American media has never been more in the crosshairs than today.
Like Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela and Vladimir Putin in Russia, U.S. President Donald Trump has made hay while hammering on a press that Trump describes as “fake” and the “enemy of the people.”
And he has found a receptive audience. Trust in the media is at an all-time low.
It is worth defining “media,” as the vague and often pejorative term means lots of things to different people. Disappointingly, to a growing number it means cable television news.
In January, about 2.8 million people watched Fox News each night during primetime, 1.2 million watched CNN and MSNBC had 1.1 million viewers. You can bet that can’t-take-your-eyes-off-him Donald Trump was one reason for that increase, and likely a reason why those numbers will stay sky high.
At the same time, about 38 percent of Americans (120 million) claimed to read a newspaper on a regular basis according to a 2013 Pew Research study, down from 54 percent in 2004.
We are a newspaper, so we come from that journalistic perspective. We go to meetings, go to schools, go to businesses, tag along, talk to people, ask blunt and sometimes annoying questions, read budgets, go to wrecks, go to fires, write down what we see, write down what authorities tell us, ask more questions, then report.
We hope to do it with a mix of entertainment, humor and local flavor — but information is always at the core.
Cable news does television remarkably well. But the line between journalism and entertainment is often blurred there. Many news shows consist of pundits propping up, then attacking what are often straw man arguments from an opposition figure.
Talking heads are invited to voice a side of the issue, not to help the audience understand the issue. It’s great television — especially if you have a dog in the fight — but often it’s not journalism. It’s borderline debate, it’s definitely entertainment, and it’s designed to keep you hooked. Like Doritos, it offers enough flavor to keep you coming back but not enough sustenance that you can put down your bag of chips.
One other way you can become “hooked” on empty calories is by emotional manipulation. If you watch a segment on cable news or read an article online and come away from it incensed, furious and apoplectic, it is important to step back and ask yourself if you are being manipulated — and to what end.
That doesn’t mean the best journalism doesn’t cause intense reactions. We cover fatal accidents and fires and suicides and bankruptcies that can incense readers. But those powerful stories are buffeted by the daily grind of many others that move the narrative forward, give the reader context, include relevant facts and help round out the entire story. It’s not always life-changing stuff, more often it’s the day-to-day machinations of the world we live in and the government we pay for.
Perhaps you are willing to trust your government and its president implicitly, to take one person’s word for what is fake and what is true. We believe that’s dangerous and that good journalism is more important when it’s under attack.
Our education system does too. In schools across the country, facts are paramount. Right answers get you credit and wrong answers get you bupkis. Learning how to research, how to think critically and how to reach the correct conclusion has long been the basis of learning.
That’s why teachers are instructing students on how to be good consumers of news — to find secondary sources, look for bylines and contact information, research a publication’s history and range of output and how to tell the difference between spin and fact. They are important reminders for all Americans now more than ever, as information designed to mislead is being pushed out in high number.
You should be suspicious of what you read, as journalists are trained to be whether looking at a press release, a government document or a note from an anonymous source. But you should be more trusting of outlets and journalists who show their work, who have a long history of revealing truths, who admit readily to errors, who don’t play with your emotions and favor cold, hard (sometimes boring) fact. Some do that better than others, though none are perfect all the time. But you should be a wise consumer, not reading outlets based on whether you agree with their conclusions but those who make you smarter and more informed.
The media is going through the wringer right now, but it will outlive this era and — with your help — be better than before.