“I think there’s a much bigger problem [than media bias], and that is the people who are watching and reading us, who are not looking for the best obtainable version of the truth, who are not interested in unbiased reporting, rather who are looking for information to what they already believe, their political beliefs, their ideological beliefs.” -- Carl Bernstein, CNN political commentator

A mass communications professor was asked at a TV forum why Rodrigo Duterte, front-running candidate for president, still surged in the survey ratings despite the string of controversies to which he was linked and the tons of bad press that he got.

Was it due to people’s lack of trust in the media? People would rather believe the propaganda of supporters in the social media than the news reports and commentaries in newspapers on radio and TV?

The mass-com teacher said he credits it more to the “Duterte phenomenon,” the feat of a candidate in “mesmerizing” a large segment of the populace -- which cuts across boundaries of age, wealth and education -- and converting them into adherents who no longer question anything that would shake their faith in him.

Mainstream media has reported and commented on the serial incidents and disclosures that stab into Duterte’s character. Most recently: his sexual joke about an Australian rape-murder victim (admitted) and the existence of multiple bank accounts involving large sums of money (denied, then admitted but amounts involved are disputed). Yet most social media commentaries ignored or disbelieved them, some even distorting facts to deny, justify and otherwise defend Duterte’s behavior.

Bernstein’s theory

CNN’s Carl Bernstein, a veteran of “Time” magazine and “Washington Post” (where he and Bob Woodward won for their paper a Pulitzer prize on the Watergate scandal coverage), believes many audiences don’t watch or read media that tries to get at the truth but only media that confirms what they already believe in: expecting the media to validate the precept they espouse.

Social media users who have chosen Duterte as their president won’t or can’t accept any information that makes him less than the messiah they depict him to be, the avenging angel with a Glock who would litter the streets with bodies of drug lords and other crime suspects.

So they tear at any accusation against Duterte, no matter how factual, and reject any suspicion about his integrity, no matter how plausible.

Bernstein is looking at the U.S. situation where followers of GOP presumptive presidential nominee Donald Trump distrust and flog mainstream media, where people already hooked on Trump’s mission would have no tolerance for information that clashes with it. As a result, networks like Fox News produce news and commentary to fit what their audience wants. Bernstein thus blames the public for the media bias, or viewed in another way, for the public’s distrust in media.

An Associated Press (A.P.) survey released last April 17 said just six per cent of Americans trust the media. (Separate item.)

Why it won’t stand

That theory though may not stand serious scrutiny, even or especially in the local setting, if one considers that:

-- Most consumers must still prefer their media to give them the truth, to inform their decisions and help them cope with their daily lives;

-- Most media organizations must still adhere to age-old principles of fairness, accuracy and completeness;

-- News and comments in social media portals such as Facebook and Twitter are still viewed differently from, or not trusted as much as, the content of established news organizations, in regular platform or online.

Same work

It’s still the same work for “old media” but with newer tools and bigger challenge: how to get at what’s closer to the truth, amid confusing and annoying insults, inanities and distortions of facts and logic, which shun whatever doesn’t conform with how they look at things.

And that task must include guiding users of social media to sources of information that would reliably put to an exacting test their more important decisions, such as choosing the country’s president.

[publicandstandards@sunstar.com.ph or paseares@gmail.com]

Public trust dips to 6% but not all bad for U.S. media

The April 17-circulated poll came from the Media Insight Project, partnered by Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and American Press Institute.

Other than the six per cent trust rating, what useful things for media does it tell?

  • Americans are increasingly skeptical of the news industry but consumers do value broad concepts of “fairness, balance, accuracy and completeness.”
  • Most important thing news organizations can do is to be accurate; “we know it is a high value but the study re-enforces that.”
  • While 87% of 2000 respondents said they receive news via Facebook, only 12% said they trust it “a lot or a great deal”