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How U.S. media lost the trust of the public

A global pandemic, historic anti-racism protests and a turbulent U.S. presidential election had Americans glued to their screens in 2020 like never before. Cable news ratings soared, online news subscriptions increased and the amount of time we all spent online broke records.

But as people consumed more news, they also began to trust the media less, surveys showed. According to a recent Gallup survey, the percentage of Americans with no trust in the mass media hit a record high in 2020: only nine per cent of respondents said they trust the mass media “a great deal” and a full 60 per cent said they have little to “no trust at all” in it.

The American media landscape has become increasingly polarized over the last few decades. 

A Pew survey suggests 95 per cent of MSNBC’s audience are now Democrats while 93 per cent of the Fox News audience are Republicans. A similar trend is unfolding online. 

“There’s a constant selection process that’s going on, that Silicon Valley is encouraging and accelerating,” said U.S. journalist and author Matt Taibbi in the new CBC documentary Big News. “If you read the Daily Caller, you are not going to read the New York Times and vice versa.” 

Meanwhile, the media’s traditional sources of revenue have been uprooted. More than 16,000 news jobs were cut in the U.S. last year alone, the highest on record. 

“Profitability is disappearing. Losses are growing. And budgets are tighter and tighter,” said conservative commentator and author Andrew Sullivan. “And the truth is … polarization is profitable.” 

WATCH | Matt Taibbi and other media critics on the loss of trust in media:

Journalist Matt Taibbi and others reflect on the loss of trust in the U.S. news media and the parallel rise in ratings. 1:47

Online metrics also show that the best way to get people to engage and spread content is to inflame their emotions, said Taibbi, who wrote the book Hate Inc.: Why Today’s Media Makes Us Despise One Another

CBC’s Big News, which was released March 26 on CBC Gem, examines some of these issues in depth by interviewing media insiders and critics who dig into the ratings wars, public mistrust, the Trump effect, the politicization of the anti-racism protests and the pandemic, and the weaponization of social media. Coming off a record-breaking news year, the documentary asks, can the U.S. media be saved from itself?

Watch some highlights below:

Capitol Hill riots expose trust crisis in the U.S. 

Every year, the public affairs company Edelman releases a trust barometer that measures perceived trust in the information we consume and its sources. This year’s report paints a particularly bleak picture.

“This is the era of information bankruptcy,” said CEO Richard Edelman in a statement. “We’ve been lied to by those in charge, and media sources are seen as politicized and biased. The result is a lack of quality information and increased divisiveness.”

“Fifty-seven percent of Americans find the political and ideological polarization so extreme that they believe the U.S. is in the midst of a cold civil war.”

Some of the experts interviewed for the documentary said that polarization and the increasing alienation from mainstream media among parts of the American population contributed to the convictions that drove the deadly Jan. 6 riot on Capitol Hill.  

“Jan. 6 was the logical result of the profound disparity between the elites and a lot of people who had been profoundly misinformed,” Sullivan told the CBC.

WATCH | MSNBC host Ali Velshi and others on media polarization and the Capitol riot:

MSNBC host Ali Velshi and others analyze how the U.S. media landscape contributed to the events at the Capitol on Jan 6, 2021. 2:26

How cable news became polarized in the U.S.

Until the 1990s, American broadcast news was focused on gaining the largest possible audience with the least objectionable content, Taibbi says in the documentary. 

“It was oblivious in all sorts of ways to poverty, to race, to issues of sexual orientation, to America’s role in the world, but it knit together a common understanding. And that common understanding drove politics,” Lawrence Lessig, lawyer and author of They Don’t Represent Us, told CBC.

By the early 2000s, as competition increased and regulations softened, that profit model began to change and media outlets began targeting specific demographics.

WATCH | How did media become so polarized? Experts offer their take:

Lawrence Lessig, Sue Gardner and others explain how and why American broadcast news became increasingly polarized. 7:50

Journalists increasingly seen as ‘out of touch’

According to a 2019 Pew survey, 73 percent of Republicans say news media don’t understand people like them, and 40 percent of Democrats feel the same way.

Local news has been particularly hard-hit by recent job cuts, which means journalists are now increasingly congregated in big urban cities, such as New York, Washington and Los Angeles.  

“Those cities are expensive, and so you have to be wealthy to be a journalist, which didn’t used to be true,” said Sue Gardner, former director of the Wikimedia Foundation and CBC.ca. 

“People don’t know journalists anymore unless they themselves are also part of the wealthy elites, so all of that creates more distance.”

Former Fox & Friends host Gretchen Carlson grew up and worked in the Midwest for decades before becoming a Fox News host in the early 2000s. “There are a lot of people who feel like their voice isn’t being heard,” she told CBC.

WATCH | How journalists lost touch with their audiences:

Former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson and others dig into the divide between journalists and their audiences. 1:39

Global pandemic another test of media credibility

The coronavirus pandemic was another event that polarized Americans, and the media played a part in that, those who spoke with CBC for the Big News documentary said.

One example, says New York Times health reporter Apoorva Mandavill, was the shifting and increasingly politicized coverage of the mask debate.

“I think that as journalists, we were disoriented at the beginning, and we probably didn’t ask quite as many tough questions, like, ‘Why wouldn’t masks work?” Mandavilli said.  

“It really did feed into this idea that we cannot trust anybody.”

According to a University of Michigan analysis, COVID-19 stories in American newspapers and network news were highly politicized and polarized.

“It is likely that media coverage is contributing to the polarization of public attitudes [around COVID-19],” the study concluded.

WATCH | Why even coverage of the pandemic became polarized:

How the American news media’s coverage of the COVID-19 crisis put people’s faith in media and experts to the test. 5:14

Watch the full documentary on CBC Gem

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