According to a new Gallup poll, trust in mass media in the United States is lower than it has ever been since the organization started asking that question in 1972. To put that in some kind of context, Richard Nixon was president in 1972 and the U.S. was bombing Vietnam.
Why would trust in the media be so low? There are a number of reasons, but one of the most obvious ones is that today’s media landscape looks nothing like what U.S. news consumers took for granted in 1972, or 1982, or 1992, or even 2002.
In many ways, the rise of the Internet and the social web has made things a lot better when it comes to being informed about the world. But in other ways—as with so many other things the Internet touches—it has made them much worse. And our trusted relationship with media (to the extent that we ever had one) has taken the brunt of the damage.
Instead of a handful of newspapers, TV channels, and trusted journalists, we now have what amounts to the biblical Tower of Babel: Hundreds of thousands, if not millions of news sources, many of which are simply repeating whatever they think might get readers or viewers to click.
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The click economy has driven even traditional, mainstream media outlets to focus on quick hits and “viral” stories, even if they have little truth to them. And even if those stories are later corrected, only a tiny number of people will see or share the correction. That’s just human nature.
As the media industry has become increasingly desperate for revenue, this attitude has spread. CBS (CBS) president Les Moonves said recently that spending so much time covering Republican candidate Donald Trump “may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.”
Is it any surprise that people would lose trust in a media entity with that kind of motivation?
At the same time, this phenomenon is being fueled by the rise of a new ecosystem for the distribution of news, an ecosystem with Facebook (FB) at the center, like a spider at the center of a web.
The giant social network has been fighting a very public fight against fake news stories, which continue to clog up its Trending Topics, as well as the main news feed. The company used to use human editors to weed such things out, but it got rid of most of them after a controversy over whether the selection process for topics was politically biased.
The larger story, however, is that Facebook plays a bigger role in the news industry than any single entity has ever played in the history of modern information consumption. More than 1.5 billion people use the network, and large numbers get their news there.
Does Facebook need humans to decide what’s trending? Watch:
Facebook repeatedly denies that it is a media entity, or that it needs to behave like one, or that it has any responsibilities to inform people about the world around them in any kind of journalistic way.
From its point of view, engagement is the number one metric, not accuracy.
But in reality, the changes in the media environment go far beyond just Facebook. For many young people, someone they follow on Snapchat, Instagram, YouTube (GOOG), or Twitter (TWTR) is just as likely to be a trusted source of news as a major media brand. And the more they trust those sources, the less likely they will be to trust the mainstream media.
As Emily Bell of Columbia’s Tow Center has pointed out, the idea of trust in the context of the news industry is a complicated one. Do we trust those news sources that tell the truth, or do we trust the ones that tell us what we want to hear or believe?
The fact that we now have access to millions of potential news sources is a hugely positive thing for journalism broadly speaking, because we can hear from people who are directly involved in the news, and that makes it more likely the truth will emerge.
But the lack of centralized gatekeepers—or rather, the outsourcing of the gatekeeper function of mainstream media—also means there is no consensus on who is telling the truth, and that is a genie that is not going back into the bottle any time soon.