Our trust in the established news media continues to decline. A major culprit? "Fake news." According to a Monmouth University poll conducted in March, 77 percent of Americans believe that traditional news media outlets report "fake news." This is up by 14 percent from last year.
This is traditional news media mind you—the professionally trained journalists, the ones with codes of conduct and ethical guidelines. Do we really believe that they are reporting stories that are factually incorrect and provably false? Not exactly.
According to the Monmouth poll 65 percent of respondents believe traditional news outlets push "fake news" through editorial decisions regarding what topics to cover. Only 25 percent of respondents define it as the spread of factually incorrect and provably false information, which is the standard definition.
Biased reporting isn't "fake news" but it contributes to distrust of the news media. Consider front page online stories in Kentucky's two largest newspapers which recently showed an undercover video of cruel treatment of pigs at a Franklin, Kentucky pork farm. Yet another controversial undercover video a few years ago exposing Planned Parenthood executives making deals over fetal remains didn't make it onto either platform.
Bad reporting also contributes to a climate of distrust. The Cadiz Record ran a headline story on April 18 that insisted that state workers had a "difficult week" due to HB 151 "significantly cutting health care and pensions." That might have been a talking point from the Kentucky Education Association but the actual bill did no such thing. Many view this as "fake news." At best, it's sloppy journalism.
Then there's the heart-wrenching photo of the two-year-old Honduran girl crying as her mother is detained by border patrol agents. Time reported she was separated and taken away from her mother by the border patrol. The girl's father disputed the story but Time's cover photo of the crying toddler under the glare of Pres. Trump is forever seared in our minds. This is "fake news."
The glut of information carried through a multitude of websites and social media platforms all vying for our attention creates a climate amenable to fake news. The competition is fierce, so sensational and salacious headlines scream for our attention. This sometimes pushes mainstream news media to cut corners with attention-grabbing headlines that border on misleading.
Legitimate news sites are peppered with clickbait ads:"Celebs Who Went Into Seclusion After Botched Plastic Surgeries." This is under the Suggested Stories for You at the end of a Lexington Herald-Leader article on Mayor Jim Gray's Accomplishments. Ads might pay the bills but juxtaposing such mindless attention grabbing irrelevancies with serious news stories as a mayor's accomplishments muddies the primary mission of news outlets which is to accurately inform the public about important issues and events, including politics.
Interestingly, the Monmouth poll found that 42 percent of Americans believe that major news outlets deliberately misinform the public in order to push a political agenda. Political affiliation is eschewed by journalists today but media outlets have a long history of identifying with political brands. Consider the name of Butler County's paper of record: the Butler County Banner Republican. Adjoining Logan County to the south is the News Democrat & Leader.
News shouldn't be partisan. There is no such thing as Republican news or Democrat news. There is news. When news media ignore major stories of importance because they don't fit a news outlet's preferred political narrative; when partisan or ideological bias muscles out the other side to the detriment of the truth; when a particular agenda overrules objectivity, then fairness becomes a casualty and credibility is lost. And this loss of credibility is a looming crisis for mainstream news outlets.
This column appeared in the July 28, 2018 edition of the West Kentucky Star.