There’s an old adage in journalism that reputation is a reporter’s most valuable asset. After this election, many media outlets may have to file for bankruptcy.
Americans’ confidence in the mass media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” is at an all-time low. Only 32 percent trust the media, a September Gallup poll found. Pollsters blame “lower standards for journalism” in presidential campaign coverage for “corroding Americans’ trust and confidence in the media.”
One big reason why trust is declining is media bias. A majority of likely voters say journalists are biased against Donald Trump, an Oct. 19 Quinnipiac University poll found. While the perception of bias depends upon one’s party, it’s telling that 60 percent of independent voters believe the media is anti-Trump.
Journalists deny this, of course. Soon after the Gallup poll, Washington Post media reporter Paul Farhi ranted in a column “To: Everyone: … I know a lot of you don’t like [us] … Please stop calling us ‘the media.’ It’s an invention, a tool, an all-purpose smear by people who can’t be bothered to make distinctions.”
True, the media aren’t a monolith. Standards for gathering and presenting news differ widely across the media. The digital media revolution over the past 30 years has given rise to cable and online media outlets that carve a niche by catering to partisan audiences. Many are staffed by journalists who are more pundits than reporters.
Heck, anyone can start a blog and call himself a journalist these days. And in an era where news travels as fast as a tweet, breaking the latest gossip takes precedence over getting the story right.
But the legacy media have remained the big leagues of journalism because they have long held themselves to higher standards. Print, radio and TV media have appealed to a general audience by covering news objectively. To achieve this reputation, their reporters adhere to ethical customs, such as sticking to the facts, verifying information and not taking sides – even when covering a hostile subject like Trump.
It wasn’t always this way. America’s early press was largely operated by political parties who mixed news and opinions indiscriminately. That changed in the early 20th century, with an outcry against “yellow journalism” and demand for greater truthfulness and accountability.
Journalists saw their work as a profession with a responsibility to the public. Media outlets adopted codes of ethics, which included prohibitions against political campaign contributions. This impartiality transformed journalism into the Fourth Estate: referees of politics’ playing field who didn’t root for Team Blue or Team Red.
Many journalists continue to adhere to these standards. But a noticeable number of reporters and outlets have abandoned that practice while covering this election, which has tarnished the reputation of the entire profession. Contrary to Farhi’s claim, there is more than “anecdotal evidence” of “liberal bias.”
A study released by the Center for Public Integrity last month found that of the 480 reporters and editors who contributed to either presidential campaign, 90 percent donated to Clinton and 10 percent gave to Trump. Journalists at The New York Times and other legacy outlets made contributions, despite newsroom policies forbidding it.
Granted, it’s possible for journalists to cover stories fairly despite having biases. But this election many haven’t even tried to separate their personal views from professional duties.
In a sense, Trump is right when he says the election is “rigged.” Not by voter fraud, but by some journalists nixing neutrality and serving as a propaganda machine for his opponent.
Which isn’t to say Trump deserves to win. There are many other reasons why the Republican real estate mogul – who has filed for multiple bankruptcies, proposed controversial policies and made countless vulgar statements – might lose.
But the ultimate loser might be the media. Experts say recent setbacks suggest the press is already paying a price for its declining reputation.
The Times announced this week quarterly profits declined by 96 percent and net income dropped by 224 percent. A couple weeks earlier, the Raleigh News & Observer lost a libel case and now must fork over $6 million. Columbia Journalism Review said it’s “evidence that the growing unpopularity of media may translate into less-sympathetic jury pools.”
It seems as if in their quest to beat Trump, the media has become just like him: Bankrupt and despised.
Mark Grabowski is a law professor and former political journalist who regularly writes on current events. For more info, visit professorsperspective.com.