In the post-Watergate America it used to be that citizens were distrustful of government and relied on the media for enlightenment and accountability. Today, more than half of Americans are distrustful of the media, begging the question of who (or what) we’ll turn to for government accountability – the watchdog role that the ‘Fourth Estate’ has historically filled. According to a recent Pew Research Center for the People and Press survey, less than one-third of people believe the media is accurate (29%); meanwhile those who believe the media is biased jumped from 45 to 60% over the past 14 years, and 63% said they believe the media is often inaccurate – up from 34% in 1985.
This study raises two concerns about the ever-changing media landscape: first, what can this growing reader skepticism be attributed to? Secondly, who is going to bother saving an industry that puts out a product buyers don’t believe in?
Some say cynicism and distrust is generational, while others would argue such feelings are a byproduct of environment and events. Perhaps the Jayson Blairs and Maureen Dowds have left a sour feeling among readers. Perhaps the gradual decline of investigative pieces, budgets, staff and page counts have spurred a universal distrust of the content. It may be the result of entertaining and recklessly agenda-driven political coverage of the day from talking heads like Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, Bill O’Reilly, Ann Coulter and Rachel Maddow. Or maybe respondents are merely conveying a convenient excuse for increased apathy.
Regardless, it doesn’t bode well for the survival of print news. Broadcast news, with its simplicity, soundbites, beautiful anchors, and punchlines, are safe because of its entertaining elements. But readers don’t pick up the Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post or The New York Times for amusement but, rather, insight.
A friend of mine reads the New York Times online but feels an obligation to support the paper through a weekend subscription, despite having little use for the print version. It’s the fear of a disappearing staple that inspires him to drop $20 or so a week on the paper he no longer needs or reads, since being able to access its content on the Web. It’s that same driving force that keeps people from continuing to support public television through donations.
In print media, advertising (not subscriptions) account for the crux of the revenue so perhaps the demise of print media has little to do with the support or trust of its readership. However, I fear that with fewer Americans trusting the media, what incentive will we have in preserving such long-standing institutions?
While I remain uncomfortable with subsidizing news outlets, even if we were to subsidize failing print media outlets, how could one justify funding something with lackluster public interest? Reminiscent of the argument people make for pulling public television funding — the why pay for something no one is watching argument — Americans may just lose interest in saving print media altogether, should a trend of mistrust continue.