained people to become the media.”

With the Gallup poll revealing the lowest overall number of trust in the media, it also produced another telling number. Trust in the media by members of the Republican Party dropped to just 14 percent, a steep decline from 32 percent the previous year. Democrat trust sits at 51 percent today.

“When the leader of your party is screaming that the media sucks, you’re going to tend to listen to them,” Hayes said. “I will say the media is a lot harder on Trump than they were on Obama, however. In the election, everyone just assumed that Hilary Clinton would be the next president and then some reporters woke up the next day and said, ‘What happened?’”

One of the biggest issues today in media trust is the overwhelming amount of media out there. Social media has become a double-edged sword for media outlets to share their stories, but consumers must know how to decipher a fake story from a real story, and know what is and is not a credible source.

“We teach Journalism students how to separate credible information from information that is not so credible, and we teach them how the news media operates,” said Kyle Heim, a Shippensburg University assistant professor of communication/journalism. “If you’re not a journalism student, you may never get any of that training, and you may not understand exactly what the media does, how it does its job and you don’t have training in knowing what news is questionable.”

So, what is media literacy?  Media literacy is defined as the ability to access, analyze, evaluate and create media in a variety of forms, according to So how do we promote media literacy?

Hayes believes it should start in schools, and recalled sharing current events in high school.

“We used to have what we called current events and we would go to the local newspaper and cut out stories and then talk about them,” Hayes said. “It was a great thing and we were teaching kids how to consume media at a young age. If we would take these current events, and maybe not at a third-grade level, but in middle school when students are forming their own opinions at a very young age, then people would be engaged in [the media]. We need to change that next generation.”

Heim also talked about the idea of growing media literacy.

“I agree that there needs to be a lot more emphasis starting at an early age teaching students about the media and how to look at the media critically and how to digest news articles to know if what they are reading is a credible source,” Heim said.

By increasing media literacy, the media can get the public to understand journalists and the message that journalists are trying to portray, which could lead to a much higher trust in the overall work of journalists. 

The biggest thing however, is rebuilding that trust. Journalists will need to be extremely proactive to being careful with their work by trying to be as accurate as possible, to help replace the tarnished image of journalism. The current perception of journalists has been so low that Walmart had been selling T-shirts online that read “Tree, rope, journalist. Some assembly required,” until a complaint was received by a journalist advocacy group, according to

How can journalists rebuild that trust?

“There are so many ways to convince the public to trust you, but our thing with local papers is to convince the public that we are different,” Hayes said. “If Lester Holt puts something on the TV and it’s fake or distorted, there’s a good chance he won’t see any of his viewers. In the local community, we see them at church, we see them at the gym and we see them when we go out to eat with our families. We always have a responsibility to get it right, but at a local level we have better checks and balances to get it right because we directly see these people.”

“Building trust isn’t about just getting it right the first time because that’s your goal, it’s about being honest when you make a mistake,” said Troy Okum, the editor-in-chief of SU’s newspaper, The Slate. “That way people will say, at least when they make mistakes, they let me know about it, when if another outlet doesn’t admit to their mistakes they could be making mistakes all the time and I may not know about it. Being transparent about your mistakes can build a better relationship.”

Other things that can help rebuild trust include conducting face-to-face interviews instead of using press releases and showing you care about getting someone’s voice out there is vital, according to Okum.

The best thing journalists can do, however, is remind the public of the value of good journalism and what it has done to advance and serve society, according to Heim.

“Sometimes those of us in journalism have not always done such a good job of telling our own story,” Heim said. “Journalists are really good at telling other people’s stories, but they sometimes fail at telling their own story about how investigative reporting has led to reform and how its brought about all kinds of good for society. I feel like a lot of people don’t really know that because journalists haven’t done a good job of telling people that. I think educating students about what journalists do, why they do it, and some of the positive effects that has had on society is really important.”

Overall, there is a long road ahead for journalists to try and rebuild the trust of the public in the wake of an administration that does not believe in the value of journalism. If consumers can become better suited to understand the media, it would go a long way in making a difference.

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