By Mark Oppenheimer
For the Los Angeles Times
It’s been a rough 12 months for the news media. We got the election wrong, we got booed at campaign events and some of us get death threats on Twitter. The president called us an “enemy of the American people.” Lots of us are getting laid off (which at least makes us less likely to get death threats). And in a recent Reuters-Ipsos poll, only 48 percent surveyed had a “great deal” or “some” confidence in the journalists.
Now, that’s a 9-point jump since November. But while headed in the right direction, these numbers are still abysmally low. People trust reporters at about the same rate that they trust vaccines (only 51 percent believe that they’re safe) or believe in haunted houses (which 47 percent believe exist). This is really bad news for reporters, not to mention unvaccinated children.
How to explain these numbers? I have a few ideas.
The first is that reporters are like members of Congress: Everybody hates them in general, but loves their own. When I was growing up in Springfield, Massachusetts, everybody got the local newspaper. We knew the reporters’ bylines, and we even knew the reporters. I could recognize the education reporter, Mary Ellen O’Shea, by sight, because she was always in and out of my schools.
But as small and midsize papers have closed or been put on starvation budgets, there are fewer local reporters left. To most people, “reporter” is less a local job held by a real person and more either a TV talking head or an unknown elite, writing copy from faraway Washington or New York.
Second, as news consumption has shifted to Facebook and other social media, we no longer know who originally produced the stories we read. Our relationships are no longer with reporters, or even newspapers or magazines, but with our Facebook or Twitter “feeds.” So we trust certain friends to give us news, but don’t trust the people who reported the news.
Finally, there’s the old argument that people believe reporters are biased in favor of liberals. There’s some truth to that; surveys suggest that journalists are far more likely to be Democrats than Republicans.
But we have to ask why that is the case. One root cause is that conservatives have opted out of competition. Newsgathering has come to resemble nonprofit work or public-interest law: A do-gooder occupation for elite-college graduates.
The young conservatives I know seldom consider journalism as a field, either because it pays so little or because they assume they wouldn’t be welcome. Conservatives are thus less likely than ever to have a friend in newsgathering. And if they happen to see a reporter in the flesh, they often intuit, correctly, that he or she is not their kind of people.
A deeper, systemic problem is that even conservatives who think they might be interested in journalism aren’t groomed to be reporters. Whereas liberal magazines like the Nation and Mother Jones spend resources on investigative reporting, in addition to opinion writing, conservative publications, like National Review or Weekly Standard, seldom break a story, focusing just on opinion writing. Young conservative writers who get their first internships or entry-level jobs at conservative publications thus have a hard time learning the skills, or developing the clip file, to show that they can report.
So a liberal college student who interns at a liberal magazine could end up a professional reporter, whereas a conservative college student with some writing chops may end up at a conservative think tank or activist organization. This is actually good for movement conservatism, but it’s bad for the media, which could use a more diverse set of voices in the newsrooms.
Or compare the next-generation liberal and conservative sites BuzzFeed and Breitbart. Buzzfeed has invested deeply in investigations (alongside cat gifs), while Breitbart relies pretty much exclusively on sensationalist clickbait.
If you’re a 22-year-old liberal and you get a job at BuzzFeed, you might well learn the ins and outs of the Freedom of Information Act. If you’re a conservative and you get a job at Breitbart, you’ll learn how to write propagandistic “takes” in favor of the Trump administration.
The irony is that the millions of readers of trashy right-wing websites, while learning to mistrust the mainstream media, don’t really think much of the right-wing media, either. They prefer swimming in that swamp, but they still know it’s a swamp.
It’s hard to see a way out of this climate of mistrust. What might work? Journalism schools could recruit conservative students, as conservative think tanks and political organizations do. Some thoughtful conservative billionaire could decide to underwrite investigative reporting internships for right-leaning students.
But the real answer is a return to local reporting. It may come in the form of nonprofit, reader-supported websites like the Texas Tribune or New Haven Independent. It may come when somebody figures out a for-profit model that can deliver news to smaller audiences. But only when we know our reporters again will we begin to trust them.
Mark Oppenheimer, a contributing writer to the Los Angeles Times opinion section, is the host of Unorthodox, the podcast of Tablet magazine.