Trust in the media is sinking and it's time to act: Neil Macdonald

For journalism there is no uniform qualification for a reporter, no uniform code of behaviour. And now journalism is losing the support of rational, intelligent, thoughtful consumers, and that is a serious threat.

When anyone can be a journalist, anything can be labelled news. That’s a problem

Alex Jones from the website Infowars has suggested that the U.S. government was involved in the Sept. 11 attacks and the Sandy Hook massacre was faked. He has millions of followers — and the ear of the U.S. president. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

If I were a public figure — a politician, a senior public servant, a judge, someone in the national security apparatus — I doubt I would speak to most reporters.

Actually, if it were just me, going through some horrible personal episode that occasioned a local police reporter to call my home, I would likely hang up.

Why? Because reporters are no different from others whose positions confer a degree of public trust — some of them aren't very bright. Like a stupid cop or a nasty bureaucrat, or, worse, a maliciously dull-witted doctor or lawyer or stockbroker, a bad reporter can ruin a person's life, or at least a person's career.

But there's a difference: all of the other occupations I just mentioned are legally leashed and held accountable, to one extent or another. People in those jobs must qualify for them, and submit to strict professional standards.

Unregulated profession

A lawyer is governed not just by normal criminal and civil law, but by clearly defined ethics, interpreted by quasi-judicial boards of his or her peers. The same self-regulation is practised by most other professions.

Not journalism. There is no uniform qualification for a reporter, no uniform code of behaviour. Journalism has vigorously resisted any efforts to legally define journalism, or any sort of peer review.

Yes, some of the bigger journalistic organizations have ombudsmen, or public editors, but their only power is suasion. Yes, there are press councils that judge public complaints, but they have no fangs. Yes, some outfits, like CBC, have internal policies that set rules of behaviour for their reporters, but enforcement is at the discretion of managers.

A huge swath of journalism doesn't even bother pretending self-regulation.

And in any event, who is a journalist anymore? The answer is anyone who says "I'm a journalist," and has access to the internet.

Infowars and the White House

Apparently, one of U.S. President Donald Trump's favourite sources of political news is a fellow named Alex Jones, who has, among other things, asserted that the Sept. 11 attacks were an inside job, and that the Sandy Hook massacre of schoolchildren never happened.

Jones got his start yelling far-right drivel into a microphone in a spare room in his house, but now runs multiple platforms, including the site Infowars, telling millions of people what they want to hear.

Trump supporters gather in Minneapolis last November during the U.S. election campaign. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

To the president of the United States, Jones is a real journalist, as opposed to most of the rest of us, whom he now characterizes as a cesspool of lying, dishonest purveyors of fake news and outright falsehoods, or, most recently, "enemies of the people."

I don't want this to sound like whining. I truly couldn't care less what Trump thinks about my craft, or, for that matter, what his supporters think.

But if polls are to be believed, it isn't just Trump and his ferociously loyal swarm of flying monkeys; Gallup's most recent testing of public opinion suggested that trust in the mass media "to report the news fully, accurately and fairly" is at its lowest level in polling history.

Only 32 per cent of respondents said they trusted the mainstream media.

Meaning that Trump, a fellow capable of standing in the rain and saying it's sunny, is more believed and trusted by Americans than journalists. This is not a new phenomenon, either. Gallup has traced a steady decline in trust for two decades.

Alternative realities

Why? Certainly a lot of it has to do with the internet's brutal breakup of media oligopolies, and empowerment of non-traditional actors like Alex Jones. The rise of so many fringe outlets to prominence has encouraged people to live in their own alternate realities, where they can wallow in confirmation bias and never have to listen to a single dissenting syllable.

Hence the anger about reporters at Trump's weekend rally in Florida — the one where he talked about some ominous (and, it turns out, imaginary) event that took place in Sweden the night before, because of all those immigrants the Swedes have let in.

People in the crowd, a few wearing Infowars T-shirts, berated journalists for their coverage of Trump's first month in office. The president's near daily Twitter lies, his attacks on federal judges, his attacks on the U.S. intelligence community, his disdain for conflict of interest, the amateurish immigration ban stopped dead in the courts, and the strange debasement of his high office for personal gain and ego gratification count for nothing. The shame belonged instead to the media for not concentrating on the things he has said that are true.

Journalists are now told we should make efforts to better understand the concerns of such people. I'm not sure it's rationally possible. They remind me of the Tea Party members who would demand that Barack Obama keep his God damned government hands off their Medicare and Social Security (which they clearly believed were private programs).

Professional standards

But the wider distrust expressed in polls is something else. Journalism is losing the support of rational, intelligent, thoughtful consumers, and that is a serious threat.

Recapturing it probably means a little less snark (millennials, especially, seem to loathe snark and smug, of which I am a foremost practitioner), less blatant clickbait (in some ways, news websites are becoming a collection of bad listicles), more policy and less politics, and less pusillanimous surrender to ratings, something that helped create Trump.

But nothing would go further in recapturing public trust than becoming a true profession, with standards, qualifications, accountability and enforceable rules. As much as I shudder at being judged by other journalists, there is no longer any other way.

This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read this editor's blog and our FAQ.


Neil Macdonald is a former foreign correspondent and columnist for CBC News who has also worked in newspapers. He speaks English and French fluently, as well as some Arabic.


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