Feature

Journalism’s Recidivation: A Growing Distrust

OPINION |

Journalism is facing many challenges, none greater than the heavy burden of the waning of the public’s trust and support in recent times.

A vital core media function is having the trust of an audience with the ability for ‘sensemaking’ (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2014). Audiences have reacted negatively to sensationalised coverage as news organisations try to entice people to click on stories via various online platforms (Brants, 2013). In recent times, the media have inherited a reputation of being powerful people who push agendas that are not always in the public interest (Newman and Fletcher, 2017). A perception of media scepticism has developed, accusing journalists of not being fair and objective in reports, not presenting the whole story and sacrificing accuracy and precision for both personal and commercial gains (Tsfati & Cappella, 2003).

Journalism is an industry that strives to ensure the free exchange of information is accurate, fair, thorough and reports with integrity (Society of Professional Journalists, 2014). Members of the United States Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) believe that public enlightenment is the foundation of justice and democracy (Society of Professional Journalists, 2014). The SPJ Code of Ethics is a statement of abiding principles that address changing journalistic practices, but not a set of rules (Society of Professional Journalists, 2014). It is a guide of ideals that encourages journalists to take responsibility for the information they provide (Society of Professional Journalists, 2014). Its effectiveness can be compared with how the media applies the five canons of journalism being Truth, Accuracy, Fairness, Balance and Neutrality.

Journalists cannot always guarantee the objectivity of the ‘truth,’ but obtaining accurate facts is the founding principle of ethical journalism. Journalists are expected to give all the relevant facts and ensure that they have been checked/verified. Among the canons of journalism is the focus that objectivity must be ‘operationalised’ through the idea of fairness and balance. In exploring controversial issues, the journalist gives voice to different sides of the story and the reader judges the truth (Lichtenberg, 2000). Objectivity may not always be possible nor desirable, especially in the face of brutality or inhumanity, but impartial reporting builds trust and confidence. Journalists are expected to be neutral independent voices, who do not act on behalf of special interests whether political, corporate or cultural. Journalists are expected to be transparent, declaring any political affiliations, financial arrangements or other specific information that might constitute a conflict of interest.

A prominent example of the five canons of Journalism not being adhered, was in 2011 when the Fox News network was instrumental in promoting Donald Trump’s, discriminatory ‘Birtherism’ accusations about the birthplace of President Barack Obama.

Donald Trump had claimed that his team investigated the provenance of President Obama’s birth certificate (Editorial Board, 2016).

Trump perpetuated that Obama’s motive for not releasing his long-form birth certificate was to conceal being of the Muslim faith (Editorial Board, 2016).

The Fox News Network reacted with a series of targeted propaganda, reporting several falsehoods to the American people and the World to discredit Obama. Examples include:

  • On March 28, 2011, Fox News’ Fox & Friends hosted Trump, who stated, “I’m starting to wonder myself whether or not he was born in this country” (Mast, 2016).
  • During the March 28, 2011, edition of Fox News’ On the Record, former host Greta Van Susteren hosted Trump, who used the platform to advance his birther conspiracy theories and praise those who indulge in them as “great Americans” (Mast, 2016).
  • During the April 11, 2011, edition of Fox News’ On the Record, former host Greta Van Susteren gave Trump airtime to push his birther conspiracies and discuss his investigation in Hawaii into Obama’s citizenship (Mast, 2016).
  • During the April 15, 2011, edition of his show, Fox host Sean Hannity aired an interview in which he provided a platform for Trump’s birther theories, including asking Trump what his investigators in Hawaii had found regarding Obama’s birth (Mast, 2016).
  • During an interview with Trump on the April 18, 2011, edition of Fox News’ Fox & Friends, co-host Steve Doocy responded to Trump’s claim that Obama “has not given a birth certificate” by saying, “He could end it simply, just show it to us, and it’d be over” (Mast, 2016).

The above evidence of discriminatory bias laid the groundwork for Donald Trump’s ‘Birtherism’ propaganda, proving the clear violation of the five canons of Journalism. The overwhelmingly biased, sneering, opinionated, ethnocentric and skewed perspectives of Fox News and Fox Business were proven to be unjustified with the eventual release of Obama’s Birth Certificate.

The above example has highlighted how a lack of diversity and maturity has compounded the growing distrust in journalism and media scepticism (Jones, 2016). Sharon Green (1999) describes the conundrum that journalists face is the ability to separate personal prejudices that shape people. It is both unrealistic and dangerous to pretend that prejudices don’t exist as a filter on an individual’s perception. Journalism has been historically viewed as a dominance of out-of-touch elitist, conqueror-privileged Western attitudes, caused by ethnocentric beliefs that produce biased, inaccurate and homogenous perspectives (Obijiofor, Murray, & Singh, 2017). Importantly, peer-reviewed sources need to be held accountable, as they are often controlled by hegemonically biased academics.

Hegemonic elitism has given rise to Activist Journalism, seeking to provide a social movements’ side of a story, being unique from mainstream reports (Kawamoto, 2003). Mainstream media target Activists by ignoring issues entirely, using belittling and discrediting techniques with a heavily biased, condescending tone and style that contributes to public scepticism of journalism. However, the rise of social media platforms such as Twitter, the gathering and distribution of news and social movements has aided journalists as an aggregation and fact-checking tool. Social media has become an efficient way to distribute and gather news for all journalists, regardless of the topic.

It is important to acknowledge how the arrival of digital search engines, information aggregators and social media platforms, has led to a detrimental impact on traditional media organisations (Meade, 2020). According to the Pew Research Centre in the United States of America, employment in traditional print media newsrooms had dropped by 23 percent from the year 2008 to 2019 (Grieco, 2020). Several large players in the media industry, including News Corp. and The New York Times, have moved from providing online content free of charge to implementing “paywalls” where readers are charged a fee for accessing content online (Chiou & Tucker, 2013).

As print media declines, in-house Public Relations (PR) teams have shifted to self-sufficiency, instead of a reliance on journalists for the coverage of company news (McKenzie, 2015). A company’s reputation is seen to be more fragile and vulnerable, with the impact of social media (Lloyd & Toogood, 2014). PR teams protect the reputation of companies, institutions, and individuals. For example, BlueNotes is an online publication by the ANZ Bank’s PR Team, reports on its financial news to their business network (McKenzie, 2015).

The prominent example above of Fox Media above has shown how the ideals of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics were not adhered and extensively misled the public. Regardless of financial pressures, activist journalism and social media functionality, mainstream media’s hegemonic bias, attitudes of elitism and a disregard for ethical journalism have contributed to the journalism industry’s recidivation.

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