Trust me, I think I know when I’m wrong.
For a very long time I have advocated quality journalism as the antidote to declining trust in news media. Three reports last week convince me that doing a better job is not the cure I thought it would be.
Of course, better reporting and analysis will always contribute to improving the regard with which journalists are held by the public. And it can always be done better.
However, a new survey by the Journalism Media and Democracy ((JMaD) centre at AUT and the latest Acumen Edelman Trust Barometer on New Zealand, together with further analysis by the Reuters Institute’s Trust in News project, have led me to conclude that journalism is not the cause of diminished trust but a victim of a deeper malaise.
Worse, it may be a scapegoat – an easy target on which the disaffected can dump their scorn and frustration.
Declining trust in news is a matter of concern, irrespective of the cause, and the latest JMaD survey shows there has been an eight percentage point drop in overall trust in news in this country since 2020. The trust level now stands at only 44 per cent, one point below the international average (which has shown a year-on-year improvement in the Reuters Institute survey on which the New Zealand study is based).
The Acumen Edelman Trust Barometer put New Zealanders’ overall trust in media even lower. It sits at only 41 per cent while its global barometer setting is 50 per cent. Put another way, globally trust in media squeezes into the ‘neutral’ category but in New Zealand it is firmly in the ‘distrusted’ camp.
Both surveys are in general agreement on the standing of traditional (mainstream) media, which the barometer says are trusted by 58 per cent. That is also the average of the top eight news brands in the JMaD survey. Radio New Zealand remains the most trusted brand at 62 per cent but JMaD notes that there has been an 11.4 per cent decline since 2020. Second most trusted in the Otago Daily Times (in the survey for the first time), followed by TVNZ and Newshub. The New Zealand Herald, Stuff, Newstalk ZB and Newsroom follow – all on 57 per cent.
The question is: why?
The answer may lie in other elements of the two surveys and in the deep dive that the Reuters Institute at Oxford University has taken into the data it collected for the international version of the JMaD survey.
My reading of the data suggests trust in media is a manifestation of the deep divisions that have appeared in not only New Zealand society but in many countries with which we might compare ourselves.
Let’s cherry-pick some of the survey data to illustrate what I mean.
In the Acumen Edelman New Zealand Barometer, 58 per cent agreed with the proposition that people in this country lack the ability to have constructive and civil debate about issues on which there is disagreement. Almost half said they tended to distrust until they saw ‘evidence’ something was trustworthy.
That survey also showed a disturbing correlation between attitudes to journalists and to politicians. Government leaders were trusted by only half those surveyed and they trusted ‘journalists and reporters’ even less (36 per cent). More than half thought political leaders deliberately misled the public and, alarmingly, almost two-thirds made the same accusation against journalists. In the JMaD survey more than 90 per cent were concerned about “stories where facts are spun or twisted to push a particular agenda” and more than a third were “extremely concerned” about it.
When the Reuters Institute examined comments made by respondents to its trust in news surveys it found a strong correlation between perceptions of news and the associations that people had on social media. Many did not regard their social media ‘friends’ (often total strangers with whom they shared a particular interest) as having their own agendas. They also trusted these online acquaintances to make judgement calls for them on media issues.
One of the Reuters reports contained the following comment from a participant: “It’s pretty straightforward. Most of my friends who I follow, whose opinions I trust, I let them be the filter for that stuff for me…It’s not necessarily that I like the news articles or the organisations themselves. It’s that I like my friends whose opinions I trust to post stuff that I know isn’t BS.”
The Reuters studies also show that those with the greatest distrust of media often have the least engagement with it and their familiarity with basic concepts concerning how news works is often low. For example, they did not know the difference between a news story and an editorial or a news story and press release. They also reside the least trust in political stories, reinforcing that link between perceptions of media and of politics.
That link was also evident in comments made to the JMaD surveyors in which the Public Interest Journalism Fund ($55 million dispersed by NZ on Air over three years to fund public interest coverage that media cannot resource) was characterised as nefarious political bribery that totally undermined New Zealand media. That is nonsense and, for the record, here is the press release from NZ on Air announcing the results of the third round of PIJF funding last December: https://www.nzonair.govt.nz/news/boost-diverse-media-content-and-roles-latest-journalism-funding/. It includes funding for Newsroom Investigates, the project led by Melanie Reid that had already uncovered Oranga Tamariki’s child removal practices and apocalyptic rabbit population explosions on Crown land.
Increasingly, I think I’m seeing not failings of journalism (although it’s far from perfect) but failings of society. And topmost in those failings is intolerance among an increasingly polarised population.
In 2003 Harvard professor T.M. Scanlon published a book of essays titled The Difficulty of Tolerance in which he described intolerance in the following terms: “Intolerant individuals…claim a special place for their own values and way of life. Those who live in a different way are, in their view, not full members of their society, and the intolerant claim the right to suppress these other ways of living in the name of protecting their society and ‘its’ values.” In the same essay he states that tolerance requires us to accept people and permit their practices even when we strongly disapprove of them. Tolerating the intolerant is not always easy.
Unfortunately, the intolerant too often have louder voices and what we are witnessing is their social media amplification into a wall of noise. The result is that we are so overwhelmed by sound that we concentrate on its effects rather than looking closely at its causes.
The cause is an assault on social cohesion. Last December, Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures said we were facing “a ‘perfect storm’ of multiple significant transformations and transitions”. COVID is only the latest manifestation of that disruption. The effect has been to push people into silos that condition how they see the world. Comfort lies in reinforcing those worldviews, not in challenging them.
It is the role of journalists, however, to present such challenges. When confronted by what former US Vice President Al Gore labelled ‘inconvenient truths’ , those in silos find comfort in denial and reinforcement in undermining the messenger to stem the tide of ‘fake news’. Unfortunately, the more even-handed the media try to be, the more they alienate growing bodies of polarised opinion.
The Acumen Edelman Barometer is a general survey of trust. As such, it covers the broad sweep of institutions in which people generally reside trust – government, business, and NGOs as well as media. In its final section, Fostering Cohesion in a Climate of Distrust, the latest report takes a holistic view. Business and NGOs are seen by participants as more stabilising forces than either government or media. The latter is regarded as having neither the ethics nor competency to contribute.
That damning judgement is made by people whose engagement with media, whose understanding of its operations, is often minimal and compromised by social media filtration. It illustrates, I believe, the stark difference between perception and reality. Take, for example, the barometer’s final section which charts levels of trust based on income. High-income people are appreciably more trusting than those on low income but the gap is almost closed when low-income people are well-informed.
The Barometer sets out a virtuous circle for rebuilding trust as the key to societal stability. It requires interaction between Government, business, NGOs and media. Good journalism will contribute to that circle but so, too, will the realisation that journalists and the organisations that disseminate their work have a direct role to play in social cohesion.
Last week’s reports were an urgent call for society to pull itself together.
- The announcement that Newsroom will provide political coverage for Today FM and other MediaWorks stations is a great example of media synergy at work. RNZ journalist Emma Hatton is joining Newsroom’s political reporting team to cover parliament for Today FM and its MediaWorks radio stations as well as writing for Newsroom.co.nz. Newsroom’s political editor, Jo Moir, will provide analysis and commentary on politics for Today FM programmes and Newsroom reporters will be part of Today FM’s election night coverage at the next general election. The move was a good way for Newsroom to increase its political staffing without putting additional strains on a tight budget. The ‘brand recognition’ on radio will also be useful.
- RNZ is beefing up its own staff in the lead-up to public media re-organisation. Broadcasting Standards Authority chief executive Glen Scanlon has resigned to take up the role of Head of Transition at the state broadcaster. The move shows RNZ is determined to hold its ground in the restructuring.
- Good to see the Dominion Post continuing to front-foot the issue of cyber abuse of women. The latest instalment, by Michelle Duff, was an interview with Security Intelligence Service Director-General Rebecca Kitteridge. In it she said: “Misogyny is quite widespread across different types of extremist ideologies across a broad spectrum…The casual use of extremely violent language has changed in a way that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.”