KERRY HUBARTT COLUMN: Majority of citizens have faith in journalism

Kerry Hubartt

News-Sentinel.com has twice editorialized in recent weeks in defense of journalists in the wake of President Trump’s continued attacks on the media in general as perpetrators of “fake news.”

Our defense has been that most journalists are professionals with ethical standards of reporting, fact-checking and fairness. We have objected strongly to the president’s repeated broad-brush condemnation of the media.

The Poynter Institute of St. Petersburg, Fla., an organization I highly respect as a bastion of proper journalism training and support, on Aug. 22 released its second Media Trust Survey, which concluded that about three-fourths of Americans trust their local newspapers. That is an encouragement to those of us who try to do our best in providing the most accurate and fair news coverage and commentary to you, the readers we serve.

Poynter first conducted a Media Trust Survey last November, but President Trump has continued his “fake news” attacks as well as calling news coverage he dislikes inaccurate and biased against him. So Poynter says it conducted another survey of 2,000 Americans in late July in order to “understand the state of trust in the news media.”

The findings showed 73 percent of Americans have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in their local newspapers, and 76 percent in their local television news. It is significant to note that 59 percent of Americans trust national newspapers, 55 percent national network news and 47 percent trust online-only news outlets, according to the survey.

Breaking the results down politically, 62 percent of Republicans said they trust their local newspapers (as opposed to 29 percent trusting national papers), while 71 percent said they trust local TV news in their community (as opposed to 28 percent trusting national network TV news). Democrats had high levels of trust across the board — 86 percent trust news media overall, and 88 percent trust their local newspaper.

Of course, that’s good news for us and other local media outlets where the public has had a long and much closer relationship with local news providers.

“Local journalism connects with people where they live and in ways that are relevant to their daily lives,” wrote Poynter President Neil Brown. “Trust comes when there is a relationship, and for lots of people, even those with great interest in national affairs, the more personal relationship is with their local news source.”

Still, the survey produced some alarming results that are of concern to news executives and front-line reporters, says Poynter.

Forty-two percent of Americans surveyed believe the news media fabricate stories frequently. And more than one quarter of Americans said the federal government should have the power to revoke broadcast licenses of major news organizations it says are fabricating stories.

Poynter’s study found that 36 percent of Trump supporters supported draconian restraints on the press, and it is feared that much of that sentiment has been fomented by the president’s attacks against news reports that are unfavorable to his administration.

The Supreme Court has made it clear that the First Amendment protects statements made about public officials unless they are false and intended to defame. Only “reckless disregard for the truth” is unprotected.

Let us never let the government decide these things — that would be letting the fox guard the henhouse.

Kerry Hubartt is former editor of The News-Sentinel.

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