Disengaged: Elite Media in a Vernacular Nation

By Bob Calo

Bob CaloBob Calo

Shorenstein Center Goldsmith Fellow,
Spring 2011
Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley

Read the full paper (PDF).


Journalists, by and large, regard the “crisis” as something that happened to them, and not anything they did. It was the Internet that jumbled the informational sensitivities of their readers, corporate ownership that raised suspicions about our editorial motives, the audience itself that lacked the education or perspective to appreciate the work. Yet, 40 years of polling is clear about one thing: The decline in trust and the uneasiness of the audience with the profession and its product started well before technology began to shred the conventions of the media. In 1976, 72% of Americans expressed confidence in the news. Everyone knows the dreary trend line from that year onward: an inexorable decline over the decades. And if we fail to examine our part in the collapse of trust, no amount of digital re-imagining or niche marketing is going to restore our desired place in the public conversation.

Ordinary working people no longer see media as a partner in their lives but part of the noise that intrudes on their lives. People will continue to muddle through: voting or not voting, caring or not caring, but many of them are doing it, as they once did, without the companionship of the press. Now elites and partisans don’t have this problem, there are niches aplenty for them. But if the U.S. was full of only elites and partisans, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

If we accept that journalism has lost trust then we ought to think about how to win it back. That’s hard. For too long, we have thought the value of what we do was obvious to everyone. Turns out, it’s been primarily obvious to us. The public ranks journalism just a touch above Congress in terms of trust and reliability—and Congress is way down the bottom of the list. And if our response is “change nothing” because we are “essential to democracy” then we lose, and continue to be marginalized. So we have to begin to do something that we’re not very good at. We have to question everything: story forms, editorial sensibilities, our own motivations and unchallenged assumptions about the role of the press. We are not throwing reporting overboard; reporting will always be the true center of what we do, and it is what the public values, when they see it. Trust flows from value and utility. The problem at its essence is this: How do we make reporting more engaging to the imaginations of Americans as they are?

Read the full paper (PDF).