Distrust the media, but don’t disregard it

Marcus Clem | Collegio Reporter

I’m about to enter a career that is in big trouble.
On Sept. 21, The Gallup Organization, well known for its titan status in the business of public sentiment research, published a poll. This poll showed that at more than at any other time on record, Americans distrust the national mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly.
A total of 60 percent of Americans reported to Gallup that they hold this alarmingly negative sentiment. Of even greater concern may be a poll showing that only 39 percent of Americans say that they follow the news, any news, closely. That number is up this year, from 35 percent in 2011, but election years always witness a slight bump that will evaporate once the polls are closed.
Taken together, these polls convey for a student of journalism a terrifying implication: The vast majority of your potential customers not only cannot be sold on your product but won’t even listen to your sales pitch. Forget, for a moment, that I might be shooting myself in the foot by getting into this field. After all, people have no real reason to care. Judging by the polls, the chances of them doing that are slim.
Instead of deriving wry humor from my abject misfortune, you should be alarmed. The implications of a misinformed society affect all of us. Already we are witnessing the problem of people exercising their right to vote on the basis of bad information. This bad information is often injected with a hyper-partisan flavor.
In this campaign season alone, the instances of groups like political action committees openly distorting information have been legion. Sometimes, they cut lies out of whole cloth.
These groups commit offenses against the public good, offenses like suggesting Barack Obama hates capitalism and small-business owners by using words from a speech about bridges and highways. Then there is the labeling of Mitt Romney as unpatriotic because he has foreign investments. And nine times out of 10, the media are simply repeating these distortions instead of correcting them. Even worse, some so-called “fair and balanced” reporters are hyping the distortions.
Make no mistake: Politicians are happy when polls show that the man on the street does not pay attention to the news. They know that an improperly informed public is much more easily exploited and manipulated.
Apathy about matters of state compounds the damage of political extremism. In primary elections and other low-turnout political contests, people vote on their perception of one issue or even one person, to the exclusion of everything else. This process decides who gets to make a run for office in the first place. In effect, the stray dogs of society get to elect the dogcatcher.
So how do we address this problem and, coincidentally, keep food on my table?
If you are apathetic about the information available to you, define and refine your apathy. Ignore for a moment that instinct to just declare a pox on all our journalism houses. Pay attention to the broadest swath of media possible. Do it for a few days, and determine for yourself who is providing the best information. Ignore all declarations from third parties that one source is better than another. Determine that for yourself.
Most important, always be aware that each and every human being on this Earth, journalist or no, has a bias and an agenda. Your decision as to where to get your information from should not be based on who is not biased. Reality often agrees with one bias and disagrees with another. If someone is telling you not to pay attention to the media, ask them why they are saying that, and make them defend their response.
And if you’ve made it this far, keep reading The Collegio. We are just students with no reason to care about anything other than other students and the welfare of us all. We certainly aren’t in this for money, and we’re best at professional reporting because we are learning it, right now, from a pretty good university and program for our profession.
That is my bias. What is yours?

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