By Al Cross
Director and Professor, Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, University of Kentucky
This is Media Literacy Week, an observance established in 2015 to promote education in media literacy, which can be defined as an understanding of media, their role in society and the ability to analyze messages and the media outlets that produce them. It seems needed more than ever.
The latest evidence is The New York Times-Siena College poll of 792 registered voters Oct. 9-12. One of its main questions was, "Which comes closest to your views, even if neither is exactly right: American democracy is currently under threat, or American democracy is not currently under threat?"
The results: 74 percent said democracy is under threat and 20% said it isn't. Those who said it is under threat were asked, "What one or two words do you think summarize the current threat to democracy?" The leading response, from 13%, was "the government," "government corruption" and non-specific politicians or leaders; 10% said Donald Trump; 9% said societal divisions, political divisions or polarization; 6% or less named other politicians, political parties or movements such as nationalism, white nationalism or right-wing extremism, which collectively were named by 5%.
"The media" was named by less than half of 1%, but when asked, "Do you think each of the following is a major threat, minor threat or not a threat to democracy?" and given a list of choices, "the mainstream media" were identified as the leading major threat, by 59%; another 24% called them a minor threat, and only 16% said they are not a threat.
|Rural Blog table, from New York Times-Siena College poll data|
Perhaps those of us in the news media can take solace in the fact that hardly any voters first volunteered "media" as a threat, but media are not on top of voters' minds. When reminded of us, they reflect the concerns like those seen in the latest Gallup poll
about trust and confidence in "the mass media, such as newspapers, TV and radio." It found that for the first time, a plurality of Americans say they have no confidence in the mass media "when it comes to reporting the news fully, accurately and fairly."
Rural news media might say, "This isn't about us," and to a limited extent that's true. A March poll
of 1,000 adults for the National Newspaper Association
, in ZIP codes where NNA members publish, asked "how much you trust" what various sources "say when it comes to learning about candidates for public office." On a scale of 1 to 10, local newspapers scored 7.38, TV stations 6.45, radio news 5.58, mail from candidates or parties 4.63 and social media 2.65. But how much do voters really discern among sources of information when they're not being asked questions about them? A lot less than we might hope, I suspect. Editors and publishers all over the nation have told me they're being tarred with the brushes that both ends of the political spectrum use to smear news media.
Notice I wrote "news media," not just "media," a distinction that too many news media fail to make (as well as failing to render the word as plural). In a saturated media environment, more and more people have difficulty distinguishing among types of media, and between fact and opinion, and news media need to remind them of some basic principles. It can be put pretty simply:
News media pay for journalism, which practices a discipline of verification; we tell you how we know something, or we attribute information to someone. We're mainly about fact, not opinion. Social media are mainly about opinion, not fact, and have little is any discipline or verification. Which do you trust?
|Screenshot of New York Times-Siena College poll table, with social media line highlighted; to enlarge, click on it.|