Some journalists are reluctant to speak up in defense of their profession. One school of thought argues that responding to attacks from President Donald Trump, who regularly calls the media "the enemy of the people," risks making reporters look like advocates. Better, they argue, just to do good work.
New research suggests that school of thought is entirely wrong. It finds that news consumers are more trusting of the media—and more secure about their own ability to discern the truth—when they are exposed to a combination of fact-checking articles and opinion pieces arguing for the importance of journalism.
"When one side attacks over and over again, and the other doesn't respond, at some point people assume that journalists have conceded the point that they're biased," lead author Raymond Pingree of Louisiana State University said in announcing the findings. Pingree offers evidence that timely rebuttals can negate this perception.
The study, in the online journal PLoS One, included 1,187 American adults recruited online. A majority were college graduates; 24 percent called themselves Republicans, 40 percent Democrats, and 32 percent independents.
In June of 2017, they were pointed to a unique news portal and instructed to use it as a primary news source for five full days. It was updated regularly with stories from a variety of mainstream news websites; on average, participants read the headlines and brief summaries of 268 pieces, and clicked on 27 to read in more detail.
One group of participants had "fact-check" stories regularly added to their baseline news feed. Another group was offered columns and editorials defending the practice of journalism, while a third group was exposed to both.
At the beginning and end of the experiment, all participants expressed their level of agreement with statements such as "In general, mainstream media outlets are unbiased," and "I feel confident that I can find the truth about political issues."
The researchers report that the presence of fact-checking stories alone did not burnish the media's image, but the combination of such pieces with explicit defenses of journalism accomplished that goal.
"When a few opinion pieces defending journalism were included in an online news portal, fact-checking increased participants' trust in mainstream media, self-confidence in their own ability to decide what is true in politics, and intention to use a mainstream news portal in the future," they write. "Without defense of journalism, fact-checking had no effect on any of those outcomes."
Importantly, this proved true for both Democrats and Republicans (although, unsurprisingly, Republicans expressed less trust in the media than Democrats overall).
"These findings offer new hope for restoring trust in, and use of, news, as well as trust in the very notion of political facts," Pingree and his colleagues conclude. They argue journalists should push back against charges of partisanship.
"We do not think it is wise for journalists to rely on any other actor in society to make this argument," they add. "Journalists are the only ones who can speak authoritatively about their own intentions, professional norms, and organizational safeguards against bias."
Journalists are great at helping people tell their own stories. But this is our story, and we're the ones to tell it.