We're a long way from 1976 or even 2005, aren't we? Because in 1976, in the post-Watergate era of journalism, trust in the Fourth Estate was 72 percent, according to Gallup.
That's right: Nearly three of four Americans trusted that what they read, what they heard, were the facts with no narrative or cause or agenda being advanced.
In 2005, 72 percent became 50 percent in terms of trust in the media. A 22-point drop, sure, but a respectable number when compared to just how bad things have become for an institution once revered for icons such as Cronkite, Brinkley, Mudd, Reasoner, Wallace, Jennings, Koppel and Russert.
The bottom would drop out before the Trump era began in 2017, with just 32 percent of the country saying it trusted the media five years ago, or 18- and 40-point drops from 2005 and 1976, respectively.
The sentiment is clear: Viewers want more facts and less opinion, less fear mongering and fewer attempts to divide. To underscore this point, a 2021 survey from global communications firm Edelman found that 58 percent of Americans believe “most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public," while 56 percent believe the media is “purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.”
The need for facts over opinions is especially true in the COVID-resurgence era in the midst of extreme domestic political partisanship and global challenges — a time when we need the media to be more responsible than ever, if informing and educating the public is the goal.
This, unfortunately, is not the case.
Take two recent examples to make a macro point: Two prominent news outlets pushed a narrative around vaccinated people and breakthrough cases without putting the numbers into all-important statistical context.
"Breakthrough Covid cases: At least 125,000 fully vaccinated Americans have tested positive," read an NBC News headline.
Wow — 125,000? You can fill Yankee Stadium two-and-a-half times with a number like that. Scary stuff.
Actually, when putting things into context, it's not — because 125,000 Americans out of 164.2 million vaccinated Americans is .08 percent in terms of breakthrough cases, or one in 1,300 people.
So why not include that context in the all-important headline?
Know this: An increasing number of news consumers don't read the story, just the headline. And with Pew Research showing that 86 percent of Americans now get their news online, we are entering into a scroll-headline-absorb, scroll-headline-absorb kind of news culture.
In other words, any crucial context that may be included in the actual story – and it was in this case, to NBC’s credit – is, sadly, almost irrelevant.
The writer of this NBC piece on vaccinated breakthroughs, Laura Strickler, was forced to follow up on the blowback to the headline by including the aforementioned crucial context which, again, was included in her piece:
From my story:— Laura Strickler (@strickdc) July 30, 2021
"The 125,682 "breakthrough" cases in 38 states found by NBC News represent less than .08 percent of the 164.2 million-plus people who have been fully vaccinated since January, or about one in every 1,300."
But check out these responses that share the same theme that any relevant, crucial context must be included in the online headline, or it's almost as if it doesn't exist since it isn't seen by a large chunk of those not clicking on the headline:
125,000 sounds like a big number!— Kevin M. Kruse (@KevinMKruse) July 30, 2021
125,000 out of 164,000,000 vaccinated … not so much
Less than .1% of vaccinated people. Framing it this way is dangerous and the big news media companies have to STOP with this faux alarmism.— Peter Bukowski (@Peter_Bukowski) July 30, 2021
They are still doing this. So maybe it's time to ask if it's intentional. https://t.co/Ikxm6sGTwV— Stephen L. Miller (@redsteeze) August 1, 2021
The New York Times followed suit by declaring that vaccinated people can spread the Delta variant as easily as the unvaccinated, a claim that a furious White House slammed in Trumpian ALL-CAPS fashion.
"Breaking News: The Delta variant is as contagious as chickenpox and may be spread by vaccinated people as easily as the unvaccinated, an internal C.D.C. report said," reads the Times online headline.
Breaking News: The Delta variant is as contagious as chickenpox and may be spread by vaccinated people as easily as the unvaccinated, an internal C.D.C. report said.https://t.co/hDs1FOIPMt— The New York Times (@nytimes) July 30, 2021
"VACCINATED PEOPLE DO NOT TRANSMIT THE VIRUS AT THE SAME RATE AS UNVACCINATED PEOPLE AND IF YOU FAIL TO INCLUDE THAT CONTEXT YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG," responded Ben Wakana, deputy director of strategic communications and engagement for the White House unit.
VACCINATED PEOPLE DO NOT TRANSMIT THE VIRUS AT THE SAME RATE AS UNVACCINATED PEOPLE AND IF YOU FAIL TO INCLUDE THAT CONTEXT YOU'RE DOING IT WRONG. https://t.co/gBkDbJ21xX— Ben Wakana (@benwakana46) July 30, 2021
@nytimes - Please delete this tweet and fix the headline. It falsely implies all those who are vaccinated can spread COVID as much as unvaccinated. This is only true for small share of vaccinated w a breakthrough infection.— Marc Goldwein - GET VAXXED (@MarcGoldwein) July 30, 2021
This is wrong and dangerous - please remove. Cc @WHCOS
In recent weeks, President BidenJoe BidenMcAuliffe holds slim lead over Youngkin in Fox News poll Biden signs bill to raise debt ceiling On The Money — Progressives play hard ball on Biden budget plan MORE's poll numbers have dropped noticeably, primarily because of inflation fears, skyrocketing violent crime in American cities and a border crisis that is getting worse by the month if the numbers are any indication.
The number of migrant children in Border Patrol facilities has been steadily rising, an analysis of U.S. government data shows, as record numbers crossed the U.S.-Mexico border in July, renewing a politically sensitive issue for President Biden https://t.co/UcXkmFhpwR pic.twitter.com/ygkV57xlPV— Reuters (@Reuters) August 3, 2021
Quinnipiac polling has Biden at 46 percent approval and 43 percent disapproval, the lowest of his early presidency. On his handling of the pandemic, what was 65 percent approval in May is 53 percent approval now, a 12-point drop.
The one thing the president really had going for him was his handling of COVID, which appeared to be in retreat, thanks to the vaccines, until delta turned a downward trajectory in cases, hospitalizations and deaths into an upward spiral. Consequently, vaccine passport requirements are becoming mainstream among major corporations and businesses, while Biden just announced vaccine mandates for federal workers. And there's talk of schools going virtual again, courtesy of American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, citing current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Teachers' union president suggests schools may not reopen after new CDC guidance https://t.co/BLMghVpY8R— Fox News (@FoxNews) July 29, 2021
Public confusion and pessimism reign more than ever. Result? This tweet says it all, showing that 54 percent of Americans believe the worst of COVID-19 is ahead of us, while 46 percent believe the worst is already behind us, according to Harris polling:
Well, the media panic campaign is working. (It’s completely absurd to think the worst is ahead when 70 percent of adults are vaccinated.) pic.twitter.com/8TweXgX58N— Kyle Smith (@rkylesmith) August 4, 2021
This is an incredible turn in terms of public sentiment. One month ago, 70 percent of respondents told Harris that the worst of COVID was behind us. Now it's 46 percent who feel the same way, a 24-point drop.
The need for accurate information – without opinion, without omission, with full context – is more important than ever, because knowledge is power.
But right now, as it pertains to all-things-COVID, the messaging from many of our media influencers that are supposed to provide such knowledge is about as clear as mud.
Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist for The Hill.