Acclaimed media critic Margaret Sullivan shared her advice for rebuilding public trust in the media at the Old Capitol Museum Thursday evening, in conversation with Mississippi Today.
Watch the conversation:
Sullivan was in Jackson for a Mississippi Today event hosted by Editor-in-Chief Adam Ganucheau, where the pair discussed the media’s role in American democracy and her recent memoir “Newsroom Confidential: Lessons (and Worries) From an Ink-stained Life.”
Sullivan shared background on her career, explaining that the bulk of it was spent in local news working at her hometown paper, the Buffalo News, before becoming The New York Times public editor and subsequently a media columnist at The Washington Post.
During her time with The Washington Post, Sullivan spent a lot of time talking to people about their thoughts on the press. They frequently expressed frustration with the opinion they saw in news coverage, but she pointed out a paradox she sees in this complaint.
“When people go to watch TV or go on to a website, often what gets the most engagement is the most wild opinion or strongly stated opinion,” Sullivan said. “They may say that they would like it to be just the facts, and actually what they’re seeking out is anything but.”
Social media makes this worse because people often share articles without reading them entirely or are only hearing from people they already agree with – and the decline of local news doesn’t help, she said. While local news is significantly more trusted by the American public, Sullivan said the financial challenges local news is facing have limited its ability to balance national opinion coverage.
In her advice to journalists, Sullivan encouraged media to stay focused on serving in a watchdog role. Reflecting on lessons from the Trump era, she said media organizations cannot continue to give microphones to people that are known liars and worry about fact-checking later.
“One of the things that makes propaganda work is repetition, so when we put things that are false into a headline, even if we’re going to fact check it … we don’t do anybody any favors,” she said.
Sullivan said threats to democracy were a top concern for voters during the midterm elections. This shared value gives her hope, particularly in the rejection of election deniers who were running for secretary of state positions across the country.
She also gave a call to action for members of the public: don’t check out of the news, even if it’s overwhelming.
“I don’t think that’s being a good citizen,” Sullivan said. “Stay tuned in, be an engaged citizen, support journalism – whether that’s by subscribing to a news organization, donating, having conversations with journalists – caring is really important. If you disagree, fine, express that … but what you shouldn’t do is turn away from it, because it’s too important.”