A decade ago, a renowned Spanish editor wrote a book on the future of journalism. For its title he drew on a popular saying: “Don’t tell my mother I’m a journalist. She thinks I play piano at the whorehouse”.
In The Piano Player in the Brothel, Juan Luis Cebrián (a former editor of El País) wrote of the restoration of democracy after Spain’s repressive fascism ended with the death of Franco, and journalism’s regression in the face of ambiguities that are part and parcel of the globalised Digital Age. After a long life in the trade, he concluded: “Although I have stated that our profession has low-life origins, it also aspires to a higher truth, where honesty and transparency play an essential role.”
The vast majority of journalists that I know aspire to that higher truth. Unfortunately, the public doesn’t seem to recognise that reality.
Instead, their view of New Zealand journalism is like plaque: A nasty build-up, caused by the things they shove down their throats, that only gets worse the longer they neglect to clean their teeth.
They have fleeting impression of media – a headline here, a social media post there, a half-remembered rant heard over the crunch of cornflakes, or a café conversation about not being able to believe a bloody thing nowadays. As a result, their trust in news media has much to do with perception and very little to do with analysis of what is being written, filmed, or said in the news.
The latest Reuters Institute report on trust in media (based on focus groups and interviews in four countries) found that how people thought about news content reflected their general feeling about a news brand’s reputation rather than any sort of critical evaluation. Also, it often became conflated with general attitudes to media as a whole.
Furthermore, editorial processes and practices of journalism were rarely central to how people in the Reuters study thought about trust because they had little understanding of how journalists work. In the absence of any knowledge of newsgathering processes that shape how the news is made, it was all too easy for the participants to see bias and hidden agendas in news coverage. Many went a step further into the realms of conspiracy theory where hidden forces control what journalists do and how the news is distorted.
An adjunct to the Reuters media trust project is an annual study by the Journalism Media and Democracy research centre at AUT. Last week it produced its 2021 survey of trust in New Zealand media and the build-up of plaque was self-evident. Trust in media had declined across the board. It found that fewer than half of us trust the news overall. Even trust in the news outlets New Zealanders actually use is only marginally higher (55 per cent) and it is down a whopping seven percentage points on last year.
Trust in specific news brands also showed across-the-board decline
The build-up of negative perceptions in the JMaD survey was most evident in specific questions about disinformation and misinformation. While more than two-thirds were worried about fake news on the Internet, the perceptions of deliberate distortion were deeply disturbing. Almost all of the sample were concerned about spin and twisting stories to suit a particular agenda and 90 per cent were concerned about dumbing down stories, misleading headlines, and clickbait (collectively called poor journalism).
General concern about such things is not only unsurprising, it is healthy. However, the numbers left me wondering whether I was seeing a true reflection of the performance of New Zealand media or a build-up of perceptions that were a mix of domestic and international coverage. My thinking went further: Were these attitudes created by exposure to full news services and original material, or were they the result of a fast food social media diet that could be partisan or conspiracy or both? Did it actually relate to New Zealand or was it an extension of a global perception? Was it really a reflection of news media or a distortion through social media (noting that only 14 per cent of the New Zealand participants trusted what they saw in social media).
In raising these issues I was not questioning the integrity of the survey. Its questions mirror the Reuters questionnaires in order to insert New Zealand data into the Reuters tables for international comparisons. That is invaluable and it shows this country actually ranks very well on the global scale – seventh on a 15-nation ranking of general trust in news and well ahead of Australia, the United States and Britain.
And trust is subjective, created by manifold influences on individuals. To a degree, how it is arrived at is not important. What matters is that it is lower than it should be for the good of journalism and, consequently, for society.
It suggests that efforts need to be made across the board to increase levels of public trust in news media and in journalism itself.
We have seen some moves in that direction –generally in campaigns seeking support for individual platforms – but the battle needs to be fought across the entire front. Why not an all-media campaign committing each outlet to the cause of public interest journalism and its well-established tenets?
But first there needs to be some housekeeping.
The decimation of newsrooms has had a detrimental effect on the checks and balances that were journalism’s secret weapon. They were the means by which mistakes and misconceptions were detected and remedied beforethe public set eyes on a story.
Last weekend I saw an example where check and balance processes may have produced a different story . It related to a Northland couple’s anguished complaint that their son’s fatal meningococcal disease could have been detected by a discontinued school throat-swabbing programme designed to combat rheumatic fever. Within the body of the story a medical professional was quoted stating that the throat swab was never designed to test for meningococcal disease. I have found that, in fact, the test for that condition requires a blood or spinal fluid sample and that the Labtest information sheet for the swab test makes reference only to streptococcal bacteria. Yet the story ran under the headline Throat swabs ‘may have saved boy’s life’. Given the medical statement, I doubt the story would have survived in that form had it passed through more scrutiny than was applied to it.
The housekeeping also needs to extend to a rethink on the role and placement of commentary and analysis. Too often, fact and opinion run within the same story with no clear distinction between the two. Hence the public’s perception that stories are being twisted or spun.
However, it goes further. We are seeing an increasing tendency to think the journalist is more important than the story. Perhaps that is an acknowledgment of the ‘frontman effect’ that is borne out by the Reuters research. It found that when people spoke of individual journalists, it was often specific to outspoken personalities and opinion writers and many had an easier time naming presenters and commentators with whom they disagreed. This may well contribute to the perceptions of bias in the media.
Let me illustrate the effect with the front pages of our metropolitan newspapers after the announcement of major restructuring of the health sector. The New Zealand Herald opted for an ‘if it bleeds, it leads’ approach that highlighted individuals for whom the changes come too late. The Press, however, believed that the opinion of Stuff’s political editor was the most significant aspect of the story. He saw the changes as “a make-work bonanza for management consultants and organisational change experts”. The remaining three titles carried detail of the changes and sector reactions on their front pages. I ask myself: What would readers prefer? I think I know the answer.
A third survey on trust was published recently. The Edelman Trust Barometer has been measuring the pressure annually for the past 21 years. This year it found trust in all information sources were at record lows. Traditional media, which had clawed its way above the trust baseline in recent years have not only slipped below the line but sit at their lowest point in the survey’s history.
On that global scale, 59 per cent believe journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations. An equal number think most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public. It’s not surprising that 61 per cent think the media is not doing well at being objective and non-partisan.
If my premise is correct and New Zealanders are susceptible to international influence in their perceptions of media in this country, those are worrying numbers for us, as well as the rest of the world. Time to stop the rot.