Trust, Colbert and the State of Media

Do you trust the evening news or newspapers the same way your parents do?  The answer to this question is at the heart of the Colbert controversy which has been driven on blogs and extended to the traditional media.  When did you hear about Stephen Colbert’s speech at the White House Press Correspondent’s dinner last weekend?  Was it from a blog, or from a traditional news source?  With multiple reports offering the same conclusion of a decline of trust in traditional media sources, the recent BBC/Reuters/Media Center survey of 10 countries comparing trust in Media to trust in Government was an interesting public relations exercise.  The media release from the report weakly summarized that "more people trust the media than their governments" – though a mere sentence later the release notes that this was only true in their survey from developing countries.  In the US and the UK, "the government [was] ahead of media on trust (67% vs 59%) [in the US] along with Britain (51% vs 47%)."  At the end of the release, "blogs" (with quotations in the release, as if they are fictional) – were noted as least trust worthy.  These conclusions are particularly stunning when you consider that in both the US and the UK, the people are extremely vocal critics of their governments (particularly in the US, with confidence in the government at record lows).  Yet people still chose the government as the lesser of two evils!  The fact that the report from BBC/Reuters/Media Center unintentionally ilustrates that people in the US are willing to even trust politicians ahead of broadcast and traditional newspaper news shows that media has a major trust problem.  And that’s why Stephen Colbert struck such a raw nerve in his speech last weekend.

Aside from "roasting" President Bush – Colbert harshly criticized the media for being afraid to do any real reporting and being merely "typists" for the administration.  While any of the legions of Bush haters would have delighted in seeing such a public ridicule of the President, many have rightly noted how universally silent the media had been after last weekend on the content of Colbert’s speech, while the blogosphere was exploding with conversation and debate.  Was it because blogs are full of anti-Bush liberals?  Or was it because political controversy is too irresistable to ignore?  No, the reasons for this split go to the very nature of the personal media revolution, and the increasely defensive posture of much of traditional media.  Many bloggers don’t feel that they are part of the "media."  So they didn’t get offended by Colbert’s brutal characterization of the traditional media as spineless notetakers.  The traditional media on the other hand were extremely embarrased by Colbert’s speech and had a vested interest in keeping him silent, because it would only further erode public trust in media.  So they declared him "not funny."  The problem is, he has a point.  The basis of good journalism is fairness and objectivity – but in an increasingly polarized media environment, most journalists are finding the environment forces them to lean one way or another, depending on the network they work for and who their editors are.  It is this soft leaning that has lead to the distrust of media, as the lines between news and commentary get blurred. 

Conversly, online tools such as group contributed wikis, multiple users rating products or news stories, and collaboration are making user generated content and personal media much more democratically created sources of news and opinion.  Biases, of course, are still present and much more pronounced.  But they can be democratically sifted out, or grouped to give readers the option of reading both sides of a story.  In a group environment, if enough people contribute to something, the individual biases can be dramatically reduced.  The newness of personal media also means that readers are less likely to blindly believe anything they read – which is a very good thing.  The result is a media landscape where the only true balanced "reporting" is found in group contributed content, or reading an aggregate of content from multiple voices.  The Colbert controversy and difference in treatment from traditional media and the blogosphere underscores the fact that trust is shifting.  There are dangers to this, most notably that people will only read the news that they agree with.  But this is far outweighed by the ability to have access to all kinds of information … even the kinds that don’t get reported by the traditional media.

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