Are you planning to vote? Or have you already? (Since Well Done Marketing counts making the world a better place as one of our foundational values, we hope you answered yes to one of those questions.)

What information did you use to make your decisions? Are you confident in the reliability and accuracy of that info? If you are, what’s the basis for your confidence?

If you’re not quite sure how to answer that last question, you’re not alone. According to a Pew Research survey, only 30% of U.S. adults think the news sources they turn to most often have covered the 2020 presidential election “very well.”

Keep in mind, this is not just any source we’re talking about. These are the sources respondents say they “turn to most often.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the Fourth Estate at this moment. Indeed, while 84% of Americans feel the news media is “critical” or “very important” to democracy, 73% say that bias in so-called “objective” news is “a major problem.”

It’s not surprising we should feel this way. The standards of objective reporting—as championed over the past century by hero journalists from Edward R. Murrow to Dan Rather—seem to be eroding further and further every year.

Hit Jobs and Operatives and Dark Money, Oh My!

Overt political advertising—of the “I approved this message” variety—is by now very familiar, but the past several years have seen an increase in paid political messaging of another kind. Increasingly, some of the stories that come to us through our news—or what we think of as news—have also been bought and paid for by organizations or individuals with very particular political agendas. And critics writing from both the left and the right are concerned that it may be affecting the democratic process.

A comprehensive report from the past year—let alone the past four—would be exhausting. So here are a few things that came to light just last week:

  • Political operatives pushed through a takedown of Joe Biden by the New York Post—apparently against the better judgment of career journalists in the Post newsroom.
  • Over the weekend, the New York Times reported on a large nationwide network of local news outlets hiring freelance reporters to push Republican candidates. A similar operation funded by dark money promotes stories favorable to Democratic candidates and causes.
  • And just the other day, FiveThirtyEight and First Draft broke the story of Sean Reynolds—a YouTuber and gamer who ran several fake news sites (some left-leaning, some right-leaning) aimed at a Spanish-speaking audience—an operation apparently motivated more by opportunity and profit than to achieve some particular political aim.

A lot of money is changing hands to get these pay-to-play stories in front of us. It doesn’t exactly inspire faith in journalism’s objective truth. But how cynical should we be? Should we let a few bad actors color our impression of the entire news media?

The fact is, American journalism has a long history of partisan slant and political agendas. We’d do well to know that history and take a little responsibility for understanding the limitations of the news—as well as its laudable but relatively young notion of objectivity.

Most Trusted American Status

The ideal of objectivity in the news media is not much older than living memory.

The earliest American newspapers were largely partisan outlets. Alexander Hamilton founded one—The original New York Post, actually—as did Noah Webster. They contained some hard news but were intended to advance political opinion. As they evolved over the next century, increasing competition fueled ever more excessive sensationalism and propaganda peddling.

In 1919, the writer and reporter Walter Lippman complained of an American journalism woefully unshaped by unity of method. It was rooted, perhaps, in facts—but also in propaganda, rumor, suspicion, clues, hopes, and fears. Lippman proposed a standard of journalism based on scientific method—as opposed to cultural bias.

“There is but one kind of unity possible in a world as diverse as ours. It is unity of method, rather than aim; the unity of disciplined experiment,” he wrote. “Because news is complex and slippery, good reporting requires the exercise of the highest scientific virtues.”

By the latter part of the century, Lippman’s ideal seemed to have taken hold. In 1972, according to one poll—and a CBS advertising campaign—news anchor Walter Cronkite was “the most trusted American in public life.” (Though it’s worth pointing out: The other guys sharing the slate with Cronkite in that particular poll were all politicians.)

Fifty years after that apex, it seems we’re right back where we started: We have the sources we turn to most, based mainly on reputations and track records. By and large, we only “somewhat” trust them. As for the sources we rely on less? If we use them, it’s mainly to understand how not to think.

Take a Deep Breath and Do the Work

It’s tempting to see this in a despairing light. It’s been especially galling in a year in which misleading (and outright deceptive) coverage has made effective messaging about the global pandemic so much harder.

But maybe this is an opportunity. We can admit that we can’t completely control how the news is used and abused.  As much as we might like to stop news that’s fake or misleading or biased, maybe we should put our efforts elsewhere.

Without slipping through endless levels of conspiracy theory, we should probably look a lot more into who’s paying the bills at the news outlets we trust—and how it affects the stories they cover and how they cover them. We should all make an effort to understand our preferred sources’ historical biases and consider diversifying our media diet.

And we should definitely understand the role we all increasingly play in the news ecosystem. Whether funded by conservatives, liberals, or disinterested opportunists, paid news is largely pushed out by paid social media—social media that gets added traction with every view, like, and share. It’s one reason Well Done has currently taken our own money out of Facebook advertising.

So think before you share. And when you see friends and family sharing news that’s unchecked or out of context, think about pointing it out—gently and privately, of course.

Let’s close with some good news: Journalists themselves are well aware of the trust gap, but they also feel they’re winning us back. According to the Cision 2020 Global State of the Media report, 59% of journalists believe the public has lost trust in the media over the past year. I know that doesn’t sound great, but that figure has declined year over year since 2017—when it was a stunning 91%.

If in 2021 we’re able to put this election and this virus behind us, we may keep making headway on those numbers. But we should also remember: A trustworthy news media depends on we, the people, insisting it matters.