Perceived biases, attacks erode trust in the press
Awarding a grade to a concept like press freedom might seem like an impossible task, but here at the First Amendment Center we give it our best shot.
In April of last year, we began compiling quarterly First Amendment report cards, relying on a panel of 15 experts from across the political spectrum — academics, activists, journalists and lawyers — to evaluate the state of each of our core freedoms.
In our latest report card, which came out in January, freedom of the press earned a C grade, making it the most delinquent of the five freedoms protected by the First Amendment (speech, press, religion, assembly and petition).
This grade reflects the contentious relationship that the press has with the current presidential administration. In the past few months, President Donald Trump has called for the firing of specific journalists, threatened to revoke NBC’s FCC license and taken legal action against Buzzfeed, Fusion GPS and “Fire and Fury” author Michael Wolff.
“President Trump’s attacks on the press took on a new level of toxicity,” said Stephen Solomon, one of the panelists and a professor of First Amendment law at NYU. “The move from rhetoric to specific threats and lawsuits is a dangerous escalation.”
But the outlook for freedom of the press isn’t entirely gloomy. Many of our panelists pointed out that despite these challenges, the press continues to fulfill its watchdog role and is engaged in more vigorous and effective reporting than ever before.
Other panelists, like Brett Scharffs, professor of law at BYU, took an altogether different view of the conflict.
“The Trump administration has presented an unprecedented challenge to the press, and the press has done a remarkable job of discrediting itself,” he said.
He said it’s difficult to read a story from any press source without taking into account the outlet’s perceived biases.
“The problem is not that the press is not free,” Scharffs said. “The press is free, but it has become much more difficult to trust.”
Whether the press has discredited itself, it’s undeniable that the issue of trust in the media has loomed large this past year.
The 2017 State of the First Amendment survey revealed that less than half of Americans believe the news media try to report the news without bias. (Interestingly, more than half of respondents expressed a preference for news that aligns with their own views, demonstrating that many Americans may not view “biased” news in a negative light).
The specter of fake news also has affected the public’s ability to believe what they read. About one-third reported a decrease in trust in news obtained from social media.
If there’s a silver lining to be found here, it might be that a recent follow-up survey revealed that Americans have been coping with this uncertain atmosphere by becoming savvier news consumers.
About 30 percent of Americans engage with news every day of the week, and almost 3 out of 4 do something to verify the news they receive — 72 percent of Americans said they check what they read by looking for additional information in other news sources. Virtually the same number said they also test the validity of what they have read or seen by talking with others.
This is indeed good news for the news business, since the power of the press largely depends on the good judgment of the audience.
This column is one of a package of stories marking Sunshine Week, an annual celebration of access to public information. Nott is executive director of the First Amendment Center at the Newseum Institute in Washington, D.C. Follow her at twitter.com/LataNott
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