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Business - Written by on Sunday, February 1, 2009 14:25 - 2 Comments

Newspapers – A Miscarriage of Public Trust?

It seems that information consumers have gotten a little more reluctant to place their trust in what used to be the main window into their world: newspapers. According to a study done by Edelman gauging the faith Americans had in their institutions, newspapers ranked below banks (36% trusted banks vs. 34% for newspapers). You read that correctly, the group that includes Mr. Thain’s former company ranks higher than the group that contains The New York Times and The Washington Post.

Why have newspapers fallen from grace in such dramatic fashion? I wrote an article a few months ago about Rupert Murdoch’s take on what the future holds for newsprint, but his words had given me confidence that they could compete in the opinion and analysis niche. I don’t think editorial boards can trade on that angle if the public thinks they’re run by a team of J.J. Hunseckers.

After seeing a comment posted on Floyd Norris’ blog discussing this same study, it came to me that Murdoch’s thoughts of having people go to alternative media for facts, but return to newspapers for the “insight and analysis” was indeed the problem. The crux of the comment on Norris’ blog was:

“Look at your own newspaper some time with the eyes of a reader who does not receive a paycheck from the NYT – opinion disguised as fact, ‘news analysis’ (contrary to the views of your editors, your readers are capable of assessing information and drawing our own conclusions), constant editorializing and, sad to say, bias in what is or is not “fit” to print based on ideology.”

So apparently using newspapers as an opinion platform is OK if such writing is confined to the Op/Ed pages—but if it bleeds into other sections it becomes a far different and more dangerous animal. So why this backlash now? I think it may be an issue of better diagnosis—and underlines the need for the public to reframe the roles “traditional” (TV, Radio, Print) and “alternative” (blogs, twitter, online magazines) media play in their information intake.

Net Geners (people turning 32 this year and younger) have been inundated with user-generated content, much of which is hyperbolic speculation without a semblance of a fact or citation. As a consequence, they’ve had to evolve sharp lie detectors to help guide the process of separating the wheat from the chaff. Here at Wikinomics, we call that the “Scrutinizers Norm” that has helped shape this generation’s ability to effectively use and interpret the online pandemonium. Given their “trust, but verify” mindset, are newspapers actually more biased now than before? Or are we more confident on calling them out on it, now that we have access to bases for comparison via the Internet?

Secondly, perhaps we need to ask whether newspapers were indeed the relationship to put our trust in the first place. Most are part of the corporate system and have been for some time—effectively marginalizing their ability to live up to the romantic ideals of the Fourth Estate espoused by the Woodwards and Bernsteins of the world. Did they violate our trust? Or shame on us for not seeing though their agendas? I guess it depends on where you feel responsibility for seeking the truth lies.


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Wikinomics» Blog Archive » TIME tells newspaper industry how to save itself
Feb 20, 2009 16:38

[...] more Wikinomics analysis of the newspaper industry, read previous posts here, here, and [...]

Mar 8, 2009 9:20

I’ll quote this reader’s comment from the Guardian, in an article about police photographing protesters and keeping surveillance databases on non-criminals. This is the British police of course.


Here’s the relevant quote:

“Mayday 2000 the police kettled about 10,000 demonstrators in Trafalgar Square shortly after they left Parliament green and kept them cordoned like cattle for over 6 hours without water or access to toilets. Demonstrators were let out one at a time at which point photos were taken and names and addresses recorded. This has happened twice to me in eight years and the only reason the police would be interested in knowing who I am is to target and monitor me in the future. There was not a peep from the media about this infringement of civil liberties then, instead the media smeared the demonstrators as rioters and malcontents, as they have continued to do whenever people gather to register their disgust with this craven government.”

It should be reasonably obvious that the constantly rising police powers right around the Western world are rightly a cause of concern for a great many decent citizens. Whichever way you want to stand on the issue, we can all see that there IS an issue. The Guardian is probably one of the most liberal newspapers on earth and even the Guardian has been very cautious about reporting anything even slightly negative about the steady march of police powers and erosion of individual liberty. In this particular case, police systematically acted outside the law, (and you can be sure that no one will be punished for that) but this is not the only case, just one of the few cases to be reported in a mainstream newspaper.

What I’m getting at here is that newspapers somehow think that readers are too stupid to notice when whole classes of story just get blacked out and never get reported on. Then the papers moan and cry when people shift to alternative sources of information and call out “But you need us!”

They really should have thought of that when people’s liberties were getting stomped down, and they turned away. The answer of the people to the crying newspapers is, “But you failed us!”

If ever there was a suitable subject for participatory regulation, police conduct would be the one (and particularly the conduct of those who are in charge of the police).

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