Last September a Gallup poll showed Americans’ trust in mainstream media “to report the news fully, accurately and fairly” had reached a new low. Only 32% said they had a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media, down eight percentage points from the previous year. This was the lowest level in the polling authority’s history. To put this in perspective, trust in the media was at its highest point in 1976, when it reached 72%.
What has brought about such a dramatic reduction, and what future is there for objective reportage? Living in the postmodern age, we are not expected to have, want or need a single authoritative cultural, socio-political or historical perspective. Faith in a commanding narrative has diminished, with a large variety of voices moving in to fill the void. And most would argue that after all, too much faith in one central authority isn’t healthy anyway. The alternative – cracking down on freedom of speech – mostly being seen in those parts of the world that view such liberties as dangerous and subversive.
Nowhere is this multiplicity of voice seen more than online, where a channel can be found for every weird and wonderful perspective. It is also the place where the conventional media has been most critiqued – and threatened. Former “gatekeepers” of objectivity and cultural influence have seen their print sales decline, their readerships diminish and their authority called into question. Yet some have flourished, even in this climate. In 2014 The Guardian, for instance, recorded 42.6m unique views online – although it has also seen its advertizing revenues reduce and print presence weaken. The New York Times, meanwhile, regularly gets around 40 million views a month. But these behemoths of high journalistic standards and objective truth now have to do battle with a growing number of independent news outlets, some of which view such standards as irrelevant. It is possible to find a similar picture in film, television and other cultural forms.
While many of these new, independent publications do set themselves high standards – they can feel like mere islands in huge oceans of the defiantly shoddy and mischievous. Most of the rest share a hostility to “mainstream media,” a term that has transformed (particularly in online platforms) from descriptive to critical. This attitude can be seen as a positive development: a new media landscape where a hegemonic structure of corporate influencers is replaced by a democratic free-for-all where anyone can have a voice. But on the other side of the coin is evidence of widespread misinformation and hate-speech, threatening liberal values and perhaps even democracy itself.
Take the emergence of “fake news.” One poll found that 14% of those who voted for President Trump believed the widely discredited Pizzagate conspiracy story, with 32% saying they were “unsure.” Other fake news stories have included Democratic senators allegedly wanting to impose Sharia law in Florida, and Pope Francis supporting Trump’s presidential bid. Many pro-Trump fake news articles were traced to a group of teenagers in a single town in Macedonia. There have also been, of course, fake news stories from the left including some which targeted President Trump specifically. Recently, Facebook announced that it would begin flagging fake news stories, using fact-checkers.
But how harmful is all this misinformation – and are people really naïve enough to believe it? Debate has raged for decades over the so-called “media effects theory”, which asks: are people’s attitudes, judgments and decisions directly affected by what they see and hear in various media? Research into people’s trust of articles shared on social media has produced interesting results. Some experiments suggest that the original news source determined whether people trusted the content of a piece, while others pointed to the importance of trusting the social media user who shared it. Either way, it seems that for the post part people take news feeds on social media with a pinch of salt, implying that those falling for the most ridiculous of stories are just a small minority.
It would appear that certain mainstream gatekeepers are here to stay, and that they are still magnets for those seeking reliable and reputable sources of objectivity and balance. But it would be very difficult to argue that the rise of new media has had no influence on our lives – and the way we consume and engage with politics. It is also possible that there has been a shift in the locus of influence, with a new cultural hegemony residing in tech companies’ innovative platforms.
Some look to regulation for answers. But this road is fraught with risk. Whether the mainstream media is disappearing or merely transforming, self-proclaimed guardians of objectivity, standards and balance need to prove that they still deserve the trust and loyalty of a fast-adapting public. They must also find new ways of staying relevant. The alternative is probably more alarming than anything we’ve seen so far.