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David Hubler

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By David E. Hubler
Edge Contributor

The fourth estate, according to the British newspaper The Sun, is “the established news media which contains an educated group of professional journalists.” Although not directly part of the political system, as it often challenges it, the fourth estate “can wield significant power and have a social influence and bring about changes in policies.”

But in the last several decades, even as media outlets have grown exponentially, public trust in American journalism especially has declined. What was once labeled the “fourth estate,” from the European concept of the three estates of the realm — the clergy, the nobility and the commoners — is being rocked to its foundation.

For Many, Distrust of the Media Was Kindled during the Vietnam War Era

For many, distrust of the media was kindled during the Vietnam War era, when “purposeful misinformation shook the U.S. civilian population’s confidence in Washington and the news outlets to this day,” Adam Jaafar wrote in Collegiate Times in April 2020. With the rise of the internet and misinformation campaigns, Jaafar asks, “does journalism still hold its former integrity?”

It most certainly does not, according to former journalist Paul H. Weaver. His book, “News and the Culture of Lying: How Journalism Really Work, is perhaps more relevant today than when it was published in 1994. Weaver’s assessment of the media predates but clearly presages the recent era of “fake news” and “alternative facts.”

“The culture of lying,” Weaver writes, “is the discourse and behavior of officials seeking to enlist the powers of journalism in support of their goals, and of journalists seeking to co-opt public and private officials into their efforts to find and cover stories of crisis and emergency response.”

Even a “person such as the president can on impulse and with minimal effort inject any sort of falsehood into public conversation through digital media and call his own lie a correction of ‘fake news,’” observed former FBI acting director Andrew G. McCabe in his book “The Threat: How the FBI Protects America in the Age of Terror and Trump.”

A New Study Shows Public Trust of Journalism and Journalists at an All-Time Low

It should therefore be no surprise that a new study shows public trust of journalism and journalists at an all-time low. “A New Way of Looking at Trust in the Media,” was produced by the Media Insight Project, a collaboration between the American Press Institute (API) and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

The study was carefully parsed by Margaret Sullivan, the Washington Post’s media columnist. Sullivan points out that only one of five core values touted by journalists — oversight, transparency, factuality, spotlighting wrongdoing, and giving a voice to the voiceless — “also shares the support of a majority of Americans, the idea that more facts get us closer to the truth. About 7 people in 10 support this,” she notes.

But only about one in 10 Americans fully supports all five of the journalism values that were tested. Sullivan also reports that “trust in the news media has fallen from about 70 percent in the early 1970s to about 40 percent now, according to Gallup.” 

Trust in journalism is complex, has a long and storied history, and has unfortunately aligned with the political landscape of today, says Dr. Bjorn Mercer, Program Director at American Public University System’s School of the Arts and Humanities.

Political Polarization Has Impacted How People View and Trust the News

“As seen in a Pew Research report on trust in media news companies, political polarization has impacted how people view and trust the news,” Mercer writes in an email. “Those who are ‘Liberal’ trust CNN around 70% of the time and those who are ‘Conservative’ trust Fox News 75% of the time. On the opposite side, those who are Liberal distrust Fox News 77% of the time and Conservatives distrust CNN 67% of the time.”

Now, these findings might seem bleak, “but the U.S. is not a football game of Liberals and Conservatives. A huge portion of the population considers themselves moderates or do not affiliate with a political ideology,” Mercer adds. “As stated in the Pew Research report, ‘At the same time, the gap is less pronounced among the more moderate segments in each party.’”

“Although the major news companies have co-opted journalism to meet their market needs rather than uphold journalistic values,” Mercer concludes, “there are countless millions, far more than pure Liberals and Conservatives, who get their news from multiple sources and seek quality journalism.”