By Jon Funabiki
These are Trumpling times for journalists in America.
They failed to detect the extent of candidate Donald J.Trump’s appeal to voters, and so they utterly miscalled last November’s presidential election.
They have been trampled over by a combative and unpredictable President Trump and his lieutenants, who castigate the news media as “dishonest” liars, “opposition” conspirators and “a failing pile of garbage.”
And they are befuddled by the fact that many people don’t care about facts and seem more willing to accept “alternative facts” and fake news.
So how do journalists respond? With more facts, naturally. Journalists have meticulously analyzed aerial photos to counter President Trump’s assertions about the size of his inauguration crowd. They’ve debunked his claim that massive voter fraud by undocumented immigrants deprived him of winning the popular vote. They debate endlessly whether to use the terms lie, lies and liars in headlines. And they’ve found partial relief in Facebook’s recent campaign to root out another nemesis, fake news websites.
This emphasis on facts is necessary, but insufficient. The news media suffer an ongoing—and increasing—crisis in credibility. Survey after survey draws the same dismal conclusion: Levels of trust in the news media remain very, very low. The Pew Research Center finds that only 2 out of 10 Americans trust their local news outlets, and only 18 percent trust the national ones. The good news is that 75 percent of Americans believe that journalists can be vital government watchdogs, à la Richard Nixon, Watergate and The Washington Post. The problem is that 75 percent of Americans also conclude that journalists are biased.
These findings depress serious journalists who honestly believe (as I do) that they are following Superman’s credo—“Truth, Justice and the American Way”—as they attempt to ferret out crooks, frauds and tyrants in office.
Credibility doesn’t turn so much on facts as it does on confidence. President Trump’s genius was in recognizing that millions of people feel disenfranchised by The New York Times, CNN and other reputable news outlets. He swooped in to fill the vacuum. President Trump’s supporters don’t care about his massive fibs because they believe he cares for them. The fact that the news media vastly underestimated Trump’s supporters only shows that journalists neither understand, nor recognize, them.
A parallel phenomenon can be seen in the development of the ethnic news media in the United States. From the earliest times, newspapers not only ignored minority communities, but often were openly hostile to them. Colonial America’s first newspaper, Publick Occurrences Both Foreign and Domestick, printed blatantly racist stories about “barbarious Indians” and “rebellious Negroes.” Freedom’s Journal, the nation’s first African Americans newspaper, was necessary because blacks needed a voice of their own to counter the whiteness of the existing media.
It sounds like I’m arguing for more coverage of people from Trumpland. Yes, I’m all for more stories. But more importantly, news organizations need to deepen their relationships with communities across the country. People want to know that the institutions of news recognize them, listen to them and have their interests in mind. News outlets need to show that what they produce is so relevant and vital that it’s a life-or-death service. This will require a boots-on-the-ground approach in the communities they purport to serve.
We still haven’t solved the disconnect between news outlets and communities of color. A journalist once told me that the secret of the ethnic media’s success—and why their readers, listeners and viewers remain so loyal—is all about the intimacy of the relationship. Mainstream news outlets report about ethnic communities, while ethnic news outlets belong to the community.
“There’s a little bit of me in you (the community), and little bit of you in me,” he said.
We still need to learn this lesson.