A dangerous rift
2020 saw a global pandemic spread largely unchecked in the U.S. amid a recession, acknowledgment of pervasive, systemic racism, and one of the most contentious elections in American history. Tensions have run high. Research groups like the Pew Research Center and Reuters Institute have been tracking media skepticism for years, and 2020’s numbers reveal disturbing trends. Fueled by the rampant dissemination and widespread acceptance of disinformation, the erosion of confidence in legitimate news sources has without a doubt become a partisan issue. And the consequences of this rift are not only perplexing, but dangerous.
By and large, Americans are more confident than not that news coverage of traditional outlets during COVID-19 is accurate. But according to a mid-pandemic study by Pew Research, “what seems to be an unbreakable rift – even in a time of crisis – is the continued disconnect between the two parties in attitudes toward journalists and the content they produce.” This study revealed that while 66% of Democrats or Democratic leaning voters believe the news they consume is accurate, just under a third of Republicans or Republican leaning voters are confident in the legitimacy of mainstream news coverage.
A recent study of the Reuters Institute’s “Trust In News” project confirmed the sharpening partisan divide in media trust and consumption. It also revealed that few people are aware of what goes into a journalist’s work.
“So long as few know what goes into reporting and confirming information,” the study’s authors wrote, “audiences cannot be expected to differentiate between brands using informed assessments about newsgathering practices, which themselves vary considerably in quality.”
On a daily basis, journalists are confirming facts, identifying reliable sources, and forming ethical guidelines to ensure the stories they tell are accurate, transparent, and beneficial for their readers and subjects alike. Ironically, the lack of information is precisely what is driving suspicion of the information distributed by legitimate news sources.
For the past year, eMagazines has interviewed journalists, photographers, and editors from some of the world’s most trusted magazines in an effort to showcase the hard work and relentless pursuit of facts that distinguish professional, nonpartisan magazines from the rest of the media noise. What we found was a universal dedication to ethics, intensive research, and unwavering curiosity.
Yasmeen Serhan of The Atlantic described a process that included multiple interviews with experts, painstaking fact-checking and layers of editing that ensure quote and fact accuracy. Photojournalist Ximena Natera revealed that her ethics are so interconnected with her process that she can’t separate them.
National Geographic’s Michele Ardu compared the intake of unreliable sources to “going to a pharmacy and buying medicine from somebody who doesn’t even know what paracetamol [acetaminophen] is. It’s the same thing when you’re buying news, you’re buying information- not only opinion, you are buying analysis of facts.”
And yet, ignorance begets more than antagonism. It also breeds violence.
The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker is a nonpartisan website that tracks violence and aggression against those in the news media. This year, they recorded a 641% increase in reported cases of violence against journalists from last year. Given the heated rhetoric falsely discrediting journalists as players in the unfamiliar territory of partisan politics, skepticism in their legitimacy is perhaps not surprising. That number, however, is nearly unfathomable.
Arrests of journalists rose from nine in 2019 to 113 in 2020, according to the same database. Myriad accounts exist of arrests or violent attacks tied to journalists covering Black Lives Matter protests, including against journalists displaying nothing but press credentials.
Clearly, journalists face incredible challenges. And clearly, they are needed now more than ever. With COVID-19 cases exploding across the country and public health crises drawing the world ever closer together, accurate information unspoiled by political agenda is vital. “Public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice,” writes the Society for Professional Journalists, “and the foundation of democracy.”
Each Behind the Page feature is meant not only to combat media illiteracy, but also to tangibly demonstrate our respect and admiration for journalists. The stories they create bring the world to us, and their fact-based analysis puts it into proper context. In interviewing staff from publications as diverse as Mother Jones, Condé Nast Traveler, and Rolling Stone, the most common denominator among the staff was the ethics that bound each person and governed their professional conduct.
At their core, these ethics create a framework for reporters’ behavior. They ensure the content we read is reliably sourced and independently verified. And at eMagazines, we are proud to call these remarkable storytellers our partners.