The public expects far more than journalists are delivering when it comes to equal treatment of all sides in the news.
Less than half of journalists — 44% — say every side of an issue deserves “equal coverage,” according to a survey of the industry by the Pew Research Center.
Among the broader community, though, the vast majority — 76% — believe in equal coverage.
At a time when trust in the media is nearing all-time lows, the disconnect between what the public says it wants and what editors and reporters are delivering looms large, particularly in the minds of those in the business.
“We need to be aware of the disconnect and attempt to strengthen/maintain/improve the trust of our audience,” David Stringer, the publisher of the Lawton Constitution and a past president of the Oklahoma Press Association, told The Washington Times in an email. “But I think we need to do our best to avoid presenting false information, even if one group claims it as ‘their side.’ And if we do report information that’s later deemed to be false, to report that as well.”
Online journalists were the least likely to be interested in equal treatment. Television journalists were the most committed, with print and radio reporters in between. Those who have been in the business the longest were more committed than newcomers, who were skeptical of the equal treatment concept.
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Analysts said they doubt the numbers would have looked the same a decade ago. They said there has been a shift in the industry.
“That idea of giving things equal coverage was probably a more popular concept in journalism circles back then. I think people have taken a more nuanced view of it since then,” said Richard T. Kaplar, president of the Media Institute.
Tim Graham, executive editor of NewsBusters, a right-leaning press watchdog, was more pointed: “It just seems to me that the dominant message of journalism, in J-schools, journalism conferences, is the arrival of Donald Trump should have offered a death knell to the idea that there are two sides of things.”
Mr. Stringer said an evolving environment appears to be driving the change.
“I think journalists are reacting to the current climate of ‘alternative facts’ and the condition of lies getting repeated and shared over social media to shape the narrative in a particular way,” he said. “How’d we get here? Because we’ve reached a point where biased (sometimes outright false) information is reported as fact and people inside the target bubble believe it.”
Polling from Pew and Gallup have found levels of trust in the media dipping, powered in particular by a drop in confidence among self-identified Republicans.
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Pew’s research shows Republicans have the most interest in equal treatment, with 87% saying they want all sides covered in the news. Among Democrats, it’s 68%.
The ideological divide carried over to journalists.
Pew found just 37% of those who worked for outlets with audiences that tilted to the left believed in equal treatment, compared with 57% of journalists who worked for right-leaning outlets.
Pew’s survey, released last month, covered 11,889 U.S.-based journalists. Of those surveyed, 42% worked in newspapers or magazines, 29% online, 17% in television, 11% in radio and 1% in podcasting.
About a third said they focused on national news, and 14% focused on international stories. The rest covered state and local news.
Pew said the journalists it surveyed expressed a sense of “turmoil” about their industry, though they were still passionate about their work.
Several analysts wondered about the equal treatment question and said the way Pew phrased it could have skewed the answers.
Pew asked respondents to pick between two statements: “Journalists should always strive to give every side equal coverage” or “Every side does not always deserve equal coverage.”
Pew said it was trying to address the emerging issue of “bothsidesism,” an academic critique of the sense that both sides of a debate deserve to have their voices heard, even if they make what one side deems to be false or unsupported statements.
By asking about “equal coverage,” Pew may have introduced complications, analysts said.
“When it says all sides, I have a definite negative reaction,” said Joy Mayer, director of Trusting News, an organization focused on building trust between the public and the industry. “What does that even mean? Is that equal airtime, equal column inches? Is that equal consideration?
“I definitely don’t think all sides deserve equal coverage,” she said. “I think there’s a constant judgment call in journalism about what to include.”
Mr. Kaplar shared those concerns and questioned the general public’s reaction. He said those outside the business were answering a theoretical question, but if they were presented with situations — the kinds that journalists face every day — they might feel differently.
“If you gave the public more detailed questions that asked them to stop and think about this more, I suspect the numbers would start to change pretty significantly,” he said.
Inherent in the equal treatment question is a sense that reporters know which side has earned more coverage.
Pew found a deep level of confidence among reporters in their ability to sniff out the truth.
An overwhelming 72% of “reporting journalists” — those who gather information or write or edit content — said they have never unknowingly reported stories that later turned out to have false information. That was a striking level of self-assurance for an industry that has been through a stunning series of tricky stories in the past couple of decades, including weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and accusations of Trump-Russia collusion.
It’s not just national stories.
Mr. Stringer offered a real-life example of how journalists grapple with evolving coverage. He pointed to a police-involved shooting in which people in the community said police initiated it by firing the first shots. That version was reported.
Later, official reports said there was no evidence that officers initiated the shooting, and that too was reported. Community members insisted on their version and eventually stopped talking to reporters, Mr. Stringer said.
“In that case, I’m worried that reporting ‘both sides’ did more harm than good,” he said. “On the other hand, if the media had held back awaiting ‘official’ reports, they’d have been accused of aiding a cover-up. The initial report told ‘both sides,’ but I don’t know that it served the public interest.”
Mr. Graham said Pew’s survey data signals a clear path for journalists who worry about their industry’s standing with the public.
“If the news media thinks they have a credibility problem, this is how you fix it,” he said. “You fix it by giving people more facts, less spin. But everything in their political bodies tells them not to do that. They feel it’s their job to usher in the right side of history.”
He pondered how the public’s perception could be so off from journalists’.
“The more involved you are in consuming media, the more cynical you get about the idea that anybody’s observing objectivity in their journalism,” he said. “I don’t want to say that the public is naive to expect objectivity. On the contrary, I find it a hopeful sign that readers want some more neutrality. They’re looking not to be spun.”