All the handwringing about waning trust in journalism obscures a crucial fact. Sure, the profit motive, the changing political economy of media, and lots of other factors are in play. But suppose journalism could live up to its ideal. What would this mean?
The normative benchmark in the profession is investigative reporting. Think “Spotlight.” This is the paradigm case against which all other forms of journalism are measured. Moreover, it embodies the democratic ideal of public supervision of representative authority, or the eternal vigilance of the governed. No wonder the most famous scene in the film has Marty Baron tell his crew “show me it was systemic.” He does not say “Find out whether it was systemic;” he already knows it was because this is the fundamental assumption of the genre as such. But this formula is the definition of cynicism; it takes for granted that those in power are always already guilty of transgressing the limits of their borrowed authority. It follows that the “realest” of all “real” news is itself the primary purveyor of mistrust. The more real news we get, the less we can trust the institutions comprising the social order. Even if we don’t bother following the news, the cynical stance comes to organize social practice all around us. The upshot is simply that “trust in real reporting” is what produces distrust, even—especially—when impediments to “real reporting” are minimized or eliminated.