Renewing Trust in Government through News Media

A big reason why T4A.org was created is that our founders noticed a real disconnect between citizens and the government. Getting in contact with public officials is difficult and, even where you can connect, it can be hard to raise your voice above all the noise. What I’ve come to realize is that, in many ways, the only form of communication we have with elected officials is through the media. Sure, you can call up your district representative and get a staffer on the phone, but if you want to hear directly from your elected official or if you want to hear from another member of Congress, it’s likely going to be via news conferences or media interviews.

This got me thinking about how we consume news. Many believe that, in order to fulfill our civic duty and be well-rounded citizens, we have to be knowledgeable about the issues. You hear it often during election time: Inform yourself. Vote intelligently. The Founding Fathers created an electoral college because they didn’t trust the people to pick their elected officials directly. But obtaining this type of civic education isn’t always easy. There is a barrier to good information and, when you think about it, most news isn’t free. In order to watch the evening news, you need a TV and access to cable or a television subscription. You can read a couple articles each month online from most news organizations, but, at a certain point, they ask you to subscribe to keep reading. And of course, there are social networks. You can find out quite a bit about what’s going on in the world via Twitter, but it’s not easy to get in-depth coverage of a topic just by reading tweets. Most libraries have current newspapers, but then you have to make the effort to actually go over, sit down, and read it there. My point is: I don’t believe consuming news is as easy as it should be, and our access to news should not be dependent on income. I think that, in a way, we have a right to information, to be able to access knowledge that is important for our safety and well-being.

The other obvious problem with today’s news media is bias. Because many media sources tend to be left- or right-leaning, it can be hard to determine how accurate the information you’re given is. And even if the facts are technically correct, a partisan spin on a topic can change the way it is perceived. Additionally, because most news organizations are run by for-profit companies, there is also the risk that they are subject to bias too, meaning they may be hesitant to print stories that are negative towards their parent company or industry. It becomes a trust issue. In our TechTable a few weeks ago with White House advisor David Simas, he told a story of a woman who became distraught in one of the campaign’s 2012 focus groups because she “didn’t know what the truth was and didn’t know where to go to find it.” This suggests that some Americans have limited trust, both in the government and the news media. And because of this, as Simas pointed out, we tend to self-select to groups with which we know we have something in common, which only serves to further the gaps we have between political parties and people of different beliefs.

So I’ve started trying to think about how we can improve this situation, how we can improve news media, and by extension, our communication with government. First, I went to my economics background. In my college econ classes, we learned that a good or service is classified as a “public good” if it is non-rival and non-excludable, meaning a good that you cannot keep someone from using and one in which one person’s use does not exclude another person’s. Because of this, public goods will be, in many instances, provided by the government. A good example of a public good is national security. No one can prevent a single individual from being protected by the U.S. military or our national security laws nor does one person benefitting from this protection impede another’s access to it. Because of this logic, my first thought was that maybe news is a public good that could be provided to the American people free of charge by the government. Don’t worry, I quickly realized that a news organization run by the government would NOT work. The main reason for that is that the media often serves as watchdog for the government, ensuring that rules are followed. In fact, suggestions of such a format have been quickly met with backlash. Back in January, Indiana Governor Mike Pence announced that he would be launching a “state-run news organization that will offer pre-written articles to smaller news outlets, as well as break stories about his administration.”1 Amid pushback though, and just three days after announcing the program, the administration scrapped the project. Most criticism centered on ethics concerns of a “pro-administration” source and worries of the platform becoming more of a propaganda machine than a news source.2

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Another idea I had was for more news organizations to become nonprofits, like the Associated Press. My thought process behind this was that nonprofit news organizations may not be accountable to corporate or partisan interests and that they may have the flexibility to offer news as a free service. The more I thought about it though, the more I realized that you really can’t escape money in news. Even with a nonprofit organization, you have donors that you’ll need to please in order to keep operating funds coming.

I think this is going to be a challenge. There may not be a perfect or better structure than the one we currently have for our news industry. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep looking and keep iterating on what we have now. We need to find a way to make news organizations more accountable, accurate, and accessible. This will allow elected officials to communicate more effectively with the American public and to continue to rebuild lost trust. With a greater sense of trust and stronger connections, I believe we’ll see a much more engaged, informed, and excited electorate.

 Resources
1 Bobic, I. (2015, Jan. 26). Indiana Gov. Mike Pence Plans To Start A Government-Run ‘News’ Site. The Huffington Post. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/26/indiana-mike-pence-state-run-news_n_6551200.html
2 LoBianco, T. (2015, Jan. 29). Just in: Indiana governor kills state-run news outlet. USA Today. Retrieved from
http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2015/01/29/indiana-governor-ends-plans-state-run-news-outlet/22529471/