Skip to main content
Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

‘Values,’ Not ‘Trust,’ is American Journalism’s Great Challenge

a hand holding a red marker writing the word,

a hand holding a red marker writing the word, "Values"

Subramaniam Vincent

Photo credit: Pixabay

Subramaniam Vincent is the director of Journalism & Media Ethics at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. Views are his own. 

Your values determine which news sources you trust far more than any reputable outlet’s journalistic mechanics. To make real progress in a polarized society, all our talk about journalism and trust needs to admit this fact instead of running away from it.

Recently, Forbes published yet another article on America’s so-called “trust deficit” in the media. This was a report on a new COVID-19 related study by a research firm on what many call “media polarization.” This time the researchers focused on the connection between people trusting a major news outlet (FOX News) and distrusting other media, while approving of the White House’s coronavirus response. This frame is not new to journalists and news executives. After all, the problem of trust in media institutions has been front and center in industry conferences, funder-led research and grant activity over the years. This is misplaced and over-inflates the role of trust in journalism. It forces us to ignore what has been lurking beneath the surface: mainstream journalistic values in America have long faced psychological resistance from a part of the country’s conservative movement. 

Here’s a quick sampling of recent headlines that showcase America’s media trust and polarization problem. I feel “trust talk fatigue” just looking at these. 

In his book On Press: How Liberal Values Shaped the News (2018), Matthew Pressman, journalism professor at Seton Hall University, chronicles how a set of “journalistic” values came to drive American journalism by the late 70s to early 80s. Pressman documents how adversarialism, interpretation, questioning authority, and investigations ended up getting settled as journalistic culture in mainline news organizations. He calls these professional norms as liberal values and points out that conservatives have often conflated this with “liberal bias” (ideological). 

“These values are not designed to serve any ideological agenda, but they help create a news product more satisfying to the center-left than to those who are right of center,” writes Pressman in his introduction to the book. (pg 13). 

Note the word “satisfying.” (This is not the full picture, but bear with me. American journalism has never been satisfying to people of color and we come back to this at the end of this article). But amongst the left-leaning white audiences in America, Pressman’s assessment about mainstream big-media evolution being “satisfying” rings true.

Satisfaction is a feeling, and a psychological explanation is justified. I found corroboration from Pressman’s claim in Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) developed by a team of social psychologists led by Jonathan Haidt at NYU. Haidt and his group proposed that humans have six “Moral Foundations” that we use to create morality (right and wrong) to justify our actions or criticize another’s. These are Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation, and Liberty/Oppression. Here’s a quick outline, reprinted from MFT’s website. Skip this to the next part if you prefer to cut to the chase on why I bring this up for journalism. 

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In our original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as we reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, we emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]

3) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”

4) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions).

6) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor. 

Applied to political culture, MFT explains a lot of differences between liberals, conservatives and libertarians, as Haidt explains in his well-received book, The Righteous Mind. But applied to media culture and values, they offer even more insight to media polarization and trust. 

The liberal values outlined by Pressman run counter to several moral foundations conservatives favor more than liberals. That is where the real day-to-day friction comes in. Take adversarialism, questioning authority and interpretation. These values fundamentally conflict with MFT’s authority/subversion foundation, which is preferred by conservatives and disregarded by liberals. Authority/subversion also explains conservative preference for order. And the conservative movement has people who lean authoritarian. For decades there has been a constant undercurrent of friction between conservatives and these “liberal values” of the mainstream press. 

Even outside MFT, there is other scholarly work that corroborates this cultural friction. In Political Conservatism as Motivated Social Cognition (2003), psychology scholars John T. Jost, Jack Glaser, Arie W. Kruglanski, Frank J. Sulloway proposed that “intolerance of ambiguity,” “uncertainty avoidance,” and “resistance to change,” (preservation of traditions) are part of conservative psychology. “The core ideology of conservatism stresses resistance to change and justification of inequality and is motivated by needs that vary situationally and dispositionally to manage uncertainty and threat,” they wrote. 

This also explains mainstream media friction with conservatives on values such as “pro-diversity” and “immigration” (indirectly support for globalism), which MFT explains as justified by liberals using the care/harm and the fairness foundations. As is well-known, pro-diversity and pro-immigration positions threaten at least some white conservatives. As a temperament, conservatives admit they resist social change and are particularly suspicious of it when it is imposed quickly. The existence of Fox News solidified a media voice for the conservative movement as the opposite pole

Into this pre-existing condition came social media. Social media allows polarization to fester, thrive, and tribalize us by design. Talking to Vox in January 2018, Haidt said this: “I really believe it’s one of our biggest problems. So long as we are all immersed in a constant stream of unbelievable outrages perpetrated by the other side, I don’t see how we can ever trust each other and work together again.” 

Notice the word “trust” in the last sentence. Much of the conversation about how to win back trust in journalism is focussed on transparency about methods and process; explaining how the news is sourced, verified, and produced; and news literacy. This is welcome and must proceed. But it will go only so far before it hits the cultural wall. 

How is it possible for sections of the American public to simply “trust” what journalists publish as valid “information” and “facts” when their values don’t square up? Do liberals “trust” Fox News as a media brand? Most do not. This is almost an implicit attitude. Fox News’ evolution from its representation of conservatism in the 1990s and 2000s to where the network is today has ensured this. Likewise, when conservatives say they do not trust the mainstream media they are pointing to the values divide more than disputing all the facts and information published in troves every day. 

Having spent much research and discourse on the vexing problem of trust in media institutions, it is time to elevate our discourse into a more explicit discussion of journalistic values. This has added significance for two reasons

First, earlier in this article I noted that American journalism has had and continues to run with a long history of non-inclusiveness, misrepresentation and stereotyping of people of color. “Everything is funneled or looked at through a white-dominant narrative,” says Salvadoran-born L.A. Times reporter Esmeralda Bermudez for a recent piece in El Tecolote, California’s longest running bilingual Spanish/English community newspaper in San Francisco. This is the case for most news work, from sourcing to expert identification to narratives and representation. People of color are not “satisfied” with how they are represented and depicted. There are big winds of cultural change within the “liberal-valued” journalism movement. Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) values are raging conversations in sections of the news industry that have changed hiring norms and are leading to more power-sharing in newsrooms. The values-settlement journey is by no means over with Pressman’s astute chronicling of the past coming into the present. 

Second, elitism is a weakness for the press because its sourcing methods accord people with power and title with disproportionate elevation of voice and framing. As journalists themselves became better off, knowledge-economy workers, elitism only became more entrenched. This was widely seen as part of the reason for the backlash against the mainstream media from the 2016 elections by voters in the American heartlands and swing states. The tilt toward elitism also tracked cultural trends in American society as people working in the knowledge economy (read: urban agglomerations) have done better than those in the heartlands. The emerging “engagement journalism” practice, especially in local public media, has made “listening” a core value, as one reformist response to the media’s elitist impulses. 

Moving the debate to values will elevate and connect the reform journey, from the past, to the present and future of journalism. It will help examine the new questions that are inevitably going to come up, for instance, around how to implement inclusion. Many new questions deserve a principle-elevating conversation away from the overbearing shadow of the “trust” word. 

In sum, journalism’s values need to be part of an explanatory vocabulary for news literacy. Media organizations must be transparent about their values. We, as journalists, will do well to explain in our mission statements why those values are needed and why they evolved. We must explain adversarialism, interpretation, the need for questioning authority, and so forth. This kind of transparency raises the bar and will engender a moral consistency in journalistic routines and justifications when complaints arise. The time for the usual defenses about “we got the facts right,” “we’re just informing the public,” “seeking the truth,” is over. 

Apr 22, 2020

Subscribe to Our Blogs

* indicates required
Subscribe me to the following blogs: