Journalists do not play piano in a brothel

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.
















5 thoughts on “Journalists do not play piano in a brothel

  1. I think that a great deal of mistrust is generated by those individuals who claim not to be journalists (Hosking, Garner et al), but act like they are. Thank you for this piece.

  2. Hi Gavin
    Thanks for the commentary.
    Have a read of this in-depth analysis of the media bias during the recent cannabis referendum.
    It identifies media outlets and also individual journalists who have let the side down significantly.
    They don’t even *pretend* to be balanced.

    People won’t start trusting the media fully until both sides of a debate are allowed, and both sides of a debate are reported.

    Media should report the debate – not lead the debate IMHO.

  3. Gavin,
    Your “decimation of the newsrooms” is just one of the problems facing journalism. A second is the inability of some young journalists to exclude their own views from their work, sometimes displaying an inability to write anything other than one-sided pieces of commentary.
    Now that some of our media are free from overseas corporate ownership, they require a major exercise to find out what their readers want – then work on delivering that.
    News continues to be relatively absent from our opinion-laden pages.
    Bob Fox

  4. Gavin Ellis – Gavin Ellis is a media consultant, commentator and researcher. He holds a doctorate in political studies. A former editor-in-chief of the New Zealand Herald, he is the author of Trust Ownership and the Future of News: Media Moguls and White Knights (London, Palgrave) and Complacent Nation (Wellington, BWB Texts). His consultancy clients include media organisations and government ministries. His Tuesday Commentary on media matters appears weekly on his site
    Gavin Ellis says:

    I agree wholeheartedly, Bob, that a “major exercise” is required. That was one of the reasons I have proposed a Bretton Woods #2 on the media. I wrote about it last year:

  5. I agree with Bob Fox.
    I also see the DomPost’s newspaper 🗞 circulation has dropped 30% in the past year.
    I too believe dropping circulations and a poor view of the news media by the public is the result of the decision by younger newspaper editors and management to report very little news and lots of ‘Fake News’ – the ‘woke’ PC-oriented views of both columnists and their journalists methinks – which has turned off the older Baby Boomer generation of traditional newspaper readers and failed to attract the younger liberal-leftist ‘cancel culture’ crowd who are fixated by the electronic media.
    We got out in time Gavin and Bob.
    And we enjoyed the height of newspaper journalism when we were sternly charged to ‘report news not (your) views’ rather than the current drive by journalists to influence reader opinions by foisting their ‘views’ on them instead of impartial genuine non-slanted NEWS.
    Yes it was hard to rein in our personal feelings and opinions but if we indicated any form of personal bias or preference in our news stories we, on the Christchurch Star in the 1960s, were pulled up smartly by the Chief Sub [the fearsome Mike Forbes] on receipt or a news sub on more careful analysis.
    The rule; “Readers want News, NOT your views” was so strong in my early days of journalism that a reporter was expected to go to a Labour party political speech and report on it faithfully and factually; and then go to a National party political speech and also report on it faithfully and factually.
    I was a conscientious objector when my name and birthdate came up for military service during the Vietnam War and I totally supported the Anti-War Flower Power movement and was immersed in its ‘protest’ music; but on a couple of occasions I was assigned to cover meetings in Christchurch of the RSA Tin Hat Club – which I reported faithfully, teeth gritted, despite numerous statements by returned World War II servicemen at those meetings attacking the anti-war movement and ‘attitudes of youth of the day.’ There were never any complaints about my reporting.

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