Americans’ trust in media is remarkably weak. But the reasons why aren’t entirely clear. Some have suggested that the explanation is in the extent to which media insiders and the general public have wildly different concerns. Journalists’ own fixation on the goings-on at elite institutions, in particular, gets ordinary readers tuning out. How much truth is there to this view? And ultimately, how can journalists address what really matters to the public?

The U.S. journalist and Atlantic staff writer Conor Friedersdorf sees a disconnect between journalists and readers, but he doesn’t see it as having to do less with excessive coverage of private school controversies and the like, and more with a shift in journalists’ approach to doing good in their work. Whereas the governing ethos of journalism had once been investigative exposés of corruption and malfeasance, Friedersdorf says, it now turns more on moral judgments, sometimes on apparently arbitrary matters, such as now-offensive content in old TV comedy shows. Today, journalists tend to emerge by way of liberal arts colleges and internships, rather than through apprenticeships at local newspaper reporters. All of which affects not just the question of what do cover but journalists’ sense of where moral urgency in their work lies.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy: What do readers want from journalism? And are they getting it?

Conor Friedersdorf: One approach to journalism is to think of yourself as a person with a platform and authority and influence, and to use those things to tell the reader what the truth is, and what is just, and what is moral, and to shape a public consensus in a way that advances social justice. I don’t think that is an approach that most people want. It’s certainly not the approach that I think of my readers as having.

The approach I try to take is that the world is really complicated, and I’m trying to help thinking people to understand it better, and to be more informed as they try to shape their own conclusions about various questions we think about together.

Bovy: How common do you think your approach is in media more generally?

Friedersdorf: It’s pretty common. A lot of journalists implicitly trust their audience to be smart people who are thinking along with them, rather than dumb people that they have to tell what to conclude.

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