Who is “The Media”?
President Trump constantly has a beef with “the media.” He’s not alone. Surveys consistently show widespread distrust of “the media.” The complaints? Journalists are inaccurate, biased and unfair. Or as the president has said, they are “the most dishonest human beings on Earth.”
But what is “the media”?
In a column several years ago, veteran Washington Post journalist Paul Farhi implored people to “Please stop calling us ‘the media’” – a term he described as “so imprecise and generic that it has lost any meaning.”
“The media,” he wrote, is “essentially shorthand for anything you read, saw or heard today that you disagreed with or didn’t like.”
“Fact is, there really is no such thing as ‘the media,’” he went on. “It’s an invention, a tool, an all-purpose smear by people who can’t be bothered to make distinctions.”
He’s correct. But it remains a popular rallying cry for politicians who condemn “the media” for stories critical of them – even when those news reports are demonstrably true. And some commentators have turned attacks on “the media” into a lucrative sport, even though they are members of the same ill-defined group they so relentlessly scorn.
Researchers say the term “the media” was first used as a singular, collective noun roughly a century ago and referred to the printed word – namely newspapers. But in the Digital Age, “the media” can include scores of cable and broadcast outlets, hundreds of local TV stations, thousands of newspapers and magazines, tens of thousands of websites, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, blogs, podcasts and platforms like YouTube.
So why aren’t critics of “the media” more precise about their targets? Why not identify news offending organizations by name? One answer is that it’s easier – and more effective – to portray the media as a monolithic enemy.
Another reason is that their attacks would carry much less weight if they were specific. While surveys reflect a low level of trust in “the media,” those levels rise sharply when the same respondents are asked to rate “the media outlet you rely on most.” In many cases, that news outlet has an ideological slant that reinforces their own – what is known as “confirmation bias.” And trust levels rise when respondents are asked about their source for community news, like a local TV station where they develop a bond with the anchors or reporters. Think of it this way: It’s easy to collectively disparage all “lying, corrupt politicians.” It’s harder to ridicule an elected member of your town council who lives just down the street.
The University of Missouri’s “Trusting News” project has done extensive research to understand what people mean when they deride “the media.” In many cases, they report, “people were talking about national journalism – and more specifically, national political journalism.” The researchers’ advice to local media outlets: brand yourselves as members of the community. Show you “know your community values, and demonstrate you share those values.” In promotions, use phrases like, “We’re your neighbors” or “We reflect life in our community.” And distinguish yourself from big national news outlets by explaining “what you have control over (local content) and what you do not (Nightly News, wire services, etc.).”
News media outlets – national and local – have historically done a poor job of explaining how they do their jobs and why their journalism is important. That’s part of the problem. Citizens have a hard time comprehending how journalists operate – everything from how they decide what to cover to how they deal with confidential sources. And too many don’t grasp the critical role of free and independent journalism in reporting unpleasant truths. As the Founders envisioned, it is the patriotic duty of journalists to hold the powerful accountable.
Those who persistently attack “the media” have effectively exploited this confusion and lack of civic awareness, often describing the role of a journalist as a cheerleader or PR agent for a candidate or cause.
Despite ugly condemnations of “the media,” record numbers of citizens have been turning to well-established news organizations for quality information during the pandemic. Many outlets, large and small, have said their news-hungry audiences have more than doubled.
The sad irony is that thousands of journalists have lost their jobs in recent weeks as advertising-dependent news outlets teeter on the brink of financial ruin. The performance of independent journalists and media outlets during the crisis has been magnificent and heroic (many reporters remain on the front lines). And that prompts a question: If journalists and their news organizations disappear, what will be left of “the media” for critics to attack?