It’s no secret that mass media is not exactly the most trusted source of information these days. Americans’ trust in the media has been steadily declining since the late 1990s, according to a 2019 Gallup poll. While rebounding from an all-time low of 32% in 2016, it decreased again between 2018 and 2019. Last year, 41% of Americans stated they trust the media a “great deal” or a “fair amount.”
Many factors influence this distrust, most prominently the wide dissemination of information on social media and negative political rhetoric. As a journalism major, I’ve been well aware of the public distrust in the media for some time and knew I would have to deal with it in my future career.
But I honestly wasn’t prepared for what transpired a few weeks ago.
On Sept. 7, The Daily Nebraskan announced its new team specifically dedicated to reporting on COVID-19-related news at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Myself and assistant news editor Zach Wendling were appointed as co-editors of this new section.
I had spent the first two years of college as a culture reporter for The Daily Nebraskan, mostly covering local theater and performing arts. I was in the midst of my first semester as an assistant culture editor when I was asked to join the COVID-19 team.
While I was sad to leave the culture section, I was looking forward to covering the university’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. This is an unprecedented time in our nation’s history, and the idea of keeping the community informed on this issue just felt right to me.
It didn’t take long for us to have our first opportunity to cover COVID-19 related events. The night we announced the team, we started receiving reports of large crowds at Greek houses for Bid Day. With permission from our editors, Zach and I decided to head down there to see what was going on. We wound up walking around for about an hour, live-tweeting photos and first-hand accounts of the gatherings taking place.
Almost immediately, we started experiencing high levels of engagement with our tweets. While there were some people commenting on the events themselves, much of the response was negatively skewed against our reporting alone. Many of the responses were actually directed toward Zach and I, criticizing us for covering Bid Day at all.
I’m not one to shy away from criticism, as I know I still have a lot to learn on how to correctly report on a situation as sensitive as this. But it honestly rattled me to feel the level of hate we received. Because we simply reported our observations, a Twitter troll told me to kill myself; another posed as my mom and told me to stop being a “f***ing p****.”
Even though we weren’t passing any judgement on the Bid Day crowds, we were treated as if we were immediately biased against them.
I tried not to let it get under my skin, but it definitely did. I turned off my Twitter notifications for a few days to just get a break from the constant buzzing of my phone. Anxious voices in the back of my head started a chorus of self-doubt, wondering whether we had done anything wrong with covering the Bid Day crowds. Just a few days into working on this new team, my mental health was really suffering.
I also started wondering if this was a sign that I had chosen the wrong profession. If I was getting bothered by this relatively small amount of Twitter hate, how could I ever think I could handle a professional position in less than two years' time?
These thoughts quickly subsided due to the support I received from family, friends and colleagues reassuring me that I was on the right track. I realized I was focused on the wrong thing; instead of worrying about what strangers on Twitter said, I should take this as a challenge to keep improving my journalistic skills in order to cover events as fairly and accurately as possible. After all, I’m still a student — even if I didn’t do anything wrong in this situation, I can still take it as a learning opportunity.
So what can be done to mend this distrust of the media? It ultimately comes down to journalists to stay steadfast in our mission to provide objective coverage.
The general public may not fully trust mass media anytime soon, but it’s our job as journalists to gain back their trust and respect. We need to work harder and smarter to provide balanced, well-researched coverage on the COVID-19 pandemic, politics and many other important issues. That’s what I’m putting my energy into going forward — not dwelling on internet negativity, but instead the pursuit of important, informative stories.
I’ve realized there are always going to be topics that people don’t want to be covered, especially in the age of mass polarization over COVID-19 and American politics. But concerns about why certain sides of a topic are being covered more than others are certainly valid.
In the example of our Bid Day coverage, many commenters felt we were unfairly singling out the Greek community. While that was never our intention, we need to be more cognisant of that moving forward and make sure our coverage doesn’t seem influenced by implicit biases.
So, I’m going to end this letter with a call to action. If you have a question you want to answer, submit it through our Curious Cornhuskers link. Have thoughts on anything COVID-19 related? Submit a letter to the editor here. To stay up to date on campus happenings, subscribe to our newsletter. And if you’d like to join our team, apply here.
Together, we can foster a safe and informed Husker community by reporting on all sides and perspectives of the coronavirus’ effect on the UNL community. Support local journalism, be kind and be safe.