The Uncertain Future of News: The News we Ask For

August 21, 2012

Public Opinion

News is the lifeblood of society and news is everywhere. Yes, readership of daily newspapers is down but our connected selves have so many channels for accessing the news that the decline in the newspaper appears irrelevant on the surface. The more important decline is in the believability of the news.

Think of how you learned of your last breaking story. Was it on facebook, on twitter, on your internet landing page? Beyond word of mouth, how often do you learn something from one of these media — at least first hand? And, when we learn of news in this manner, the public is engaged in the co-creation of news. Stories are shared and commented upon for a reason not just because they happened.

The technological changes in how people access news (and how they participate in its co-creation) is one of the major forces affecting the 21st century. But as concerning as these changes might be, the point of most concern is that the news is no longer a shared experience.

We don’t all read the same paper in the morning or watch the same television news in the evening. We are making choices to consume certain media and not other. As a result, we do not see the news media as a single reliable entity any more.

In fact, we are increasingly coming full circle when it comes to the news. In the early days of publishing, newspapers had a clear ideological slant. As we moved to mass communication models, media outlets lost much of their outright partisan slant in favour of a model that served the advertising needs of the corporate world. Biases were still there but they were less pronounced.

With media fragmentation (and the role of the internet), it seems like we have moved back in that direction. Rather than trying to decode the actual media content, consider the way in which we now view the media.

Our collective sense that the news was credible has eroded considerably in the past decade to the point that ideology, especially in the United States, is a key driver of perceptions.

Last week, the Pew Research Center released the results of its credibility of the news tracking. The results are troubling. More and more Americans do not rate news organizations as believable. Across 13 organizations, positive believability (top 2 box) has declined from 71% to 56% since 2002. A drop of 15 points in a decade so that only just over half believe that news organizations are believable. 

Consider the following specific newspapers. In the late 1980s, virtually everyone thought that the Wall Street Journal was believable. Now only 58% do. Although it is not a linear trend, the overall movement for these papers and for other news outlets is negative. Local news does better than the other organizations. FOX news cable channel is now below 50% (not shown).

When the news is not believable the possibility of true public debate is no longer possible.

Not surprisingly, the decline in the believability of the news is accompanied by a widening of the partisan gap in perceptions of the papers.

“The partisan differences in views of the believability of most news organizations have increased greatly since 2002. For example, the partisan gap in believability of each of the cable networks was only about 10 points a decade ago; today, the gaps in believability ratings for Fox News, MSNBC and CNN are at least 30 points.” Pew Research Center.

Democrats and Republicans believe different news outlets — with Fox the particular lightening rod. Anecdotally, this makes sense and confirms what most people would conclude about the news in America. A news system that is increasingly catering to (or even pandering to) the existing biases of its audience. We are getting the news we want not the news we need. A process that is reinforced and enabled by our social media and media consumption patterns.

Do you think other countries are facing the same declining trust or believability of the news? Does this concern you?




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About Richard Jenkins

Market research professional and small business owner

View all posts by Richard Jenkins


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