It isn’t exactly a hot take to say that the state of the media in the United States is less than ideal.
According to a Gallup Poll, between 68% and 72% of Americans trusted the mass media in the mid 1970s, but by the late 90s and early 2000s, media trust hovered around 50%. In 2021, the mass media had its second lowest trust rating from Americans on record: 36%. In fact, the US ranked last in media trust out of 46 countries in a 2021 report from Reuters of 92,000 news consumers. Only 29% of Americans in the survey said they trusted the news.
While it may be reassuring to know that Americans do not trust everything they see on the news, it is frightening to think that some Americans do not trust anything they see on the news, and that is an unhealthy way for a society to operate.
There are surely financial and political reasons for this problem, but the state of the news media has led some to question whether the current goals of journalists should be updated for a modern age. While an objective standard for journalism has been around since the turn of the 20th century, many are questioning whether that standard remains the best way to be an effective journalist.
Complete objectivity is an impossible standard, as bias can creep into everything from the phrasing of certain terms to the topics of the stories themselves. However, journalists should continue to strive for objectivity in their reporting in order to best find the truth.
According to the American Press Institute, “The purpose of journalism is thus to provide citizens with the information they need to make the best possible decisions about their lives, their communities, their societies and their governments.”
The information that is most helpful is objectively true information. On the other hand, false information is unhelpful, or, even worse, dangerous for anyone trying to make a decision about their life, community, society or government. Therefore, finding the objective truth is the ultimate task of a news reporter.
Not all truth has journalistic rigor. It may be true that my favorite Runza menu item is the BLT Jr. Wrap, but finding out this truth does very little to help the public. On the other hand, to say that I have ties to a mafia is not only untrue, but detrimental to my reputation and frightening to those in the community.
In this example, a journalist from any background would hopefully be able to find the truth about both of these “facts” through solid reporting, whether or not a reporter’s personal life has been impacted by the mafia.
Objectivity is only problematic insofar as it implies a journalist’s work is objective and, therefore, should not be questioned. Even fact-checkers, as objective as they may try to be, cannot be perfectly objective and without bias. Fact-checkers can be prone to mistakes and they are unable to check every fact stated by every American, which means that value judgements are used in order to determine who to fact check and how vigorously to fact check them.
Despite claims that social media fact checking is unbiased, 71% of Republicans disapprove of the practice of labeling inaccurate or misleading information on social media posts, according to a Pew survey.
Supposedly neutral sources such as AP News and Reuters also have biases. Though these journalism stalwarts typically have a place in the center of news bias charts, the determination of what the center consists of and how reporting is done is a value judgment in itself.
Likewise, certain sources for news stories that may seem to be completely objective, such as government documents and data, may not actually be accurate. Sometimes this is due to ulterior motives and sometimes these are due to simple typos, dating back to the U.S. Constitution.
This does not mean that reporters should ignore objectivity, however. Even though perfection is impossible, it doesn’t mean that journalists should give up on the standard altogether. No basketball player makes all of their shots, but it doesn’t mean that the player should no longer try to make shots and instead embrace their misses.
Journalists should also try to be transparent in how they report the news and where they find the information that is being reported. Some see this as the new journalistic value as one which usurps objectivity, but I do not see the two as mutually exclusive. Instead, journalists should continue to strive for objectivity while being transparent about how they have tried to be objective.
Striving for objectivity does not mean that reporters must leave their identities and diverse perspectives at the door either. Instead, these perspectives, which some might call biases, can provide unique insights into finding the truth and help reporters better understand and connect with parts of their audience that other writers with different backgrounds may not be able to do as easily. At the same time, this does not give reporters a free pass to lose sight of their ultimate goal of finding the truth and reporting it.
In order for the public to regain trust in journalism, reporters should certainly be cognizant of their bias and recognize their inability to be perfectly objective. At the heart of journalism, however, should lie an honest quest for the objective truth.
Brian Beach is a junior journalism major. Reach him at email@example.com