Panel opens discussion on media distrust, civic engagement

Jamie Williams

Two WKU professors who co-authored the Kentucky Civic Health Index report and two state officials were part of a panel discussion over Kentucky’s civic literacy and engagement on Wednesday.

WKU professors Saundra Ardrey and Eric Bain-Selbo, along with the Institute for Citizenship and Social Responsibility, teamed up with the National Conference on Citizenship to produce the report which covers social connectedness, confidence in public institutions and political engagement of Kentuckians.

“[Civic health] is oftentimes very ambiguous,” said Secretary of State of Kentucky Alison Lundergan Grimes. “People think civics is just voting; it’s not. It’s more than that. It’s also what individuals are doing to help make a difference not only for themselves but for others at the local, the state, and the national level.”

The report shows that in 2014 only 46.5% of Kentuckians had a great deal or some confidence in media. Kentuckians were similarly distrustful of government. Nationally, Kentucky ranks 48th out of 51 for public confidence in media.

WKU Journalism Professor Mac McKerral said he’s not surprised at the amount of distrust the public has toward the media. He said media confidence numbers haven’t changed much over the years.

“We’ve got a reason why people don’t trust us,” McKerral said. “It’s a combination of things: weak reporting, false reporting, no reporting — which can be equally harmful in a society that should rely on its independent news media to provide people with information that will make their lives better and help them out.”

McKerral also said the corporatization of the news media and the audience’s want to affirm their own biases correlate with media distrust.

Student Government Association President Jay Todd Richey also cited the media as one of the main causes of low civic engagement in addition to our unstable international landscape and economic inequity.

“Just because you disagree with something that you hear does not mean it is fake news, and that has real consequences,” Richey said. He continued later, “Truth should not become a partisan issue. Facts are facts.”

Michael Shelton, a senior from Owensboro, agreed that fake news is a problem and added many people do not have the education needed to understand the benefit of actual research.

“People downgrade the findings of social scientists, of actual scientists, and that information is lost,” Shelton said.

When Grimes asked students if they would be interested in a class that taught how to examine the differences between real and fake news, several students responded with nods. Kymaira Majors, a freshman from Nashville, said many people rely on only one news source, and she would like to see a curriculum that taught students to fact-check from multiple reliable sources.

“In a course like that, I would not only like to see a way to discern what is true and false in the media but which news sources are most reliable,” Majors said.

“When it comes to being more discerning about what we consume… a news article is the place to start, not the place to stop,” McKerral said.

Bain-Selbo also said academic achievement is highly correlated with voter registration and actually voting, and in this way, higher education is not just for a specific individual but for the public good as well.

“We may need, more than ever, educated people who can gather evidence, analyze evidence, separate truth from fiction, and be able to critique arguments,” Bain-Selbo said. “I don’t know that there’s ever been a greater need for more support for higher education than today.”

Grimes has been working with Kentucky State Representative Jody Richards to work on increasing voter registration and turnout. Recently, they have launched online voter registration and are working on allowing email requests for absentee ballots and restoring voting rights to non-violent offenders. Richards also said getting young people involved in mock elections and other civic activities can help prepare them for the future.

“We all need to work together to raise the number of folks who vote,” Richards said.

Reporter Jamie Williams can be reached at 270-745-6011 and [email protected].