Riding a wave of anti-establishment enthusiasm, Donald Trump swept the swing states and the electoral college and the Republicans swept both houses of Congress. The victory baffled many in the political and media establishments who were unaware of how powerful the nation’s anti-establishment sentiment truly was.
While much has been written and will be written about this election and the mood of the country leading up to it, one thing is clear in the aftermath: Americans have lost faith in established institutions. A cursory glance at the social media activities of the president-elect’s supporters reveal that not only have they lost faith in the institution of government, but more painfully in the media as a whole.
While some of the cries of bias and “mainstream media conspiracy” may be off-base, there may well be a kernel of truth that journalists need to consider. Have we as an industry become too cozy with the establishment?
The bedrock of journalism is questioning and speaking truth to power. Another key aspect of journalism is discerning legitimate sources of information and maintaining good relationships with those sources. Is it possible that somewhere in that process we have begun to accept government propoganda and rhetoric as gospel without digging deeper and questioning those who are dissemenating the information to us?
In our coverage of state, local and national events, are we allowing institutions of power and influence to shape our narrative rather than answering the concerns of the taxpaying public?
Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not saying the press should become anti-establishment. The press shouldn’t be pro- or anti- anything outside of being pro-first amendment. What I’m asking is, should we question established institutions more than we do?
The congressman that you interview regularly may be an official source on matters of state, but he is a politician with an agenda. The source you have at a government agency may be an official source of information, but her office is directed by and reports to a politicized executive branch, be it of your state government or the federal government. Perhaps we need to be more critical of how we get our information and how we determine that the official source is telling us the truth and not handing us copious amounts of spin.
Maybe the key to getting Americans to trust journalists more than they trust used car salesmen is for us to trust our institutions of power less than we would trust a used car salesman. This is the era of data journalism, and we need to start making sure that the information our sources give us squares with the data that is available to us.
What the data currently indicates is that journalists, who should be among the most informed and aware voices in society, live in a bubble that does not include the anti-establishment voters who supported Donald Trump.
According to an MIT Media lab study, while verified journalists on Twitter did have both Clinton and Trump supporters in their networks, they were mostly disconnected from the largest and most vocal cluster of Trump supporters.
If we aren’t hearing the voice of the people, we cannot be aware of the issues that are important to them, inform them or be their advocate. It is hard to tell if the disconnect shown in the MIT study is due to journalists isolating themselves in a bubble or conservatives isolating themselves from a media establishment that no longer holds their trust. Regardless of the reason, as journalists we need to make sure we are listening to all perspectives.
And if it turns out a large portion of our audience is distrustful of institutions, perhaps it is in our best interest to be more distrustful of those same institutions.