When I hear the word “mainstream” my mind goes in one of two directions: “E! News” or The New York Times. Mainstream means trendy, a fad, basic. But it is also an adjective attributed to the omnipotent media, often by conservatives who insist such media can’t be trusted. 

“Mainstream media” can be defined as any established broadcasting or publication outlets. This includes but is not limited to The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN. I’m sure if I asked around the University, a large majority of students would say they get their news from at least one of these sources. Yet in recent years, these outlets have been under attack.

Trust in the mainstream media is largely split between party lines. Pew Research Center conducted a study of public opinions on 30 different news sources for political and election use. Out of those sources Democrats trusted more than distrusted 22 sources, while Republicans distrusted more than trusted 20 sources. Many of the outlets that generate trust from Republicans, such as Fox News and the radio programs of Rush Limbaugh and others, generate the most distrust from Democrats. An embodiment of the era of news distrust, not one news source out of the 30 was trusted by more than 50% of American adults.

So what does this all mean? I’m not one to advocate for blind trust in news sources, but as one of the most important elections of American history rapidly approaches, the festering of misinformation is concerning. There’s a lot of writing out there about how “alternative facts” and propagating lies have affected America’s current political climate. I don’t plan on adding to that. It’s a constant loop of confirmation bias — everything you show them will just convince them the evidence is smudged. 

Political media is in the midst of a sort of reckoning. While I submit to the accuracy and credibility of news organizations that have been respected for decades, and have worked for various publications since middle school, something isn’t working. There is a staunch difference between criticizing something you hate for simply threatening your tyranny, and criticising something you care about as it falls from grace. It’s vital to explore the latter. 

There are plenty of criticisms of the modern mainstream media that are valid, and that would benefit an industry that is struggling to survive. On the one hand, outlets want to maintain their credibility and objectivity, but on the other hand, how far can that truly go? 

I have always thought of the media as a watchdog; not just existing to report the news, but to give meaning to it as well. A big criticism of news outlets after Trump’s election was that they treated him too seriously as a candidate, that he was given a platform he then abused in order to gain traction. Despite Trump’s disparaging of the “fake news media,” many of the very same outlets whose reputations he tainted continued to give him free publicity. Is objectivity really worth more than one’s dignity?

The rise of social media has also caused a stir for the media at large. I don’t believe that getting all of your news from Twitter is healthy, but such platforms can be beneficial for those important primary sources we all learned about in middle school. When protests erupted following the murder of George Floyd, the difference in coverage on social media versus the news was striking. Every time I updated my Twitter timeline, there was a new video from someone on the front lines, showing me exactly what was happening in real time. Yet when I walked into the living room and saw my parents watching the news, the only images shown were buildings on fires, with taglines flouting “riots.” 

These past four years have seen a revolt against traditional news sources, in favor of talking heads and pretty faces that will tell us just what we want to hear. Criticism of the mainstream media has come from both sides of the aisle, though the reasons for such critiques greatly differ. At its core, freedom of the press must remain as a counter to iron-fisted governments, and in the coming years, journalists should have a real reckoning over what they intend to serve: objectivity and elites or a just society. I agree with perhaps the most overused Thomas Jefferson quote that I still hold dear to my heart: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter. But I should mean that every man should receive those papers and be capable of reading them.”

Daily Arts Columnist Samantha Della Fera can be reached at samdf@umich.edu.

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