The Annette Strauss Institute for Civic Life at the University of Texas at Austin has delivered a report called “The Texas Media and Society Survey” and it offers some insights into how we are consuming news, who we trust and how we feel about professional journalists.
As you can see, at least seven in 10 people surveyed think the media spends too much time on scandals and the loudmouths. I’d like to unpack that a bit.
First, let’s acknowledge that it’s true. And it has something to do with the traditional definition of news. If 100 people gather in Iowa for a polite caucus, that maybe newsworthy to some but you won’t see a lot of coverage on television — or newspapers either, for that matter. In contrast, if those same 100 people gather outside the governor’s office and scream bloody murder you will likely begin to see journalists attracted to that chum. Why? Well, it makes for better art. We are trained to believe that conflict = news. Curiously, we are also taught to be dispassionate in our reporting even as we seek out people of great passion as our focus. It’s as if those two things find some equilibrium together.
It is also true that the people answering the survey often respond in a visceral way to scandal and extremism even as they decry it. Ask any of the dozen other Republican candidates in the presidential primary how much traction they got trying to be reasonable in the wake of Donald Trump.
To my mind, news producers and their audiences share this curiosity for sensation in more or less equal measure. The next time someone walks in my door and asks for less excitement in our political coverage, I’ll let you know. …
There were some other quick insights from the report. One was that respondents say that the most important news to them was local news and weather. That is good news to those of us striving to deliver local news. Although, here’s a startling statistic: One in five Americans say they “received no information about local politics or their neighborhood in the last month.” Wow. That surely would not be the case if these folks were reading our newspapers and websites. Want some good news? Thirty-seven percent of Americans reported getting news from their local newspaper in the last two weeks, while only 28 percent said they got news from Facebook over that period. Take that, Zuckerberg!
Here’s an odd one I hadn’t really thought about before. When asked whether a journalist should disclose whether they had been a victim of a crime before reporting crime news, 37 percent of Americans either answered “yes” or that they weren’t sure. Should you say your home was once burglarized before you report on that rape case?
It was also interesting to note how much alike we are. Those of us outside of Texas might think it more conservative and nothing like, say, my state of California. Yet, both Texans and respondents as a whole had remarkably similar views of media bias. (Thirty-five percent of Texans said they thought the media had a liberal bias; nationwide, the number was 34 percent. Thirteen percent of Texans thought there was a conservative bias while, 12 percent of Americans as a whole thought that.) The two groups also had similar views on whether media outlets should note when reporting on their parent company and their own use of social media.
Read more about the findings here.