It probably wouldn’t surprise you that a much higher percentage of the American public thinks that news outlets fail to report the news accurately compared to the journalists who work in the business.
If you asked the proprietors of hot dog carts how sanitary the practices of the mobile weiner industry were, you’d probably get a lot better reviews for the healthfulness of hot dog water than you would from the general public.
So the fact that 65 percent of journalists in a recent Pew Research Center survey said news organizations do a good job at accurate reporting compared to just 35 percent of all adults is maybe not a shocker.
Part of that is real knowledge—we journalists know more about how long the frankfurters stay in the vat—and some is just vocational pride. The same survey found high levels of career satisfaction among journalists—75 percent said they were extremely or very proud of their work—so there’s bound to be some reflexive defensiveness on the subject of accuracy.
But even taken together, that wouldn’t explain a 30-point gap on the single most important mandate for the news business: getting the story right. To understand the chasm between civilians and journalists on the assessment of accuracy, first think about what each group really thinks that means.
The survey polled 11,889 American journalists on a variety of questions about our business and vocation “including the future of press freedom, widespread misinformation, political polarization and the impact of social media.” And while journalists were proud of their work and satisfied with their calling, they were gloomy about the future. Seventy-one percent said “made-up news and information is a very big problem for the country.”
Funny thing: The 10,000 adults who were asked the same questions as part of Pew’s American Trends Panel were 21 points less worried about fake news than the journalists were. So how do we square that: Americans at large are not nearly as concerned about “fake news” as journalists are, but journalists are far more confident about the ability of news organizations to report stories accurately than is the citizenry as a whole.
Part of this massive gap is no doubt a matter of definitions. When asked about “news organizations,” journalists are thinking about themselves and their peers at other credible outlets, whereas “made-up news and information is,” by definition, not from real “news organizations.” News consumers are likely to be less attached to these categorical differences. News is a product to most people, not an industry or a vocation.
But the polls do show the real source of the fissure that separates journalists from the public we are supposed to be serving.
Here’s a choice offered to respondents in both polls: Would you say a) “Journalists should always strive to give every side equal coverage.” or b) “Every side does not always deserve equal coverage.”
“Equal” and “always” are complicating words in these constructions. No, I don’t think that the bathrobe-clad third-party candidate running for county commissioner and campaigning against spaying and neutering pets (an actual human I once encountered) deserves the same number of words in an article as the major party candidates. But, yes, I think every side in a story deserves representation proportional to its role in events. If I had seen a groundswell of support for the anti-Bob Barker, I would have been obliged to cover her accordingly. So, forced to choose, I will lean heavily on my understanding that “equal” acknowledges proportionality and say that we should always do our best to be balanced.
That puts me in a minority of my fellow journalists, 55 percent of whom said that every side does not always deserve equal coverage. Like I said, it’s a little tricky, and if you understand “equal” in the strictest sense, then it’s a more than defensible position. But that’s not what’s happening here. The poll found that it wasn’t grizzled veterans bowing to the realities of daily coverage who most shunned aspirational fairness, but newbies. Sixty-three percent of reporters under age 30 were shunners compared to 49 percent of those over 50.
This is not about realism; this is about idealism. Younger reporters increasingly shun balance as “bothsidesism,” by which they mean when those holding outré viewpoints—those deemed backward or hostile to progressive goals—are given the same status as those with the correct, forward-looking ideas. In this way, critics say, aspirational fairness legitimizes illegitimate views and individuals. This view holds that other than brushing off coverage of both sides, journalists should be very concerned about what is now broadly categorized as “misinformation” and see their role as working to defeat it.
So how do news consumers see it?
Seventy-six percent of American adults said journalists should always strive to give every side equal coverage. That’s a 32-point spread between journalists and their audience, and that, gentle readers, is a hellacious problem.
Think back to the 30-point difference between journalists and civilians on accuracy: 65 percent of journalists gave news outlets good marks compared to 35 percent of the public. That’s not a coincidence. News consumers assume balance is part of accuracy. Omitting relevant information—eliding—can be just as misleading as a misstated fact, sometimes more so. A journalist who elides may believe that she or he is combating misinformation, even while misinforming the public.
News consumers are frustrated with a perceived lack of accuracy, while news producers tell them yes, rubes, but this is the good kind of inaccuracy.
There are lots of places where journalists can join the fight. Columnists like me can spout off on whatever topics we like, and Lord knows there’s no shortage of opinion journalism these days. What is Twitter but the vented spleen of a vocation frustrated with dispassion and disinterestedness?
But when it comes to the most important part of the business—reported stories—fairness and accuracy are part of the same whole. Consumers have every right to expect that they are getting the whole picture, even if it is proportional and even if it is imperfect. Our readers, listeners, and viewers are right to expect us to make the effort, and we would be arrogant to disdain it.
We journalists can be forgiven for overestimating our own influence; after all, if this many people hate you, you must be a pretty big deal. But we don’t have the power to edit out reality, and we’re only further harming our credibility when we try.