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Preserving the Public Trust

Educational programs, neutral storytelling keeps PBS above the 24/7 news cycle

By: Dawson Bell

Paula Kerger is keenly aware of the rapidly changing media landscape in America. After more than two decades in public broadcasting and 12 years at the head of PBS nationally, Kerger has witnessed firsthand the decline of traditional media and the chaotic rise of a fragmented and increasingly digital media world.

The effect has been at times exhilarating, she said during an interview with the Detroiter in advance of her appearance at the 2018 Mackinac Policy Conference, as advances in technology have removed barriers to participation in the marketplace of ideas and entertainment. In many ways, the digital revolution has allowed “many flowers (to) bloom,” Kerger said.

But Kerger notes a less salutary development as well: the fragmentation of the media has coincided with a decline in public trust of it, and of public institutions in general. There is a “growing disconnect” between the producers and consumers of content, she said. The continuing success of public broadcasting, Kerger said, is owed in large part to its ability to buck that trend.

For 15 years, a PBS-commissioned survey of Americans has found the public network to be the most trusted news organization in the country. And by a wide margin. In the most recent survey, the percentage of respondents who found PBS and its local affi liates “very trustworthy” was more than twice that of commercial networks.

Speaking to a tech conference in Las Vegas recently, Kerger characterized the trust that Americans place in public media as “our most valuable asset.” Kerger attributes public media’s advantage to several factors, including its insulation from the commercial pressures faced by for-profit media organizations, the close ties between local affiliates and the communities they serve, and a recognition by the public that PBS maintains a distinction between news reporting and opinion.

In a click-driven, hyper-partisan news environment that prizes conflict over consensus, maintaining that approach requires constant vigilance, she said. Amid rapid change, PBS tries to resist the temptation to relax the rigor of its decision-making over content and emphasis, Kerger said. The continuing strength of PBS affiliates also stands in contrast to other news organizations, like local and regional newspapers and broadcasters, where shrinking profits have led to sharp reductions in personnel and original content, she said.

Public media — television, radio and its online offerings — has tried “to fill some of that gap,” she said, by producing more local public affairs programming, political and election coverage, and documentaries. And the public has responded with higher levels of viewership and support. But Kerger is less sanguine about the prospects for restoring trust in news organizations and public institutions more broadly.

“I think we need to look for opportunities to bring people together,” she said, acknowledging that she isn’t sure how it can be accomplished in today’s social media world.

The formula for high cable television ratings is filling screens with talking heads who talk over each other, she said. Meanwhile other primary news sources, such as Twitter and Facebook, “can’t decide what they are.”

“As aggregators and mediators of news content, social networks aren’t news organizations. But they look like news organizations,” Kerger said.

All of this leaves the public in the unenviable position of having to sort through a morass of conflicting information. It is, Kerger said, “alarming…not good.” The role of PBS and public media, she said, is to maintain its focus on serving the public amidst the maelstrom.

“Our infl uence is in continuing to do work the public is attracted to and trusts,” Kerger said.

Striking a more optimistic note, she said, “The public is smarter than they are given credit for.”