At a time when the news media is routinely under public attack, journalists generally take one of two tacks: ignore it or defend themselves. ProPublica politics reporter Jessica Huseman made a case for the first tack in a Tweet from 2017:
Maybe controversial, but I think the media wastes energy saying we like America and are honest. Let’s just go our jobs well and prove it.
— Jessica Huseman (@JessicaHuseman) August 23, 2017
NBC news analyst Howard Fineman took the second tack, while highlighting the Boston Globe‘s editorial “Journalists are not the enemy“:
We are flawed, but we work for YOU: not feds, presidents, courts, states, police or ANY governmental entity. Our freedom is YOUR freedom, based on the Declaration, the Constitution and We the People. It’s as simple — as indispensably American — as that. https://t.co/cKApH2QkU2
— Howard Fineman (@howardfineman) August 16, 2018
Over 400 news outlets across the country joined the Globe’s efforts, publishing editorials in support of a free press:
— Chicago Sun-Times (@Suntimes) August 16, 2018
New research suggests that the latter approach might be better for fostering faith in journalism. Readers were more likely to trust the media when presented with opinion pieces defending journalism among other news stories, finds a paper published in December 2018 in PLoS ONE, titled “Checking Facts and Fighting Back: Why Journalists Should Defend Their Profession.”
“The big takeaway is that it’s actually good to speak up in defense of the profession,” said lead author Ray Pingree, assistant professor at Louisiana State University’s Manship School of Media Communication, in a phone call with Journalist’s Resource.
The research involved a five-day experiment in which a sample of 1,187 U.S. adults recruited through Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service were paid to read news stories through a custom online portal.
The researchers were interested in testing the effects of fact checking and defenses of journalism on trust in the media and belief in the attainability of facts. “Fact checking might have positive effects if people see it as a sign of journalists pursuing truth and holding elites accountable, or if they can somehow be persuaded to see it this way,” the authors write.
Participants were encouraged to use the portal instead of other news sources and were given small bonuses (up to $3) based on their usage. The portal featured stories from Google News listed reverse-chronologically in a feed.
The researchers manipulated participants’ feeds so that participants saw stories that fact-checked certain claims, both in the presence and absence of opinion pieces that defended journalism. The study did not take into account whether or not readers actually clicked through and engaged with these stories.
Before and after the experiment, participants answered a survey that gauged their trust in the media and belief in their ability to find the truth about political issues. Respondents were also asked after the experiment about their likelihood of using news services such as Google News that include many sources in the future.
The sample was 55 percent female and 45 percent male and split among three political parties – 24 percent were Republicans, 40 percent were Democrats and 32 percent were Independents. The authors note this variance helps to determine whether the experiment’s effects differed by party affiliation. Nearly 60 percent of participants had a college degree.
The researchers found that exposure to fact-checking stories and opinion pieces that defended journalism did not, individually, have effects on media trust. But when participants saw both, there was a small but significant positive effect. The same held for participants’ belief that they could find out the truth about political issues, and for future news use. These results did not change significantly according to respondents’ political affiliation.
While the news portal was created specifically for the purpose of the experiment, Pingree said that the use of the portal was nonetheless “real news use,” because it allowed readers to choose what news they consumed and featured real, aggregated news articles.
Pingree said the biggest limitation of the study is that the research does not account for the potential real-world consequences of journalists defending their profession more frequently. However, he said he believed that the anti-media rhetoric is “kind of maxed out.” Further, existing scholarship suggests attacks on the media increase perceptions of journalists’ bias.
“Whatever journalists do, they’re going to be called biased, so they might as well try,” he said. He added that he sees this research as a potential “point of leverage” for journalists – an opportunity for them to “do something a little bit different, and it might make things a little better.”
“If we want to get back to a more fact-based national debate, we need to trust media again,” he said.