The independent news organization of Duke University

The media's credibility crisis

let freedom ring

Since President Trump assumed office in January, his administration’s relationship with the press has been, in the kindest possible terms, acrimonious. President Trump has not been shy to express his disdain for the media, and it is safe to say that the feeling is mutual.

As I have previously written, President Trump’s attitude towards the press is disheartening and unprecedented. That said, the national media is by no means free from culpability and currently suffers from an undeniable crisis of credibility: Americans do not trust the media to achieve its highest ideal of fairly informing the people on the weightiest issues of the day. Today, the media suffers from two notable shortcomings that must be remedied to improve an institution that is so essential to American democracy.

According to a Harvard-Harris poll, nearly two thirds of Americans, including 53 percent of Democrats, said they believe the mainstream media publishes fake news, a damning allegation that is indicative of current public distrust. While distrust of the mainstream media often emerges from the right, the survey’s results suggest it would be inaccurate to define this skepticism as simply a Republican issue.

The first shortcoming of the contemporary press is its tendency to publish stories backed predominantly or solely by anonymous sources, who are often leakers, which has led to blatant misreporting on critical issues. Although it would be irresponsible to characterize most or all media coverage as “fake,” even a small number of factually inaccurate stories surely erodes the public’s trust in the media.

In June, three CNN reporters were forced to resign after the network retracted their story linking the now-infamous Trump surrogate, Anthony Scaramucci, to a Russian investment fund being investigated by the Senate. The three reporters cited just a single anonymous source, and their shoddy work led to the publication of a story that was essentially incorrect on all fronts, masquerading as real journalism.  

Similarly, one of the most shocking moments from former FBI Director James Comey’s testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee was his strong condemnation of a February article from The New York Times, also based on anonymous sources, that ostensibly exposed connections between members of the Trump campaign and Russia. “In the main, it was not true,” Comey said. Although The Times stood by the story, the former-FBI Director’s sworn testimony asserting its falsehood casts significant doubt on the story’s credibility.  

While these two examples are obviously isolated instances, the public’s concern with this trend is entirely understandable. In both cases, stories were presented to the public under the guise of objective, fact-based journalism, only to be challenged or refuted after further inspection. An increasing utilization of notoriously unreliable anonymous sources has led to the dissemination of false information and dampened the public’s confidence in the press.

A second fundamental problem that the media faces is an utter lack of representation of conservative voices. According to an Indiana University survey, only seven percent of journalists identify as Republican, and that number has never eclipsed 26 percent since the survey’s inception in 1971. During the 2016 general election, a whopping 96 percent of journalists’ campaign contributions went to Hillary Clinton rather than Donald Trump. Conservative news outlets certainly do exist – Fox News quickly comes to mind – but overall, the American news media is a bastion for liberals and the Democratic Party.

The issue of conservative representation in the media is so important, for such an overwhelmingly homogenous press corps essentially ensures the production of biased coverage, or at the very least the perception of it. Even if all reporters approach their work with the genuine intention to cover everyone fairly, including those with whom they disagree, that hope is more of a lofty ideal than an achievable reality. Studies from institutions such as Harvard, Carnegie Mellon and Wharton all agree that implicit bias towards our own proclivities is a reality, despite anyone’s best intentions, and an overwhelmingly liberal press corps all but ensures a liberal bent in popular media, which undermines the institution’s fairness and objectivity.

The detrimental effects of both factors are clear, as evidenced by media’s meager 36 percent approval rating. According to pollster Frank Luntz, the most highly rated response ever in a Republican primary debate came when Ted Cruz blatantly ignored a policy question about the debt ceiling to rail of the prevalence of liberal media bias. Rather than criticize Cruz for his evasion of the question, Republican voters instead applauded his willingness to challenge an institution they so vehemently distrust.

At its best, the media represents a critical aspect of any democracy by accurately reporting the news of the day to the public, but the media in its current form falls far short of that highest ideal. Going forward, the press must regain an unwavering adhesion to truth and ensure diverse political representation among its ranks to regain the trust of the American people.

Ian Buchanan is a Trinity sophomore. His column, "let freedom ring," runs on alternate Wednesdays.