'Refuse to be confused'

January 30, 2018 11:00

Over the weekend on “Reliable Sources,” CNN senior media correspondent Brian Stelter did a monologue about how what he calls the “pro-Trump media” is escalating its attacks on Robert Mueller, the special counsel investigating alleged Trump campaign and administration ties to Russia.
The monologue was highly critical of Fox News Channel’s opinion show hosts – Sean Hannity in particular – for promulgating conspiracy theories aimed at questioning the objectivity and, therefore, credibility of Mueller’s investigation and the FBI.
Stelter is by no means the only person in the news business noting this trend. The Boston Globe’s deputy Washington bureau chief, Matt Viser, wrote in a news analysis piece, “The effort has animated the Republican base – particularly those who watch Fox News and refresh conservative conspiracy websites – while elevating brash, largely unfounded rhetoric into some of the highest reaches of the Republican Party.”
And, according to Viser’s piece, the strategy is working among the intended audience. He points out that a January Gallup poll showed only 49% of Republicans thought the FBI was doing an “excellent” or “good” job, down from 62% in 2014.
This column is not a mugging of Fox News Channel’s opinion show hosts or others in the “pro-Trump media.” I fully recognize they have a sacred First Amendment right to share their views with the consumers of what they broadcast, print, or distribute online and on social media. Nor is this indicative that RTDNA is taking a side in whatever competitive factors between CNN and Fox News Channel may be at play here.
Rather, this is intended to sound an alarm that one of the biggest challenges we as journalists face in building trust with the public – the conflation by many of opinion media with responsible journalism – is getting much worse and at an even faster pace than when I first warned about this problem in November:
We have a responsibility as journalists, as we face more obstruction,, threats, harassment, arrests and even physical assaults, to answer our misguided critics – by that I mean those acting out harshly against responsible journalism, egged on by the bullhorn of some powerful bully pulpits, merely because they don’t like or understand responsible journalism – by doing more and better journalism.
… We must help the public better understand why the countless flagrant acts of responsible journalism being committed every day across the country are essential to their daily lives.
A major part of that effort must be to point out that information people consume from the opinion media is just that, opinion. Responsible journalism, conversely, is hard work done by professionals who have dedicated their lives to serving their communities by shining a light on issues that otherwise would have gone unnoticed.
I urge all journalists – starting today and going forward – to double down on those efforts. I also urge all news organizations and, particularly, cable news channels, to be even more transparent about what is responsible journalism and what is opinion or analysis.
Yes, CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC all have actual journalists who consistently act responsibly to seek and report the truth. They are not purveyors of “fake news” and they certainly aren’t enemies “of the American people.”
But those networks also have regular panel discussions about news stories in which “analysts” and “contributors” sometimes provide valuable context to help the audience understand the stories better, but sometimes provide bald-faced opinions that aren’t always labeled as such.
Two of those networks – Fox News and MSNBC – also have programs that are blatant opinion shows, which should be obvious for what they are but, sadly, in the minds of many viewers aren’t.
Yes, the hosts on such programs feature the work of the journalists of their networks. But they also interpret some of the facts contained in that journalism to help them make a case for their preconceived ideological points of view.
Regrettably, that contributes to the conflation. It also makes it easy for consumers of information to get their ideological points of view reinforced on a daily, or nightly, basis. And too many of those consumers get their information only from sources that tend to underpin their own beliefs. That’s why greater transparency in identifying fact versus opinion is so critical.
This isn’t new. It’s just getting more wicked. I remember the sinking feeling I got more than 20 years ago when I read about a national survey that showed a significant percentage of Americans identified their primary source of “news” as Rush Limbaugh. My dyspeptic reaction wasn’t because of Limbaugh’s politics. It was a result of my consternation that people were considering his opinions facts.
As RTDNA has said many times, local newsrooms also have a vital role to play in building – or rebuilding – trust with the public. The good news is that research has shown since the beginning of the “fake news” era that people tend to trust their local news sources more than national news outlets.
Use that trust to help news consumers understand the difference between opinion and responsible journalism, or, as Brian Stelter put it over the weekend, use it to help them:

“Refuse to be confused.”