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News media take losing streak into 2020

Aaron Schwartz

The journalism industry has much in common with the NFL’s Cincinnati Bengals. Both had horrendous seasons in 2019 and have disintegrating fan bases. The Bengals, fortunately, get a No. 1 draft pick for their futility. The news media get no such reward for ineffectiveness. The journalism world just keeps digging a deeper credibility hole, seemingly unable to generate the professionalism that citizens demand and the nation surely needs.

Some corners of the journalism industry still strive to serve the mission of holding the powerful accountable and providing for the information needs of a democracy. The Washington Post’s extensive investigation of failings in Afghanistan is evidence of such work. Reporters in small-town America routinely cover city council meetings and school boards, all for little pay and prestige. Such work often goes unappreciated as it is overwhelmed by the higher-profile journalistic blunders made by big media in corporate towers on the East Coast.

Media credibility has declined steadily for the last 20 years, and journalism’s recent performance won’t turn that trend around. News consumers are more likely to remember journalism’s missteps than its successes. Sadly, the journalism industry made too many high-profile blunders in 2019, and those mistakes became engrained in the public assessment.

Frantic, misguided coverage of the Covington Catholic students in the nation’s capital last winter was a terrible way to start the media year. That was quickly followed by more media frenzy covering the ridiculous Jussie Smollett situation which, amazingly, was taken seriously and garnered much more space on the news agenda than was warranted.

The Mueller investigation was characterized by rampant speculation and few facts until the report was released in mid-April, at which time the media allowed party spin-lines to dominate coverage before largely dropping the matter as yesterday’s fashion. Then there was the New York Times changing a headline in response to the social media mob. MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell had to retract a report that Donald Trump once obtained loans co-signed by Russian oligarchs. ABC used video from a Kentucky gun range in its reporting of Turkish battles in Syria with the Kurds.

Coverage of the Democratic presidential candidates has been devoid of depth or policy analysis, but long on exaggerated treatment of flimsy polls and vacuous televised “debates.” Impeachment news has demonstrated how easy it is for partisan politicians on the left and right to snooker the media into reporting party talking points. Non-nuanced impeachment coverage has been characterized by scattered facts and wishful thinking. It has served largely to make the public confused and angry, while opportunistic politicians grandstand to raise their national profiles.

The problem here is that these journalistic snafus are not just mistakes caused by human frailty. They are the kinds of blunders created when journalistic culture breaks away from the culture of its audience. Careless and needless mistakes happen when accountability and accuracy are devalued in favor of pushing ideological high-horses or generating shrill headlines to get clicks and ratings.

Objectivity, proportion and fairness are valued by news consumers. Citizens can sort out for themselves what to make of the information they receive from the media. They don’t want to be worked — or lectured to — by a news industry that increasingly mixes reporting with agenda-pushing. Socio-political analyst G.K. Chesterton warned the public 100 years ago that journalists think they are smarter than the public for whom they report, which eventually leads to journalism becoming “barbaric and unintelligible.”

A Rasmussen Reports survey this fall found that almost two-thirds of Americans are “angry at the media.” An Economist/YouGov poll reported by Ballotpedia indicates that 41 percent of Americans consider the media either unfriendly to or an enemy of the American people. Regular citizens of today are declaring that the journalism establishment no longer serves their needs. Executives in the news industry should start listening.

Legendary ABC anchor Frank Reynolds went live on the air in March 1981 to broadcast the assassination attempt on President Reagan. Reynolds reported some information that later turned out to be incorrect, at which point Reynolds became visibly upset on air and demanded of the producers and reporters, “Let’s get it nailed down … let’s get it right.” Reynolds’ insistence should become part of every national newsroom’s culture.

The journalism industry must look deep inside itself to understand why the public has turned on it and take steps to reestablish a mission that fits with public expectations. Otherwise, the industry will continue its insane descent into self-destruction. With the upcoming national election, deep societal divisions, and dangerous international conditions, the year 2020 would be a great time for the news industry to begin its reinvention.

Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.

Tags Donald Trump Journalism Journalistic objectivity Mueller investigation News News media political journalism Rasmussen

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