The American public’s trust in the mainstream media is at an all-time low.
Polls in recent years have shown that less than a third of Americans have confidence that the mass media reports news stories “fully, accurate and fairly.” Across the country, consumers of national news rail against the perceived biases of “fake news” and “the liberal media.” And nationwide, local news outlets — consumers’ most intimate windows into the arcane functions of the press — have been in a state of collapse, further distancing the public from the people who shape the national conversation.
Such circumstances have sown significant suspicions, to the point where many find themselves asking the national news one question: “Why should we trust you?”
On Tuesday night, Casper residents had an opportunity to do just that, taking advantage of nearly three hours in a room with top editors from four major national outlets in a session that, for its participants, was part-interview, part-personal pulpit and all-encompassing — an event as much about the thoughts of the audience as those of the people onstage.
“While I have no question in my mind there will be many differences in opinion this evening — because I know the people of Wyoming — I am confident it will be a civil discussion, and one we can all be proud and happy to have,” former Wyoming Gov. Mike Sullivan, who moderated the panel, said at its start. “For tonight is as much about what you have to say and what questions you have, as much as it is about hearing from the outstanding panelists we have here tonight.”
Tuesday’s event was held as part of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Journalist on Call project, a six-month initiative launched in February to survey citizens’ thoughts about the relationship between democracy and the media in today’s modern media environment, doing so in a state that is considered to be slightly more distrustful of the media than the national average.
Neal Lipschutz, the deputy editor-in-chief of the Wall Street Journal; Noreen Gillespie, the deputing managing editor for U.S. news at The Associated Press; Lori Montgomery, the deputy national editor at the Washington Post; and Hayes Brown, a senior reporter and the world news editor at BuzzFeed News, sat on the panel.
As promised, the evening’s forum was densely packed, featuring discussions on everything from the ethics of mass media to editors’ thoughts on whether or not it was appropriate to call the president a racist for comments made on social media. While the news organizations featured in Tuesday night’s discussion offer coverage on a wide variety of topics, discussion largely focused on national political coverage, and centered largely around whether the outlets were biased against conservative perspectives in their coverage of the news.
Unanimously, the panelists disagreed with that idea.
Some in the audience argued that even the most minor scandals in President Donald Trump’s administration receive significant amounts of coverage, while misconduct by the Obama administration went uncovered. But Brown, who personally covered the Benghazi scandal, argued that something had changed in consumer behavior and that, while scandals were covered during the Obama era, they simply never received traction, despite efforts to promote the stories.
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At times, editors found themselves explaining the value of the work they do outside of the beltway, outlining projects of consequential service journalism they had done. Those included reporting on missing women in Indian Country and the lack of investigation into those incidents, as well as deep dives into the potential dangers of California wildfires, which were used to help inform coverage by local news outlets on the ground.
“Those types of stories are important, and they are happening all over the U.S.” said Gillespie of the AP. “We have so many choices about the outlets we choose to read and trust and consider reputable reporting. And there are stories outside of Washington. We tell them all the time.”
Audience members also asked about the alleged suppression of conservative viewpoints in the mainstream media — a topic that was recently the subject of a “Social Media Summit” held last week at the White House. The panelists, however, pointed to coverage of the stock market’s favorable performance under President Donald Trump, conservative opinion columnists on their staffs and the success of conservative news outlets on social media.
The audience also began a tense discussion around each outlet’s decision to classify as “racist” the tweets made by the president telling four congresswomen of color to “go back where they came from.” Each outlet made independent evaluations on the topic after significant amounts of vetting, several meetings and a deep discussion on what the phrase meant in its historical context, they said.
But ultimately, the panelists pointed out, media trust needs to begin with the understanding of what a journalist actually does, and their pursuit of one thing: the truth.
“You find out very quickly what happens when you don’t get it right,” said Montgomery of the Washington Post. “And that feels bad. And you don’t want it to happen again. So you have to keep asking.”
Jana Price, a Casper resident, said after the panel had ended that she was primarily surprised to learn about the pace and level of vetting that goes into the national news media, and how rigorously the outlets research and ultimately police their coverage.
She was also impressed by something else: the fact they all decided to come to Wyoming.
“That’s what I love about Wyoming,” she said. “There are a lot of things that come to us that are very special, and this is one of them.”