Great is Journalism. Is not every Able Editor a Ruler of the World, being a persuader of it?
— Thomas Carlyle, 1837

Journalism is just ditchwater.
— Thomas Carlyle, 1881

In its inaugural State of the News Media report in 2004, the Project for Excellence in Journalism put its finger on a core paradox in contemporary American journalism: “Journalists believe they are working in the public interest and are trying to be fair and independent in that cause,” the report went. “This is their sense of professionalism.” The next line? “The public thinks these journalists are either lying or deluding themselves.” It continued: “Americans think journalists are sloppier, less professional, less moral, less caring, more biased, less honest about their mistakes, and generally more harmful to democracy than they did in the 1980s.”

It concluded: “After watching these numbers closely for years, we at the Project suggest that all of these matters—the questions about journalists’ morality, caring about people, professionalism, accuracy, honesty about errors—distill into something larger. The problem is a disconnection between the public and the news media over motive.”

A disconnection between the public and the news media over motive. In other words, the profound mistrust Americans apparently feel toward their media isn’t rooted simply in the products of journalism—the news reports put out every day in text and image and sound—but rather in the producers themselves. Mistrust in our media is as much a matter of the who as the what.

Which is worrisome. Not only because it suggests that every joke told at the expense of lawyers, IRS agents, and similar scourges also applies to journalists (“How many reporters does it take to screw in a light bulb? None: reporters only screw us”)—and not only because it leads to journalists’ dismissal by their own audiences as ‘sloppy’ (ouch) and ‘biased’ (ouch again) and ‘immoral’ (okay, uncle)—but also because, more broadly, it foments a strain of skepticism that simply has no rhetorical recourse. If news narrative is not to be trusted because it is produced by people who are not to be trusted, then there’s little to be done to improve the apparently wretched state of our journalism—save, of course, for ridding it of journalists entirely. Per this framing, journalism is flawed at its foundations. Its whole ontology is off.

The mistrust has myriad causes, of course, many of which do indeed resolve in the behavior of journalists. But the larger matter is one of classic cognitive disconnect. News reporting, in general, has structured itself as an arbiter not merely of human events in particular, but also of—sorry, postmodern sensibilities!—Truth in general. That presumptive capital-T and all. But news narrative, as a body, is as restrictive as it is descriptive; it constrains the world as much as it expands it. It marries moral and narrative authority; and it does so, of course, for the eminently practical reason that it requires moral authority to have any value in the first place. News’s worth as a commodity is predicated, almost completely, on the trust it commands from its consumers.

But consumers, for our part—and, of course, from the journalism-as-commodity perspective, our part is paramount—appreciate almost instinctively the narrative tension between the world as we experience it and the world as journalism packages it. Text—the narrative product itself, be it realized in print or pixel, image or sound—requires, implicitly, a conjuring of the metaphysical, and thus a disconnect from the reality it signifies. The Egyptian god Thoth, Neil Postman points out, was the god of writing. He was also the god of magic.

It’s a tension that in some sense as old as text itself. Even in the earliest days post-Gutenberg, the print-culture scholar Elizabeth Eisenstein notes, the profusion of books that addressed the same topics likely contributed to readers’ awareness of discrepancies among their narratives—and, thus, skepticism about their veracity. As for journalism, “the rise of the news-sheet in the seventeenth century made the unreliability of reports of the ‘facts’ more obvious to more people than ever before, since rival and discrepant accounts of the same events, battles for example, arrived in major cities on the same day and could easily be compared and contrasted,” the historian Peter Burke observes. Indeed, according to one Englishman, commenting in 1569: “We have every day several news, and sometimes contraries, and yet all put out as true.”

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.