Here's Why Americans Don't Trust the Media
The narratives that dominate headlines and cable news often don't reflect reality.
A new, exhaustive study by Gallup and the Knight Foundation found that Americans across the board are losing trust in the media. Some people might be shocked by this finding, but I suspect more people will be shocked to learn that the media had any trust left to lose.
Either way, I think a separate poll conducted by Gallup might illuminate the problem.
If you’ve paid any attention to the news, particularly cable news, over the last couple of months since George Floyd’s killing by police in Minneapolis, you might think “defunding” or “abolishing” the police is a widely held and even somewhat mainstream desire.
Gallup suggests this is untrue. The vast majority of Americans, of all races and ethnicities, don’t want the police to leave their communities.
Respondents were asked: “Would you rather the police spend more time, the same amount of time or less time as they currently spend in your area?” Sixty-one percent of black respondents said they wanted the same amount of time; 20 percent said more. Hispanics had similar numbers (59 percent same, 24 percent more).
Has anything close to that reality been reflected in the “national conversation” about race and policing?
How many softball interviews did CNN or MSNBC conduct with activists claiming to speak for “communities of color” in which “defunding the police” was not only taken seriously but sympathetically?
My point isn’t that all is great with policing in America. But “defund the police” or “abolish the police” (slogans that got wide traction in the elite media for much of the summer, buoyed by polished academics and activists with ready-made talking points) was always an absurd idea, politically and practically—politically because even the most victimized populations don’t want to get rid of the police, and practically because a police-free modern society is simply unworkable. (Just ask the former denizens of that “autonomous zone” in Seattle.)
The Gallup/Knight study found that nearly 8 in 10 Americans think the media is trying to convince people “to adopt a certain opinion.” Well, for much of this year, skepticism toward “defund the police” rhetoric has been quickly dismissed as just another manifestation of white privilege. Except, as the Gallup poll suggests, black people don’t view police the same way the activists and journalists who dominate the debate do.
According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, more than 50 million Americans have at least one interaction with police in a given year. Most of those were traffic stops of one kind or another. Eighty-five percent of black people reported that traffic stops they were involved in were conducted properly.
Again, my point isn’t that all is fine with race and policing in America. Any unjustified killing by a police officer should be condemned and prosecuted for all of the obvious reasons. And the evidence that black people are disproportionately and unfairly singled out for traffic stops seems compelling to me.
But the narrative pushed by the media is almost allegorical when held up against reality. I lost track of the number of times reporters and interviewers said, or allowed people to get away with saying, that policing originated as “slave patrols.” Policing is thousands of years old, and while some police departments in slave states had antecedents in such patrols, those in, say, Boston and Minneapolis didn’t.
More importantly, the purpose of this talking point is to buttress an almost biblical narrative of some original sin that supposedly animates police departments today. I’d bet not one cop in 10,000 had ever heard that policing was the legacy of slave patrols until this year.
The debate over policing is just one facet of this complex problem. For instance, journalists at elite outlets often use “Latinx” to describe a diverse Hispanic or Latino population so as to avoid gendered or colonial connotations. Never mind that 98 percent of American Latinos told pollsters at ThinkNow Research that they don’t like, know, or use the term.
This isn’t just about liberal media bias. (The right-wing media has biases, too). It reflects a tendency for American media outlets to speak to audiences that are unrepresentative of America as a whole. Why they do it can’t be reduced to a single explanation. That they do it is obvious to a lot of Americans.
Photograph by Javier Tovar/AFP/Getty Images.