Late last month, Buzzfeed dropped a bombshell story in which it detailed how President Trump had directed his former counsel Michael Cohen to lie to Congress. To back up the reporting, two anonymous sources were cited. The wider media quickly took the story and ran with it, as countless op-ed’s were published claiming Trump was about to be impeached.
Mere hours after the Buzzfeed report was published, Robert Mueller’s team, which is currently investigating Trump, released a statement denying the story. In the swirl of confusion that has followed, it has remained unclear what exactly is known by Buzzfeed’s journalists and Mueller. However, it appears likely that Buzzfeed is missing some crucial information.
This is far from the first time that a news outlet has published an outrageous story about the Trump administration that didn’t pan out. The Washington Post reported last August that the Trump administration had shifted State Department policy to deny passports to American citizens along the border. CNN noted that Trump and his son Donald Trump Jr. had access to hacked documents from WikiLeaks. The New York Times asserted that the Trump administration had obscured a report on climate change. All of those stories were later found to be false.
Every time the media collectively follows the same pattern: a period of hype ensues in which the fallout of the report is discussed without much effort given to fact-checking the report itself. Eventually, the story in question is found to be unverifiable, at which point the Trump administration blasts the media for reporting “fake news.”
Outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post are generally very reputable, but simply haven’t taken the time to fact-check their articles thoroughly. In every instance mentioned above, the error was quickly pointed out by the Trump administration and retractions were issued. Unfortunately, Trump is not quick to forgive, and the RNC published the Fake News Awards last year highlighting inaccuracies.
The 24-hour news cycle incentivizes outlets to publish stories as quickly as possible to continually command attention, and inflammatory stories are pursued for the same reason. Such a cycle degrades the media in the eyes of the public, as news outlets are found to be untrustworthy and biased. This degradation is extremely harmful to the two foremost functions the media plays.
First, the media is no longer able to serve as a watchdog when it is seen as biased by some large portion of the general populace. Large organizations and institutions, with the government being a prime example, can be exposed for corruption or negative practices of any kind by investigative journalism, but investigative pieces don’t accomplish anything when the public turns a blind eye to them due to mistrust.
Second, the media can’t serve as a reliable source of news when people aren’t confident about the accuracy of the media’s reports. Without an accepted provider of information, post-truth politics can flourish, where different groups believe different facts. As a result, extremist bubbles are created, triggering severe polarization. Policies are ignored and attacks on character become standard, even accepted. This removes any area for compromise and essentially hamstrings the political system, which inherently needs to be deliberative.
Now more than ever, trust in the media is crucial for the functioning of America’s democracy. News outlets need to take time to ensure that they are publishing accurate, credible information. False stories only further damage an already battered media in the eyes of the public.