Per­ceived bi­ases, at­tacks erode trust in the press

Northern Berks Patriot Item - - OPINION - Lata Nott Colum­nist Lata Nott is ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the First Amend­ment Cen­ter at the New­seum In­sti­tute in Wash­ing­ton, D.C.

Award­ing a grade to a con­cept like press free­dom might seem like an im­pos­si­ble task, but here at the First Amend­ment Cen­ter we give it our best shot.

In April of last year, we be­gan com­pil­ing quar­terly First Amend­ment re­port cards, re­ly­ing on a panel of 15 ex­perts from across the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum — aca­demics, ac­tivists, jour­nal­ists and lawyers — to eval­u­ate the state of each of our core free­doms.

In our lat­est re­port card , which came out in Jan­uary, free­dom of the press earned a C grade, mak­ing it the most delin­quent of the five free­doms pro­tected by the First Amend­ment (speech, press, re­li­gion, as­sem­bly and pe­ti­tion).

This grade re­flects the con­tentious re­la­tion­ship that the press has with the cur­rent pres­i­den­tial ad­min­is­tra­tion.

In the past few months, Pres­i­dent Trump has called for the fir­ing of spe­cific jour­nal­ists, threat­ened to re­voke NBC’s FCC li­cense and taken le­gal ac­tion against Buz­zfeed, Fu­sion GPS, and Fire and Fury au­thor Michael Wolff.

“Pres­i­dent Trump’s at­tacks on the press took on a new level of tox­i­c­ity,” said Stephen Solomon, one of the pan­elists and a pro­fes­sor of First Amend­ment law at NYU. “The move from rhetoric to spe­cific threats and law­suits is a dan­ger­ous es­ca­la­tion.”

But the out­look for free­dom of the press isn’t en­tirely gloomy. Many of our pan­elists pointed out that de­spite these chal­lenges, the press con­tin­ues to ful­fill its watch­dog role and is en­gaged in more vig­or­ous and ef­fec­tive re­port­ing than ever be­fore.

Other pan­elists, like Brett Scharffs, pro­fes­sor of law at BYU, took an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent view of the con­flict.

“The Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion has pre­sented an un­prece­dented chal­lenge to the press, and the press has done a re­mark­able job of dis­cred­it­ing it­self,” he said.

He said it’s dif­fi­cult to read a story from any press source with­out tak­ing into ac­count the out­let’s per­ceived bi­ases.

“The prob­lem is not that the press is not free,” Scharffs said. “The press is free, but it has be­come much more dif­fi­cult to trust.”

Whether or not the press has dis­cred­ited it­self, it’s un­de­ni­able that the is­sue of trust in the me­dia has loomed large this past year.

The 2017 State of the First Amend­ment sur­vey re­vealed that less than half of Amer­i­cans be­lieve the news me­dia try to re­port the news with­out bias. (In­ter­est­ingly, more than half of re­spon­dents ex­pressed a pref­er­ence for news that aligns with their own views, demon­strat­ing that many Amer­i­cans may not view “bi­ased” news in a neg­a­tive light).

The specter of fake news also has af­fected the pub­lic’s abil­ity to be­lieve what they read. About one-third re­ported a de­crease in trust in news ob­tained from so­cial me­dia.

If there’s a sil­ver lin­ing to be found here, it might be that a re­cent fol­low-up sur­vey re­vealed that Amer­i­cans have been cop­ing with this un­cer­tain at­mos­phere by be­com­ing savvier news con­sumers.

About 30 per­cent of Amer­i­cans en­gage with news ev­ery day of the week, and al­most three out of four do some­thing to ver­ify the news they re­ceive — 72 per­cent of Amer­i­cans said they check what they read by look­ing for ad­di­tional in­for­ma­tion in other news sources.

Vir­tu­ally the same num­ber said they also test the va­lid­ity of what they have read or seen by talk­ing with oth­ers.

This is in­deed good news for the news busi­ness, since the power of the press largely de­pends on the good judg­ment of the au­di­ence.

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