Public faith in the media has endured a precipitous decline over decades, and that’s continued in the age of “fake” news.
Now, a commission of leaders — including Amy Gutmann, president of the University of Pennsylvania — has issued a 200-plus-page report on how to restore faith in the media and create more civically minded citizens.
“Crisis in Democracy: Renewing Trust in America,” produced by the Knight Foundation and the Aspen Institute, recommends that members of the media work together to launch a national campaign on the role of journalism and offer “radical transparency” on how journalists do their jobs.
“We all need to work to help people discern what’s truthful from what is really fake news," Gutmann said Monday. "We all need to work to also increase justifiable trust in responsible journalism.”
Gutmann was one of 27 Knight Commission members from a variety of disciplines, including academia, the arts, media and business, who developed the report. A Harvard-educated political scientist, Gutmann has written on the importance of compromise in politics and the ability to engage in robust discussion with political adversaries; she has brought both former Vice President Joe Biden, a Democrat, and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, a Republican, to Penn to teach. She also has been outspoken about the importance of a free press.
The Knight Commission report paints a dire picture of declining trust in the media and a free-for-all information landscape where citizens are getting news from less-than-reliable sources.
“Americans cannot assume that their fellow citizens are operating under the same set of facts,” the report said.
The sweeping report also calls for efforts to create more civic-minded citizens better able to evaluate information. Fewer than 25 percent of eighth graders could pass a basic proficiency test in civics in 2014, the report notes. State legislatures and colleges should consider incentives — including tuition benefits, student loan forgiveness and admission advantages — to encourage people to engage in a year of voluntary national service, it adds.
Penn already provides monetary awards to seniors to spend the year after graduation on projects that will improve their communities and the world.
But Gutmann said the Ivy League university can and will do more.
“It’s more important than ever before," Gutmann said. “Sometime, I hope before the end of this year, we will develop an educational program that will prominently feature citizenship.”
The commission report included some startling statistics about the decline in faith in the media: In 1976, according to Gallup, 72 percent of U.S. adults said they trusted the media — newspapers, TV and radio — to report news “fully, accurately and fairly.” Now that percentage has declined to 41 percent, and among those who identify as Republicans, only 14 percent.
The reasons for declining trust of democratic institutions are many, the commission found, including the political polarization gripping the country; government gridlock; the gap between wealthy and poor, and racial tensions.
The good news? More than 70 percent of the population still trusts their local media, the report notes.
While it may appear that an erosion of trust has escalated during Donald Trump’s presidency, the problem has been building for decades. The Knight Commission report would have been necessary with or without a Trump presidency, Gutmann said.
“We have needed it for decades,” she said. “There’s been an erosion, a long-term erosion, of trust here, which is just more obvious to some people today because they are so shocked by national politics.”
The commission included members with diverse viewpoints, including some who believed Trump is right to be critical of the coverage he has received.
“They can cite examples where they believe the press is prejudicial in its coverage of him, his actions and policies,” the report said. “That sentiment has come through clearly in the hearings we held across the country in 2018 and in other writings.”
But the commission also stands together behind the importance of a free and open press and does not regard the media as the enemy, a sentiment expressed by Trump.
“We are unanimous that a free press is not, and must not be seen as, the enemy of the people,” the report said.
Newsrooms must become more diverse, both racially and gender-wise, but also geographically and politically.
“We call on and depend upon media for speaking across multiple perspectives,” Gutmann said. "You can only do that if you have a newsroom where there is that kind of diversity of backgrounds and perspectives."
News organizations also must clearly distinguish opinion pieces from news, and be more transparent in how they develop, write, and correct stories.