The public is right not to trust the media

What caused American journalists to wise up? Schudson and Fink entertain the idea that better- educated readers and better-educated newsrooms played a role, as did the increased use in computers and the growing complexity of modern life. Television freed the daily newspaper from the chore of describing events, and that liberated the newspaper to explain what those events meant. In recent decades, the old network new oligopoly of CBS, NBC and ABC has been demolished by new entrants, and native-to-the-Web news organizations have similarly undermined the daily newspapers. Instead of building a false consensus—which the press did too often in the post-World War II, pre-1970 era—many contemporary journalists strive to produce accounts to quarrel with what the competition is printing or broadcasting. It takes time and intelligence to sort out contradictory news reports. Those who don’t have the time or the interest to do the sorting might be inclined to throw up their hands and accuse the entire press of being untrustworthy.

It may seem counterintuitive but a strong case can be made that the public trusted the press more when it was less trustworthy. The many criticisms the press has heaped on government—and other institutions—have tarnished the public relations shine of those institutions. That the public might have become less enamored of the press as it has grown more independent and combative only stands to reason. For one thing, the pushy, know-it-all, argumentative journalistic style required to dislodge information from governments and corporations isn’t very likable. For another thing, the intelligent skepticism practiced by modern reporters, once released from the bottle, cannot be shoved back in. It only makes sense that the public, exposed to critical thinking by the press, should redirect that critical thinking back onto the press itself. The more people know, the less they trust.