There’s a struggle across Western media to interpret crashing public faith in its mainstream institutions. In the United States alone, recent polling from Gallup shows the drop in the number of Americans reporting “a great deal” or “quite a lot” of confidence in newspaper journalism has now hit 16 percent; it was 51% in 1979. Confidence in TV news is down to 11 percent from 46 percent back in ’91. Surveys from the Pew Research Center and the Reuters Institute give similar pictures. There are a lot of good theories out there about why this has been happening—with factors from expanded mainstream coverage of fraught subjects journalists once largely ignored, to the rise of polarized publications and networks, to Donald Trump’s populist attacks on the news as “fake.” The question may be especially hard to parse in a context where trust has been declining in a range of traditionally important institutions—including, in the U.S., the criminal-justice system, the presidency, Congress, the Supreme Court, public schools, and organized religion. One explanation is that the mainstream media has followed elite universities in being captured by a new form of progressive ethics that’s turned its output into a kind of propaganda. It’s hard to argue with that one sometimes.
Here’s a different idea, though: It isn’t that any of these others are necessarily wrong; it’s that there’s something else going on—you might say, at a deeper level of consciousness. In a world that’s changing faster, generating more complexity, and becoming more connected than ever before in history, misinformation, disinformation, and, from time to time, actual fake news are issues for all of us. But the more persistent challenge isn’t informational; it’s interpretive. It’s to be able to understand and navigate our changing, complex, connected lives. And to do that effectively—as citizens, in business, or just as human beings—we have to try to orient ourselves to realities that we can’t possibly grasp on our own; we need media. Yet for ages, our papers, TV news, and now digital outlets have responded to that need in the same basic way, by giving us interpretations to consume. That might have been fine when the stakes of our dependence on interpretive journalism were much lower than they are today. But today, it’s unsustainable; it erodes trust—because our real need as thinking people has never been to consume others’ interpretations; it’s to develop our own.
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