The Most Trusted Name in News? Exploring the Inaccuracy of American Cable News

By: Nadia Tareen

“BREAKING NEWS: Health Care Mandate Struck Down.” On the morning of June 28, CNN News confidently flashed this headline across the screens of its cable channel and its website, with Fox News following suit. The whole country was watching as the Supreme Court released its ruling on the constitutionality of President Obama’s Affordable Health Care Act. However, a few minutes after this headline, as network employees took a few extra seconds to actually read the 193-page Supreme Court ruling, America’s news networks were forced to quickly revise their headlines to represent the truth; Obamacare had indeed been declared constitutional. Although CNN and Fox both released apologies for the error, we must ask why such a major gaffe occurred in the first place. CNN’s slogan is the “Most Trusted Name in News,” but is it always such a good idea to put our faith in what the media tells us?

The largest American networks, including CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC, dominate the airwaves. They serve as the primary source of information for much of the public, with 71% of Americans getting the majority of their international and national news from television (Pew Research Center). Ever since the advent of the 24-hour news cycle, these media outlets have prioritized ratings and shocking headlines over accuracy and the basic tenets of journalism. As a result, only 29% of Americans believe that news organizations “generally get the facts straight,” while the number of viewers who would be willing to describe news organizations as “highly professional” has declined by 13% in the last twenty-five years (Pew Research Center, 2009).

Clearly many Americans find the current state of our news sources disappointing and insufficient, but do people around the world feel the same way about their countries’ news networks? One striking contrast is the 85-year-old British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). In Britain, 77% of the population views the BBC as “an institution people should be proud of” (The Guardian, 2009). Furthermore, 69% of the British public believes that the BBC is trustworthy. Why the discrepancy? Americans should be able to trust their media just as much as any Englishman or citizen in any other country of the world.

Comparing the models of different countries’ news organizations may provide the answer. The BBC prides itself on its dedication to the correctness of its news. As part of its “Accuracy and Truth” initiative, the BBC publishes editorial guidelines that state: “In news and current affairs content, achieving due accuracy is more important than speed.” As evident by the healthcare announcement fiasco, this is a lesson that the American media has yet to learn. Unlike its counterparts in the United States, the BBC was established in the 1920s by the British government with the mission to “inform, educate, and entertain” the population. The objective of the most popular American news networks may be similar to this mission, but their status as commercialized competitors completely changes the game.

The aim of CNN, Fox News, and MSNBC is to make a profit — in many cases, no matter what it takes. Accuracy takes a backseat, while achieving the highest possible viewership and gaining the most revenue from advertising constitute the most important goals for most of America’s media. The BBC, on the other hand, is entrusted with the duty of sharing nothing but the truth with its audiences, or it is held accountable to serious consequences. When the BBC is accused of misleading the public, the allegations must be taken seriously and the publicly controlled institution might soon find itself in an unpleasant imbroglio. For example, Former Director General of the BBC Greg Dyke was forced to resign in 2004 after the news organization wrongly blamed Tony Blair’s Labour Party for misreporting the military capabilities of Iraq.  On the other hand, when fingers are pointed at an American cable news network for misinformation, an on-air apology is issued if the nation seems especially enraged and the problem ends there.

The United States does, of course, also have public news organizations which appear to deliver news of a higher caliber than their privately funded counterparts. Dr. Groseclose, a professor at UCLA, conducted a study that found PBS Newshour to be the most objective, centrist news program on television (Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2005). Despite this superior quality of news from public broadcasters, many more viewers tune in to the private networks (2.7 million viewers for an hour each night for PBS, versus CNN constantly having about 450,000 viewers at any one time). Thus we must acknowledge these large private corporations as the most important and powerful players in American media. As profit-seeking companies, these networks will do what it takes to beat the competition, even if it means that the truth gets lost in the mix.

The implications of the widespread inaccuracy of the news are huge. When voters pull the lever at the polls, what they heard news anchors say the night before, truthful or not, lingers at the back of their minds. Private companies have had and will have a strong hold on the media in the United States for a long time. For the United States to keep up with the quality of news the rest of the world is receiving, punishments for inaccuracy must be made more severe. A cursory on-air apology is not enough, and networks will not be eager to change until they are faced with dips in ratings and advertiser withdrawals. We deserve accurate, unbiased information in the news — now we need to demand it.

Photo Credit: Flickr user claireteat


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