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Journalists aren’t meeting customers’ expectations, per new study

The public and the press share some common goals, but the evidence suggests that journalists don't fully understand their customers.

Journalists may be unwittingly sowing public division, despite the fact that the public's basic expectations comport to the media's own perception of their product.
Journalists may be unwittingly sowing public division, despite the fact that the public's basic expectations comport to the media's own perception of their product.

One argument clearly unites Americans: we live in a sharply divided nation.

Of course, it’s not exactly breaking news that gaping fault lines in our society exist. “Large numbers of Americans see their country as divided over values and politics, and they do not expect those schisms to shrink any time soon,” stated an issue brief released by The Associated Press and NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. That report, based on a study conducted in 2016 and before the election of Donald Trump, found that 80 percent of those surveyed felt Americans held widely divergent views on important civic values. A slightly larger proportion of respondents, 85 percent, say the country was more politically divided now than it was in the past.

And some observers, such as journalist Colin Woodard, doubt the nation was ever as united as many Americans choose to believe. In an interview with bigthink.com, Woodard argued that for all the attention given to our current racial, cultural, and political differences, these are merely a few of the manifold fault lines that have always separated Americans from one another. Other important and equally charged distinctions include linguistic divisions and religious differences. In fact, even the holidays we celebrate are a source of divergence. As an example, Woodard cited how some folks observe Martin Luther King Jr day, while others celebrate Robert E Lee’s birthday.

Again, this is hardly a novel observation. But there is, perhaps, a little-appreciated driver of this division: The news media itself may be contributing heavily to the public’s confusion.

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This idea has been thrown into stark relief in a more recent study – again conducted by The Associate Press/NORC, but with critical support from the American Press Institute – which offers new insights into why we remain a divided nation. Simply put, Americans lack a shared understanding of the changing nation that surrounds them. Absent reliable and respected news media that crosses American divisions, the public is often flummoxed by a chaotic swirl of events, arguments, opinions, and debates. Far too often, the information bears little in common with mutually understood facts.

In the study, released this week, researchers asked the public a set of questions about the media and asked the same set of questions to journalists. Their findings revealed that “we have a public that doesn’t fully understand how journalism works, and journalism that doesn’t make itself understandable to much of the public.”

This is a massive problem that extends beyond the plight of the news media, already rocked by diminishing advertising and fleeing subscribers. Indeed, the challenge posed by an “erosion of Americans’ trust of their news media is a failure to communicate,” posing fundamental and existential questions about the nature of American democracy.

Tom Rosenstiel, executive director of the American Press Institute, said in an interview with ThinkProgress, that media-driven information is critical to self-governance, especially in moments of strong partisan divisions.

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“We can solve problems outside of [diminished trust in political] institutions, but we still need accurate information to do so,” he said. “But it becomes impossible if, we’re operating in alternate realities or start believing that basic facts are fungible and that information is more a matter of rhetoric than reality. If we’re going down that road, it’s undemocratic and has no precedent in American history.”

If we are – or always have been – a starkly divided people, why don’t we better recognize the divisions among us and, more importantly, do something to mend them? My best guess is that divisions, especially in the era of Trumpism, makes political lines clearer, even when it’s not in the best interest of the nation at-large. To be sure, Trump’s tenure in the White House seemingly depends on sowing a politics of outrage and division, without any pretense to adhere to veracity. As The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin recently noted:

He’s gone to war with the executive branch (the intelligence community in particular) and any independent source of truth or check on his power. You are either with him or a criminal, a traitor and a purveyor of “fake news.” He’s managed to deepen the country’s divide along ethnic, racial, political, philosophical, educational and geographic (rural vs. urban) lines.

In our conversation, Rosenstiel said the recent study confirmed that both the public and journalists are actually aligned in their shared desire for honest, fact-based news with “a little bit of analysis.” The problem is that journalists believe that’s what they’re doing and their readers and viewers don’t agree.

“The public doesn’t think that’s what they’re getting,” Rosenstiel told me. “They say reporters are just using events to rewrite their versions of things. They say [journalists] aren’t extending their expertise, but just twisting the facts to suit your opinions. It’s possible the public is right, as we cover the news in a rushed fashion to keep up with the crazed flow of daily happenings.”

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A former newspaper reporter, Rosenstiel is bullish on the role and responsibilities that journalists play to keep a democracy viable. That’s why he insisted reporters and editors must lean heavily on serving up facts no matter what the consequences. In the long run, he said, no matter how divided the nation becomes facts are sticky things because they are true.

“Journalists need to be dispassionate and clinical serving up facts to the public,” Rosenstiel said. “The society needs them to not give up on the notion that truth is found in building up fact upon fact to get to truth. Even if people are fact resistant, journalists must find new ways to present those facts and never surrender to that task.”