This past week, the Society of Professional Journalists began winding down its examination of media trust with a panel in Casper, closing down six months of observation, inquisition and discussion around why the people of Wyoming, who rank among the nation’s most leery critics of the media, have such a high skepticism of the industry.
Though distrust of the media is nothing new, the past several years has been a decidedly tumultuous time for the news media. Trust in the media has been in a downward spiral over the past several years, with more than a third of Americans doubting the media’s accuracy entirely.
It’s an environment that has left the media on the defensive — and searching for answers.
“Those of us in media for a certain time know that, looking back through history, there’s always been a mistrust of the news media,” Irwin Gretz, president of the SPJ Foundation, said in an interview last week with the Star-Tribune. “It’s inherent in the fact that we deliver a lot of bad news, and (that) leaves people with a bad feeling. But it does seem like that animus has gotten worse in the last several years, and it’s not at all helpful to have it being led from the White House. That’s what concerns us.”
Noting the symptoms, leadership for the foundation met several years ago to discuss ideas they felt could have an effect beyond the normal training or grant programs the society was known for. What they came up with eventually became the “Casper Project,” an outreach and engagement program the foundation hoped could become a template to repair the public’s relationship with the press in communities all over the country.
But why Casper? And why is it that Wyoming is more suspicious of the news media than anywhere else?
Part of it could be where most national news is produced: on the East Coast. Wyoming already has a tepid relationship with Washington and New York City, where hedge fund managers and politicians make moves that can have profound implications on the resource-rich states of the West — a phenomenon journalist Bernard DeVoto defined in a 1934 piece for Harper’s Magazine as a “plundered province.”
Though the internet has served as an equalizer, the West is undeniably different from the media markets of the East Coast, with cultures and demographics that present a sharp contrast to the population centers of Los Angeles, Washington and New York. Wyoming is older than the rest of the country, and significantly whiter, demographics that lead to a more uniform conservatism. And nationwide, conservatives have the highest levels of mistrust toward the mainstream media, spurred on by President Donald Trump’s open hostility toward the news media.
At the same time, the national media is evolving. Television news used to be ubiquitous, with the three major networks holding together the national conversation in a cohesive way.
Now, those three networks reach just 23 million people a night in a country of 330 million people and, on the bandwidth of the internet, the media has grown to include more than the just-the-facts approach that once dominated the airwaves. Today, people from diverse backgrounds have platforms they’ve never had before, a development that has come about in a very short period.
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“It’s a very real feeling — a feeling that you’re losing something, that it’s a zero-sum game and when all these voices are on the rise, your voice is being drowned out, that something is being taken away from you,” said BuzzFeed News world news editor Hayes Brown, who participated in the panel. “And that is extremely scary and has been used in recent use to push certain agendas.”
“What I don’t think is necessary is to make that feeling your only frame of reference when talking about these issues,” he added. “You don’t want to be in a hiring position and ask, ‘Do I really want these black people to go and cover the west?’ No, that shouldn’t play in your mind at all. They are bringing a new, fresh perspective to these stories, and I think that’s extremely necessary in this day and age.”
Part of the public’s perception of media bias, some say, does fall on the consumers themselves.
The Associated Press, for example, is considered as close to center as any news organization in the country, with its coverage informing newspaper readers from coast to coast and deep into the American heartland. The AP’s business model is to create news for other organizations. But it’s not up to them how their coverage is used. While the organization’s stories may sit squarely at the center of the ideological spectrum, people’s perception of The AP can be dictated largely by how that information is used by the outlets running their stories.
“We want every story to stand on its own,” said AP deputy managing editor for U.S. news Noreen Gillespie, who was also on the panel. “But when people discuss bias, it’s often focused around what is seen — and that might just be one slice of the whole.”
The scope of the media itself could be another factor. The advent of conservative- and liberal-focused news outlets have made it easier to insulate oneself with slanted pieces that agree with one’s worldview, Brown noted, making it much easier to write off something that does not jibe with that perspective as false.
“I think it could be hard for them to see sometimes when there are so many outlets who cater to them exclusively at the expense, sometimes, of facts,” Brown said. “It can be easy to look at something that agrees with you and matches what you know, rather than something that clearly does not. If that’s your starting point, then everything else must be ‘fake.’”
Hopefully, said Gretz of the SPJ Foundation, the public — no matter their ideological alignment — will begin to recognize the necessary functions of an objective press and reward that work.
“The buzzword of the moment is ‘the media,’” Gretz said. “But if you think about it, the media includes everything from Rush Limbaugh and Rachel Maddow all the way to respected news organizations like CBS and the Washington Post. But people are not making that distinction, and it doesn’t help that organizations that do a pretty good job of playing toward the middle during the day — like CNN — turn to pundits at night.”
“That’s what we’re trying to get people to see,” he added, “that if their anger is really about the partisan talk shows, that they direct it there, and not toward those of us who are trying to play the game straight.”