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The American Journalist Under Attack: Media, Trust, and Democracy

By G. Cleveland Wilhoit

It is ironic that the great French philosopher-sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville’s earliest impression for his 1830s two-volume masterpiece, Democracy in America, was from a newspaper. Soon after his arrival in America for a two-year landmark research tour in 1831, de Tocqueville was taken by a newspaper article calling President Andrew Jackson "a heartless despot, solely occupied with the preservation of his own authority" (Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, 1835).

Almost two centuries later, President Donald J. Trump would have Jackson's portrait installed as the centerpiece of art in the Oval Office. For some, that signified an admiration portending a challenge to the very nature of the democracy described by de Tocqueville. It was a liberal democracy de Tocqueville thought would long survive, in no small measure because of an unruly, pluralistic but "vulgar" press with the courage to call a president "a despot."

Yet, never has there been greater concern about journalism’s role in democracy—and the preservation of it—than now. If, as the saying goes, crisis focuses the mind, the turmoil in American politics during the Trump years—and most specifically the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol during formal election certification—has focused the collective mind on the future of democracy.

Previous Research on Professional Values of Journalists

Over the previous five decades—beginning in the 1970s with the foundational work by Johnstone, Slawski and Bowman—our research on the values, ethics and work of American journalists has provided an extensive portrait of the profession. The broad sweep of that work suggests this: While driven by a professed sense of altruism, journalism may have been so absorbed in its own conception of an "interpretive-watchdog" role that the overall health of the democracy was taken for granted. At least, that appears to be the interpretation emerging from some scholars and even critics within the profession itself.

The contours of the critique of journalists as being somewhat apathetic about the fragility of democracy are not new. Herbert Gans (2009), a pioneering media scholar, wrote that journalists have done "less on behalf of democracy than they believe" as they “operate with their own theory of democracy” that is affected by what is "commercially feasible."

The criticism of the supposed journalistic apathy, however, clearly sharpened during the presidential election of 2016. Journalists, the critics claimed, engaged in what might be called a de facto apathy resulting from a narrow pursuit of objectivity, scandal, and "false equivalence" in election coverage.

Key Questions for Proposed New Research

Election coverage, especially during presidential campaigns, has always been problematic for American journalists. Criticism of their emphasis on the "horse race" and scandal is longstanding. But media coverage of the Clinton-Trump contest of 2016 led to an unprecedented crescendo of criticism from all quarters—academic, pundits and within the profession itself.

The definitive analysis of journalism’s performance in that election is still to be written, but the most extensive study is that of Thomas Patterson of Harvard’s Shorenstein Center. Patterson and his team of researchers found the "lust for riveting stories," focus on poll results and seeming scandal based on false equivalences, combined with a dearth of context to mar the journalistic coverage. Even before the election, Patterson (2016) found that these patterns of coverage made journalists into Donald Trump’s "unwitting ally."

Over time, though, national media adjusted their political coverage toward more stringent fact-checking and became less reticent in labeling false claims as "lies." Arguably some of the toughest and best journalism in modern history subjected the Trump administration and other political actors to unprecedented accountability (Hall Jamieson, 2018).

Obviously, that was not enough. Criticism and questions about the role of journalists have become even louder as former President Trump rallies support for what has become known as the "rolling coup." So much so that a voice from within the profession, Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin (2021), says, "Now…the media must—for once—take the side of democracy."

Perhaps the more important question is this: What "theory of democracy" is prevalent in the minds of American journalists? And how might that affect their performance?

Our survey research over a half-century shows a somewhat stable portrait of how journalists view their role in democracy—as "interpretive-watchdogs"— but there is little known about their perspective on the broader contours of American democracy.

Our new study, then, will attempt to gather data on journalists’ conception of democracy.

An equally serious challenge, however, to the fabric of the norms of American journalism is the emergence of the racial justice movement spawned by the police killing in Minneapolis of George Floyd in May 2020. That profound development has caused a rekindling of other long-held questions about journalists’ perceptions of the pursuit of objectivity in their work.

The notion of objectivity, often ill-defined and poorly understood even among journalists, has been argued about for almost a century. And a high-water mark of that debate occurred in the early 1970s as the profession wrestled with coverage of the Vietnam War, in part because of the emergence of an underground, alternative press that challenged traditional news values.

It was the foundational national survey of journalists in 1971—the Johnstone team’s benchmark book The News People, which our four books have replicated and extended—that did the first systematic national look at the norm of objectivity. Amidst a firestorm of political bitterness and attacks on the press by the Nixon administration and the ensuing legal struggle over the publication of the Pentagon Papers, the Johnstone team did their survey of a sample of 1,313 mainstream journalists. Their key results described the tension between "participant—whole truth" reporting and "neutral, nothing-but-the-truth" reporting approaches. Not surprisingly, it was younger journalists who tended to be "participants" in orientation, but a majority of all journalists identified with elements of both approaches.

The nation’s present political-racial struggle, then, suggests another look at journalistic perspectives on objectivity is timely. And at this moment, the call for a journalistic "reckoning over objectivity" comes strongly from within the press itself. In frustration about media coverage of crime and episodes of police violence involving Blacks, Wesley Lowery—winner of two Pulitzer Prizes at the Washington Post and now at CBS— published a column in The New York Times in 2020 that ignited a national debate in media circles. Lowery argued for the abandonment of "the appearance of objectivity as the aspirational journalistic standard." Instead, he called for reporters to "focus on being fair and telling the truth" based on facts and context. All this, he says, hinges on the journalist achieving "moral clarity," a term that seems to have captured widespread fascination as well as confusion (Lowery, 2020).

The lead media columnist for The New York Times, Ben Smith, one of many who have joined Lowery’s critique of objectivity, says both the Trump era and the racial justice movement have sparked a widespread realization that a “studied neutrality” is no longer a viable journalistic standard (Smith, 2021).

Our new research will attempt to dig deeper into the perceptions of journalists on the complexities and meaning of reportorial objectivity.

Another dimension of our proposed research for the new survey is equally profound—

the matter of decay of public trust in journalism. Clearly, it is not just a problem for journalism—many American institutions have suffered deficits of public trust over the past half-century, the latest being the Supreme Court. Still, it has enormous implications for journalism, perhaps more than for any other American institution.

No other institution has been the brunt of greater systematic attempts by political leaders to denigrate its credibility. One only has to think of Trump’s sneer at rallies about the "enemy of the people" to grasp the point.

The widespread concern about the question of trust has led to myriad approaches to the problem. National journalism and industry groups have launched public relations and advertising campaigns in an attempt to impress audiences with the importance of fact-based information.

Perhaps an even more critical question is the extent to which journalists themselves may play a role in the decay of trust, especially that of other societal institutions. In a report published by the Knight Foundation, Daniel Kriess and Bridget Barrett (2020) write that all media platforms, including not only social media but legacy journalists as well, "potentially play an indirect role in eroding democratic processes." They may do this by empowering "actors who espouse anti-democratic claims that weaken public faith in democracy, including elites who hold elected office and leaders in civil society."

Our new research will assess journalistic perspectives on the systemic decline of public trust in the news media.

And we will look at the impact of the decline of trust on journalists' own work, as well as their views on the attempts to tackle the problem by their newsrooms and the larger profession.

In addition to tackling important contemporary questions on democracy and trust, our new research will take a closer look at the growing segment of mainstream media that defies the longstanding journalistic ethic of maintaining independence from political power. We will attempt to assess, more intensively than in past studies, the professional attitudes of personnel who work for Fox News, Breitbart, and other media that have resurrected the long-ago traditions of practicing an extreme form of advocacy.

Obviously, the new study will take place amidst a vastly different media landscape from just a decade ago, the time of our last research. The quest for a viable business model to support mainstream journalism is even more precarious than then. The closing and diminishing of newsrooms continues at an alarming rate. And the uses of and impact of social media by journalists (and the public at large) continue to have complicated, perplexing, and widespread implications for the field.

Our main focus is on the professional corps of journalists who, many agree, still matter. That's how we put it in our last book published in 2017, and it's the title of an influential book by another scholar we have cited here, Why Journalism Still Matters, by Michael Schudson.

Our research is aimed at finding what Schudson called, "the possibilities for reconstruction that could leave us better off than we were before.”

Probing the minds of American journalists again at this watershed time for the profession and democracy in the United States is likely to make clearer some of those possibilities.


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