Consumer Confidence in News Craters

News in a tailspin
There are some products in this world that require, no, demand confidence.

• You want to be confident the car you buy isn’t going to be a lemon.

• You want to make sure the home you live in isn’t going to end up being a money pit.

• You want to know that the litany of side effects listed at the end of drug commercials won’t hurt you more than the drug helps you.

All of these things require consumer confidence in the quality of the product.

Just like so many things, when confidence in an industry dips, the ability of that industry to regain the lost ground becomes more difficult. Human nature is such that people rarely remember the good things, but will go out of their way to remember the bad things. Its about self-preservation. This is why its important for most businesses to try to avoid getting caught up in bad things. Unfortunately, the focus lately in too much of the business community has been about avoiding getting caught rather than avoiding bad behavior. When they do get caught, confidence in that company, or even the industry that company is in drops.

And so it goes with the beleaguered news industry. After years of cutbacks in print and broadcast news operations, coupled with the proliferation of commentary masquerading as news, people have lost confidence in the news business according to a recent poll conducted by Gallup.

Don’t let the headline fool you. They say its about TV news, but print isn’t doing any better. All told, both broadcast and print news have lost 15 points of confidence since 1974, now hovering in the mid to low 20’s.

The reasons for this drop is less clear. It may have something to do with the way our country consumes news, or the stratification of public opinion. It could be related to the varying degrees of coverage and the way some organizations pass along talking points as fact, with little or no verification. It could have something to do with the crowded space that news is competing in, or the fact that, due to paywalls, information is becoming less accessible to people who lack the financial resources for cable or internet. It may be related to the 30+ year assault on the “Liberal Media”. Or it might have something to do with the reduction of boots on the ground resources in the form of reporters working a beat, who are now stretched thin, and their stories edited even thinner.

Last year, after news broke of the paywall at the Commercial Appeal, Ed Arnold talked about the paywall. One thing he said, and its stuck with me ever since:

…those things, the idea that you can make something more efficiently…those things are very interesting and useful when you’re making something. When you’re producing a product and you figure out how to make it 5% cheaper without breaking it…there’s some way to butt up against it right because at a certain point you make it too cheap and people won’t buy it anymore because its a cheap piece of crap, but now you’ve broken yourself.

But with media, there’s a certain amount of touch..especially with news media…where there’s a certain amount of “how close to the edge can we get?”…”How cheap can we make this thing without breaking it?” And the problem is that it makes it also feel like a worthless product when you do that.

You kind of have to wonder if that’s not what’s going on here.

The big takeaway, I think, is this:

  • We need news to ensure our society can function. That’s one of the reasons freedom of the press is in the 1st amendment.
  • We need that news to be credible, and fair. We need to know that the people reporting the news are asking the hard questions. Softballs aren’t helping us any.
  • We need robust coverage, that delves into the details. Sure, not everyone immediately wants that, but we need it to be available so there’s a record to go back to.
  • We need news to play a long game in coverage. So much of our lives are quick hits that offer little if any background. By playing the long game we can have our memories jogged and gain a greater understanding of what’s really going on.
  • Finally, we need our public officials to be honest brokers. Go to the Politifact TN Personalities page. Click on the elected officials, politicians, and political organizations you see there. If most of the time they’re not telling the truth, why should you believe anything they say? (I understand this isn’t exhaustive coverage, but it is a good indicator of truthfulness)
  • But beyond that, we also need the news to step up and fulfill that role that has helped us become a great nation. We need them to look for the good and the bad and report it so we have a clear grasp of what’s going on in our world. We need the news to assure us they’ve got real skin in the game beyond profit margins. I understand news is a business, but it can’t JUST be a business. Its a trust.

    Without that trust, we’re in a lot of trouble.

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