Most people have heard of Walter Cronkite. In the 1960s and 1970s, he was one of the most recognized television journalists and was known as “the most trusted man in America” because of his dispassionate style, steady temperament and lack of personal opinion when reporting. If Cronkite were talking about the coronavirus pandemic, he would maintain his commitment to the facts—and only the facts. But today’s news is filled with extreme language, and some opinion-based commentaries disguise themselves as news programs to improve their credibility and attract viewers. Let’s look at how that affects clients.

A Shocking Lack of Confidence

In 2019, Gallup asked Americans about their confidence in various institutions and found that television news was trusted “a great deal” by only 8% of those surveyed. The only institutions that were less trusted were the US Congress. Something profound has happened in the almost 40 years since Walter Cronkite signed off by saying, “And that’s the way it is!”

Despite the fact that television remains one of the most influential distributors of information and ideas, the majority of Americans distrust the reports they get from TV. Importantly, because television influences how we think about the world, it’s critical to understand why TV and many other sources of information are no longer trustworthy.

When More Means Less

In the early days of television, most homes had one small TV set connected to an antenna poking up from the roof. There were three major networks, and audiences were fascinated by the nightly news being read by someone they could see. Advertisers fought to sponsor the programming. The economic model was strong, and the men (always) who anchored the news were trained and disciplined journalists, invested in preserving their credibility and trustworthiness.

As time passed, a few channels evolved into hundreds, and the explosive expansion of media changed the fundamental relationship between consumers and providers. In the early days of TV, consumers had few choices. By the 1980s, the choices were numerous. Today, the options seem infinite. The result: every media provider is competing for viewers, which translates into a shrinking number of dollars of revenue. Providers must cause viewers to watch their shows and work hard to keep audiences engaged.