Misleading headlines, missing context fuel mistrust of the press

Alaska Public Media, one of my favorite Alaska news sources, recently published a story titled, “Unvaccinated City of Bethel employees say they won’t get the vaccine and are looking for new jobs.” The story focused on two men who were interviewed outside the Bethel Job Center following passage of a vaccine mandate for city employees.

One said he was concerned about potential long-term side effects of the COVID-19 vaccine and does not plan to get vaccinated. He had anticipated the vaccine mandate and started saving in case he needed to quit. The other had not saved up, and expected it might be hard financially. He said he won’t get vaccinated because his wife would leave him if he does.

These stories shed light on the decisions people make and their consequences. They help us understand each other’s motivations and humanize us. These are important conversations to share.

But the piece also felt misleading. The headline might suggest to a casual reader that the vaccine mandate is causing mass walk-offs. In fact, the story goes on to say that of the 17 employees unvaccinated at the time the mandate was approved, 10 have now gotten vaccinated. Another got an exemption, two quit, and the rest — four people, by my math — are on a six-week administrative leave “in hopes they’ll opt to get vaccinated over getting fired,” according to the story.

I got out my calculator: Almost 60% of previously unvaccinated employees got vaccinated. According to earlier news stories, 87 of 104 City of Bethel employees were vaccinated at the time the mandate was approved. With another 10 employees vaccinated, the vaccination rate rose from 84% to 93% of the original 104 employees. It would appear that the policy has significantly boosted the vaccination rate among City of Bethel employees.

I know, I know. Sensationalist headlines and conflict-laden stories sell. As a former longtime journalist, I know the adage, “If it bleeds, it leads.”

I think we need to push back on that narrative. We are dealing now with levels of conflict and hostility that threaten our health and well-being, the social fabric of our communities and the functioning of our democracy. Journalists have an opportunity to be a force for good, a moderating force that provides relevant context and clear-eyed insight. It pains me when I see the opposite happening.

I don’t believe it helps the cause of journalism, either. Trust in the media has plummeted to all-time lows, falling to 46% in 2021, according to a long-running survey called the Edelman Trust Barometer. There is a stark partisan gap — with 57% of Democrats saying they trust traditional media, compared to 18% of Republicans. It is easy to dismiss those who mistrust journalism as anti-fact or anti-science, to disclaim responsibility and lay blame at the feet of the willfully ignorant.

But I believe the growing mistrust of the media elevates journalists’ responsibility, or duty of care, to present not only factually correct information, but also meaningful context. In the story referenced above, framing the narrative within the larger context would help people evaluate the impact of an important policy decision that other communities or employers might be weighing.

They say a lie can travel halfway around the world before the truth puts on its shoes. The internet and social media have only further handicapped the truth. But context is also critical. If I tell you I won $500 at a casino, but fail to mention that I spent $600 to get those winnings, I would be leaving you with an incorrect understanding. And if you found out, I’d lose your trust as a reliable narrator.

The erosion of faith in journalism mirrors an erosion of faith in nearly all of our civic institutions, including our elections machinery and government itself. Mistrust is dangerous. We are seeing increasing evidence of the short flashpoint from mistrust to rage, and from rage to violence. Sensationalism is a dangerous game.

As consumers of news, we can read and watch thoughtfully, asking what information is missing. We can skip stories that seem designed only to trigger our outrage. We can vote with our clicks, and tell editors we want news that helps us understand and empathize, not “news” that exacerbates mistrust and contempt.

Rebecca Braun is a Juneau resident and former reporter and publisher-editor of the Alaska Budget Report.

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