When people talk about a lack of civility, they see news media as culprits.
Previous stories in this America Today series have pointed to the likes of commenters on Ohio.com as rudeness enablers. And recent conversations in focus groups have found ample amounts of distaste for news media.
Polling this summer in the Akron-Canton area provided further evidence: When asked whether media was a “major reason” for incivility, media ranked higher than election campaigns, public officials and the public itself.
While the complaints included coverage in print and broadcast, both the polling and the focus groups pointed fingers especially often at cable TV, where news is omnipresent around the clock.
During a focus group designed to explore tension between public and private-sector workers, one participant blamed “so much hostility in society” on “the 24-hour news cycle and all the news programs, where they’re inflaming people’s emotions.”
The taking of clear political positions by some news outlets has added to that, said another participant.
Looking at news-gathering in the days of just three broadcast news organizations, he said: “There was some common [ground]. You had to listen to people maybe that had slightly different opinions than you.
“Today, people are able to listen to people that only have the same opinion as them. And that furthers the misunderstanding of things, and [people’s] ability to empathize and understand other perspectives. ... It becomes a giant echo chamber, where when someone says something that’s inaccurate, they’re never challenged.”
Some outlets take sides
The line between straight news and commentary is often blurred, both by those who bring the news — where agenda-driven commentators often share the same stage as supposedly neutral parties — and by those who make it, when they seek the friendliest possible forum and avoid ones where they might be challenged.
Indeed, when Missouri congressman Todd Akin came under fire for his reference to “legitimate rape,” he turned to the seemingly friendly confines of radio hosts Mike Huckabee and Sean Hannity (although Hannity reportedly told Akin he should drop out of the race). Akin then dropped out of a scheduled, but potentially riskier TV interview with CNN’s Piers Morgan.
And Morgan suggested what sort of nightmare would have awaited Akin when he declared that the interview dropout proved he was a “gutless little twerp.”
President Obama, meanwhile, answered 10 questions from the public on website Reddit, a move at least one observer saw as a way to bypass traditional news media.
Still, a remark like Morgan’s is hardly civil, fueling the idea that news organizations are encouraging rough talk. Another case of that occurred during the Republican convention, when a live microphone caught David Chalian, Yahoo News’s Washington bureau chief, saying that Mitt Romney and his wife, Ann, were “happy to have a party with black people drowning” as Hurricane Isaac swept through the Gulf.
Although Chalian was fired, he offered news critics a chance to suggest broad taint in coverage, as reports noted that Yahoo’s coverage was in association with ABC News. Fox News spread the stain even wider, noting online that the speaker “used to work for ABC before moving on to serve as the political director at PBS NewsHour and eventually work for Yahoo News.”
Are there true facts?
The distrust of news media runs so deep, that even their dealing with facts can be suspect.
The site FactCheck.org, for example, has criticized more than one “abortion falsehood” that the Obama campaign has claimed about the Republican Party and its standard bearer, Mitt Romney, as well as lambasting a Romney ad claiming the current administration has “a plan to gut welfare reform by dropping work requirements.”
“The plan does neither of those things,” adds FactCheck, and many news organizations have brought up the falseness of those ads. But a Romney representative reportedly said, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
And that reflects back on media. As the Atlantic magazine online said, “What if it turns out that when the press calls a lie a lie, nobody cares?”
Whether or not anyone cares, the more basic question is, does anyone believe? A Pew Research Center study released in August said “the believability ratings for major news organizations have suffered broad-based declines” not only over the past year, but the past decade.
That was certainly reflected in a Beacon Journal focus group that discussed media in April. Designed and moderated by Alice Rodgers of Rodgers Marketing Research for the Beacon Journal, there was a recurring theme that no one news organization is trustworthy.
Among the participants’ comments:
— I go to Fox.com and then I’ll go to CNN.com. The truth is somewhere in between usually.
— I think, regardless of what news station it is, it’s like they definitely have an opinion to get across. ... I think all of them do that, regardless of which side of the aisle they fall on.
— There are no consequences for [newscasters]. ... Two decades ago ... the [job of] the news was to report the news. Not to interpret it or be biased, and tell us just your side of the story, And I feel like that’s what we get a lot of the time.
— The media do not report things accurately. ... You don’t get the full story.
Indeed, when asked what came to mind with the word media, replies included “suspect,” “bias” and “people who don’t fact-check anymore.”
Of course, complaints about news coverage are nothing new. In 1969, then-Vice President Spiro Agnew delivered two stinging speeches about news organizations, suggesting bias and complaining of such practices as televised “instant analysis” of presidential speeches.
A Beacon Journal editorial following Agnew’s speeches quoted a letter from a reader who identified herself only as “Mrs. John Q. Public,” who declared, “A news media’s job is to report the news as it is and not personal opinions.” (The editorial said that, in addition to reporting the news as is, “we think it proper and useful to try to interpret the news and offer opinions concerning it, while at the same time keeping our columns open to contrary opinions.”
Trust is a factor
What constitutes the proper presentation of news, as well as reasoned opinion, is still open to debate. Focus-group members could be very specific when asked what or whom they trust.
It may not be a network but a person, whether that’s Jon Stewart or, for one focus-group member, Sean Hannity because “over the years that I’ve watched him, I never have seen him lie.”
Yet another member of that same group said he watched The O’Reilly Factor on Fox News, then does not last through Hannity’s show: “I’m a moderate Republican, but [Hannity] is so far right that four minutes is all it takes ... and I’m done.”
“I don’t particularly like Fox News,” said a woman in the group. “However, there are some people on Fox I like. … I feel that way about a lot of media. It’s not clear-cut.”
That said, the dismay can be sweeping. One participant in a focus group of public-sector workers sounded as disenchanted as his private-sector counterparts when he said news media — newspapers, radio and TV — “have kind of been co-opted ... by politicians, by people who have the money ... to co-opt the media into sending the message they want. ...
“I see too many reprints of politicians giving speeches as a news article. That’s not news to me. If I just want to listen to some politician talk, I will listen to them talk. I want somebody to ask him questions about why did you say this?”
As long as the question is asked civilly, of course.
Do you think news media are a major reason for incivility in our public discourse? If so, what do you think media should do differently and what can citizens do to encourage better news coverage?
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and for Ohio.com, including in the HeldenFiles Online blog, www.ohio.com/blogs/heldenfiles. He is also on Twitter and Facebook. You can reach him at 330-996-3582 or firstname.lastname@example.org.