Deep Dive

The Roots of America’s Distrust in the Media

Joan Lunden, an award-winning journalist and best-selling author, provides her insights on the changes in the media industry and political arena that have played a role in the increasing distrust of journalists and politicians.  

How has it happened that Americans have such a distrust in journalists? And not only journalists, Americans are equally distrustful of their government. According to a 2022 Pew Research Study, only 20% of participants trust the government in Washington, believing it consistently does the right thing. And when it comes to the political candidates themselves, 65% said they felt that most candidates run for office “to serve their own personal interests.”

To better understand how we got to this point where so many Americans distrust politicians and journalists, we can look at the many changes that have taken place over the past several decades, both in the media industry and in the political realm that have created somewhat of a perfect storm.

In the political arena, if we think back to the lifestyle of politicians in the 60s and 70s, that was a time when members of Congress moved with their families to Washington DC when they were elected. Which meant that Democrats and Republicans often lived in the same communities, and their children went to the same schools, so they stood shoulder to shoulder on the side of the soccer fields and cheered for the same school team together.  There was a camaraderie that existed amongst members of Congress.

When it came time to go back to their home states for a break, they may very well have shared a ride with a colleague from the other side of aisle. Those were “the good old days” when problem solving was easier in DC — where you could expect respectful discourse and compromise in order to get legislation passed.

Today, those in Congress often keep their families back in the state they represent since they are required to be there so often themselves for campaigning and fundraising. Without the camaraderie that came with that “community togetherness,” the two parties have grown apart and become literally pitted against each other to the point of holding up badly needed legislation, just for the sake of not letting the other side get it passed. 

The media industry has also seen enormous change throughout these decades, both in technology and tone.  When I entered the field in the 70s there were very few women on local or network news. And let’s not forget, there were only three major networks: ABC, CBS, and NBC. 

When I began co-anchoring Good Morning America in the late 70s with David Hartman — he even advised me to not to register a party affiliation, because we didn’t want anyone to see us as having a bias.  It was at a time when we would never discuss our personal religion, or our views on political or social issues. It was our goal to make sure that if you watched us moderate a debate between two people with opposing views — that when that debate ended — you wouldn’t be able to distinguish what our opinion was on the issue. 

I remember moderating a debate between Tipper Gore, whose husband Al Gore would later become our vice-president, and Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead.  Tipper helped to found a group called Parents Music Resource which advocated a rating system for music albums, based on their violent and sexually explicit lyrics.  They wanted record stores to put stickers on albums with explicit lyrics. There was, of course, pushback from musicians for what they saw as an act of censorship — especially by Frank Zappa and Jerry Garcia.

My job in that debate between Gore and Garcia was straight and simple — it was to illicit their opinions on the issue, moderate the discussion, and perhaps some discourse. I was not to give my opinion on the freedom of speech, nor was I to express any concern as a parent of young children.

After the debate, we got lots of mail (there was no social media, email, or even internet back then) and the viewers all had their own idea of how I felt about the issue, some sensing I favored another mom, Tipper, and the other half felt I’d truly been there to defend freedom of speech. Regardless of our efforts to always remain unbiased, people viewed us through their own lens…  and frankly, their own bias.

Another GMA debate I recall moderating was about women’s rights — and the growing number of working women — and frankly what women’s roles should be in our society. 

The debate was between the president of the National Organization of Women (NOW) Eleanor Smeal, and Phyllis Schlafly who was a staunch defender of keeping women in the home.

Once again, my goal was to be neutral and once again, the mail was split between “Joan you were obviously on the side espousing the rights of working women, since you are one.” Others thanked me for defending stay at home moms.  Again, through their own lenses.

But oh, how we use to try to NEVER let our own opinion be known — that was our mission, that was our goal. That was the standard we lived by every day as we reported the news and conducted interviews. So how did we get from those good old days to where we are now? Well, there were a lot of major technological advancements which resulted in some major changes in news gathering and news reporting.

The first major change that I remember, in the mid to late 70s , was a change in how we captured our stories.  Journalists had always shot stories with a film crew, it was sort of like making mini movies. You travelled with a crew made up of a camera man, a lighting technician, and a sound technician. After shooting the story on film and returning to the station, you had time to reflect on what you’d seen and heard and how to best tell the story while the film was developing. 

Then came the introduction of video or ENG, electronic news gathering. No longer did you need that film crew of three — with ENG a story could be covered with one camera person (who could now easily handle audio and lights) along with the reporter, and sometimes, the video operator could go alone and even capture interviews without a reporter.

That advancement of video technology soon led to the use of microwave links to quickly send the footage from the scene of a story back to the studio. This not only cut costs for stations, but it greatly reduced the time — or as broadcasters looked at it, the delay — between the time the footage was captured and the time when it could be on air.   

Then news stations got microwave or satellite trucks which allowed news reporters to go live from the scene of a story. So, our jobs as reporters transitioned. We now went to a story in a “satellite truck with a dish on top” so that we could report instantly from the location.

I remember the first time I was sent to do a live, “on location” story. We had just taken delivery of our first van at Eyewitness News and we pulled up in front of this huge demonstration. I was still in the truck putting my earpiece into my ear, and as I did, I heard the director from the control room back in the WABC studio say “Joan, can you hear me? Standby we are coming to you in 30 seconds.”  I hadn’t yet had a chance to assess the situation there on the ground or speak to anyone. I only had the wire copy given to me as we walked out of the newsroom. I knew at that moment that covering news as we knew it had changed dramatically. Now stations would be pressured to be the first on the air with the story, and with live coverage from the scene. 

I really think it was that changing combination — that new media mentality of wanting to be “on the scene” anywhere and everywhere, and the need to be FIRST, and frankly, the public’s new and emerging mentality of expecting the news media to be instantly at the scene of every news story — that created what happened next. 

In the summer of 1980, Ted Turner announced he was starting a 24-hour news channel called CNN.  Candidly, we all scratched our heads. Really?  How are they going to fill 24 hours a day? Would people have an appetite for that? And how was that going to affect our industry?

Back when the concept of a 24/7 news cycle was still so new, it was difficult for us to imagine how more and more 24-hour news channels would take off and become TV staples, followed by 24-hour entertainment channels and eventually 24-hour shopping channels where you could buy products all through the wee hours of the night. And, as this began to happen, it meant that ALL of them were competing 24/7 for our attention. 

So in retrospect, it’s not surprising how the industry dramatically changed with the new “urgency to be first,” and the requirement to come up with enough content, and of doing all of this with the growing competition amongst so many news channels.  Ah, but more changes were still in store. 

When I hosted Good Morning America from 1978 to almost 1998, we didn’t have laptops like you see at every anchor person’s desk on TV news programs today. 

Writers put together massive research packets that were delivered to our home in the evening. It wasn’t until after I left Good Morning America that everyone got personal laptops — and then, rather than messengers deliver reams of research, it was all sent digitally.

By the early 1990s, another new technological development would begin to sweep the world — it was called “the world-wide web.” We would all come to know it as the internet.  

And seriously, after all the other technological advancements I’ve talked about that have impacted journalism and news gathering — none can compete with the effect that the internet had on the media industry. 

The internet’s easy accessibility offered an immediacy of information that no other news medium could match. It has irrevocably changed news gathering and news reporting and it has accelerated the pace of the news, as journalists race to stay ahead of each other.

In the 1990s, we saw the introduction of the cell phone for popular consumer use.  I don’t think we could have even imagined at that time what a profound impact that little phone would have on media, as flip phones literally transformed into tiny, hand-held computers. 

In 1998, as I was leaving GMA, we saw the introduction of Google. Charlie Gibson and I had never had the advantage of Googling someone we were about to interview to fact check something. 

The next decade, the 2000s, brought us social media.  Facebook in 2003, Twitter in 2006, Instagram in 2010.  But once it got started, we began to get a proliferation of social media platforms along with activist websites, which have all brought us to this place today… where just about anyone can push information — sometimes made-up information —out to the public on these platforms. 

As more people consume their news via social media, it can be difficult for Americans to be able to discern real information from misinformation. Digital and social media have allowed just about anyone to become content creators, podcasters, or bloggers. Not many are professional journalists, and yet the field sure is crowded. 

Real journalism needs credible resources and reliable research with which to work. But in today’s world, you can go viral without either.

Research has shown that social media is being used every week by more than two-thirds of all internet users to find, share, and discuss news content. This research also shows that among audiences aged 18-24, they get all information from their phones and social media is now their preferred news source. 

The next major change in the world of media was the introduction of news channels that were unapologetically representative of a particular political viewpoint. It all began with the Fox News channel, but in my opinion, even if other news channels didn’t officially change to represent an opposing viewpoint — there has been on the part of many other news channels, a sense that they need to offer a counter view. 

So political news channels have not only given their viewers a completely biased view of the news, but their mere existence has infiltrated mainstream, supposedly unbiased, news networks.   

As that change was happening in the media, I think it’s fair to say that we also began experiencing a societal change, in what the public feels is acceptable discourse and behavior, both on news programs and in our society.  

And it seems a stamp of approval has been given by some of those in the political realm, although politicians don’t have a corner on this market of name calling, making degrading statements about other people, and making accusations — whether fact based or not.

 We have a crisis in American civility.

I personally wish we could turn back the clock on this one, but I’m afraid we can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube as they say. So what do we do about this? How do we fix it?

As for the deliberate misinformation, which has had a lot to do with the publics mounting distrust, eight-in-ten Americans (79%) say they think there should be some restrictions imposed by the government and technology companies to help eliminate news and information intended to mislead — however, 20% say it is more important that the freedom to access and publish it be protected1

The biggest obstacle people see standing in the way of addressing made-up news stories — misinformation — is the political division in the country. In fact, close to six-in-ten Americans (57%) think that political leaders and their staff are creating a good deal of the problem of intentionally divisive information in the press releases they put out.

Others put the blame on political and activist groups, people other than journalists, and yet, they still believe the job of fixing this problem falls mainly to the news media. However, I don’t just think this is just a challenge for the media. I think it’s a critical challenge for our country and for our democracy.

While the public may be looking to the media to fix the problem, I personally think that the “fix” will also need to come from the political arena as well… for politicians to look for ways to tamp down the animosity, the distrust, the disrespect, the divisive talk, and the tendency to be intractable, and unwilling to compromise.

Today, one can find it difficult to still describe the two parties in the same way as in the past because the fringes, on both sides of the aisle, have so impacted their party’s general behavior. It has put the two parties at odds. The polarization we face today isn’t just about believing the other side is wrong, for some it means seeing the other party’s members as being immoral forces.

The important work of the Congress, to pass needed legislation and maintain our democracy has been brought to a standstill in recent days because of these divisive forces. They make the public forget how much we have in common and that we disagree on policy issues far less than most people think. Frankly, I think the American public is exhausted from it all.

It won’t necessarily be easy, but the stakes are so high. It is our democracy and our incredible way of life that we have here in America that is worth the effort.

In closing, it is my sincere hope that I have continued my personal mission as a journalist, to share information with you in such a way that you could not glean from my writings whether I am a Republican or a Democrat. If I succeeded in that, then I am still hitting my standard as a journalist.

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