Let’s start at the bottom: car salespersons. Only 7 percent of respondents rated them above average in honesty and ethics, and 47 percent ranked them low or very low. As the son of a retired car salesman, I know a few folks in that business, and I’ll say that there are a great many good ones out there to offset the bad. (Still, I'm hoping my dad doesn’t read those results….)
The same is true with a rating I found more disturbing: that of journalists, who remain mired in poor rankings, with only 26 percent of respondents willing to mark them above average. In an earlier report, Gallup found significant distrust of the profession, perceiving most journalists as untrustworthy and biased.
As someone who started his career in the Fourth Estate, this is indeed troubling—but, sadly, not all that surprising. Fierce competition, rising costs, the ceaseless news cycle and the changing ways consumers get their news are forcing media to search desperately for ways to distinguish themselves. The choices they make aren’t always good ones. Do we really need multi-day coverage of Angelina Jolie’s engagement ring? How long will we continue to hear that Ted Nugent is having coffee with some Secret Service agents who don’t find his dialogue amusing? And then there are the very few but shocking examples of reporters who simply made it up.
On the perception of bias, the Gallup report shows that it's usually in the eye of the beholder—conservatives largely say the media is too liberal, while many liberals are inclined to label news outlets too conservative. Human beings are never purely objective, and one could argue we’re becoming more polarized. But the role of journalists is to report the news as objectively as possible. With today’s environment, they face a three-way tug-of-war between objectivity, the increased entrenching of their audience, and the desperate need to draw consumers to survive.
Many news outlets are losing this war, and that’s sad. Others are developing new approaches—some that try to recapture that relevance, others that simply capitulate to the lowest common denominator.
Over the years, I’ve interacted with outstanding journalists who are ethical, respectful, seekers of truth and insistent that those in positions of influence are held accountable. And I’ve had to deal with reporters who were out to slant a story toward a predetermined conclusion.
It’s the first group that leaves me optimistic for the profession. There are good journalists out there who are committed to the highest standards of integrity. So maybe it isn’t just the profession’s job to improve its Gallup score. Perhaps it’s our job, as consumers of news, to abandon the gossip and place value on quality, truthful, objective, relevant reporting once again.