As media mistrust grows, public empowering politicians
Johnny V. Sparks, Guest Writer
Mistrusting partisans are dismissing news organizations and empowering politicians to bypass journalists and directly communicate via social media.
Rep. Greg Pence and Indiana’s Sixth Congressional District present a case study of this emerging challenge to American Democracy, which reflects changes in media and audience consumption habits.
In 2018, candidate Greg Pence used a submarine strategy to win with 63.8 percent of the vote and now Congressman Pence continues bypassing the media and directing curious constituents to his official Twitter page. What’s alarming to journalists is the public doesn’t seem to mind.
It might seem like the way to go when your side is in power, but abandoning a free and unfettered press that keeps a watchful eye on government becomes a slippery slope in the context of democracy. Yet, this is exactly what is happening to journalism and journalism must work to restore the trust.
Journalists have long been the ‘watchdog’ for citizens and the media ‘gatekeepers.’ Politicians cooperated with journalists to win coverage and communicate their message. The old way of doing business simply may present more risk than reward for today’s politicians, who have new media paths to their audiences.
Politicians, who previously depended upon traditional news media to communicate timely political messages to citizens, possess social media megaphones for directly conveying information (misinformation and/or disinformation) to audiences, leaving journalists to play catch up in analysis. In this way, politicians dictate the message and the media agenda.
Citizens also have changed their thinking about the veracity of the watchdog. According to a 2018 Pew Research Center national survey of more than 5,000, in relation to the ‘watch-dog’ role of the press, 31 percent of American’s reported that by criticizing leaders, news organizations keep politicians from doing their job.
Overall, only 28 percent reported trusting the information they get from local news organizations ‘a lot.’ For Republicans, it was 23 percent, considerably less than Democrats, at 37 percent.
Nearly 70 percent of respondents reported news organizations tend to favor one side in political and social issue coverage. More Republicans (86 percent) than Democrats (52 percent) said news organizations favor one side. According to a 2017 Ball State University Bowen Center for Public Affairs survey, 31 percent of Hoosiers identify as ‘strong Republicans’ or ‘lean Republican.’
Based on the data from national and state surveys, it’s likely that Rep. Pence’s Sixth District Republican base harbors mistrust for a news media that it perceives as slanted and dismisses journalists’ authority as gatekeeper and watchdog.
Pence has no reason to approach the watchdog. His Republican supporters, who represent the overwhelming majority of his Sixth District, will readily except a submarine campaign and media bypassing tactics.
Red-state journalism particularly faces an audience trust crisis. Journalism must seriously consider why it’s losing all trust among all audiences, but particularly among Republicans.
For red-state majority audiences, Republicans may find it perfectly acceptable for a representative, such as Pence, to bypass journalists and dictate an unchecked message. However, if partisan audiences continue to empower politicians to bypass journalists, no watchdog could become the norm.
Today, your party may dictate the message, but who will hold the power to dictate tomorrow’s message?
Democracy needs always to have a watchdog and gatekeeper. Even when not politically expeditious or convenient, media engagement by politicians protects the democratic process. Constituents must demand both partisan teams to play by rules. Politicians must sacrifice personal political interests for national interest to protect our democracy.
Editor’s note: Johnny V. Sparks, who holds a doctorate degree from Indiana University, serves as the chair of the Ball State University Dept. of Journalism. This piece is among a series of reflections to pay tribute to the BSU’s Dept. of Journalism’s 50th anniversary. It is published during Sunshine Week, which is an annual recognition and bipartisan effort to raise awareness about open government.