Lost trust in the media, is it a bad or a good thing?
What happens when society doubts the public’s ‘eyes and ears’ – aka the ‘watchdogs’
Hundreds of surveys and articles are talking about the public’s decline in trust in the media and what negative impacts it makes, but does the loss of trust necessarily have to be a bad thing? And if so, what would it retake journalists, reporting in the public interest, to regain trust?
The ‘Edelman Trust Barometer 2018’ shows that only 32% of Britain’s population trusts the mainstream media, prompting the public to consume less news and become what the report labels "news avoiders". The survey shows that the main reasons for avoiding the news is that people believe, that the aim of the media is not to report, but to attract a big audience and that the news itself is too biased and controlled by ‘hidden agendas’.
Charlie Beckett, professor of the Media and Communications department at the LSE, says that it’s a good thing when people do not believe instinctively the media and do not automatically trust what is said in the news coverage, ‘We should be critical and we should be sceptical about the news’, he says, ‘Even if you think you want people to trust you as a journalist, you have to ask why. Is it because you want to sell them stuff, is it because you want them to believe that you’re factually correct or is it because you want them to share your opinion?’
The decline in trust in the media is often connected with a certain danger to democracy and the public. But what speaks against the public trusting in media? And why do the media and journalists want the public to believe in them? Why do they think that it’s a problem being sceptical about what is said on a day to day basis?
Beckett says, ‘Journalists shouldn’t expect people to automatically trust them, just because they are journalists. Journalists around the world have done questionable things, they’ve been biased, they’ve been partisan, they’ve attacked people, they are all not innocent. Not all journalism is good for us.’
Alan Rusbridger, journalist and former editor-in chief of The Guardian, argues that the lack of accuracy is responsible why the majority of the public disbelieves in the media by referring to Nick Davies’s book ‘Flat Earth News’ and his project with Cardiff University. The project showed the time and economic pressure journalists have to undergo nowadays, like writing eight to ten stories in an eight hour shift, which leads to inaccuracy in the news.
Rusbridger says, ‘You have given your press release and you have to have your story written 4 to 5 minutes later. And there’s no time to make a call or to dig in, in any way into that story. So essentially, you are recycling PR. And that’s kind of a disaster, it’s a sort of a fraud to the public, you are serving this, which looks like journalism, but in fact, we’re not interrogating this stuff at all. We are representing PR as journalism.’
Therefor a certain degree of scepticism towards the media may be necessary. Furthermore, it’s clear that the lack of trust has been caused and can be justified by past mistakes of journalists and the inaccuracy in the news-production. But not trusting in what is said in the media and always doubting the news coverage can lead to chaos.
Ros Taylor, a former journalist at The Guardian and the BBC, voiced concern about what can happen if people lose trust in media institutions like the BBC and other public service broadcasters or news organisations that in the past had once been trusted.
"If you lose that, or if you become very, very cynical about the motives of some major news organisations, then it becomes difficult to agree on some points, some common points of agreement in society and some basic facts about the world that we live in," she says.
Media, also called the fourth pillar of democracy, is supposed to monitor what’s happening in public life and report about it. If the public doesn’t believe in what is reported, or in other words, when the media’s fundamental role as an information provider to all citizens gets questioned, an important aspect of democracy gets endangered.
Beckett points out that despite the fact that he thinks that a critical attitude towards the media is good, journalism is nevertheless essential and useful for democracy and society, ‘It helps to make the world tick. There are some countries around the world where it’s a real, real problem for democracy where journalists are in prison or newsroom are being censored. That’s obviously a bad thing.’
But when people start to question whether the mainstream media is telling the truth a snowball effect occurs according to Taylor, which causes people to think ‘if they’re lying about this, then maybe they’ve lied about other things as well’, leading the public to trust information obtained only online.
Taylor argues that only reading the news online through a limited group leads people to get a distorted picture of what is actually happening. ‘People go, seek out news in places which are not the best places to find it. They may seek out news by just following a small number of people on Twitter for example, or by following their favourite politicians on Instagram, or by following their favourite political parties on Facebook, and that may no longer get a balanced view for example of political issues.’
At the same time the lost trust in the media also makes people reject and avoid the news. ‘It’s bad when people voluntarily lose interest in public affairs, in politics, democracy and information. Because then you’ll get bad things happening. You get conspiracy theories’, warns Beckett.
So, not only a distorted picture of reality is an issue, but also the public’s ignorance of current affairs plays a crucial part in threatening the role of the media - the fourth pillar of democracy.
Important questions therefor are: What needs to be done to avoid the public getting an unbalanced view of what is happening? How can journalists ‘get their readers back’ and what do journalists need to do to stop the public to lose interest in what they’re writing? And most importantly, how can journalists make the public trust again in what they’re writing?
Becket recommends journalists to be more opened and transparent in explaining their sources and the context of what they are doing better. He adds ‘There’s lots of practical things I think that journalists should do more to earn trust. You don’t get trust overnight, you’re judged on your performance over time.’
Taylor puts all the tasks, which she thinks journalists need to do, to regain trust, together in the term ‘basic hygiene’. She explains it as follows, ‘It basically means that you’re open about your sources as far as possible. You’re honest about where you got the story, you do very basic journalistic things like fact-checking and presenting both sides of the story. You flag up news and comment separately. Because we know people are not always very good in telling the difference between the two.’
Crowd-sourcing, like e.g. ‘The Guardian’ and ‘The Telegraph’ do, is one of the tools journalists can use to get first-hand experiences. Journalists can then also explain their sources better, in publishing them in the written articles.
Rusbridger describes this tool as an ‘inversion of the journalistic model’, saying, ‘I’m not up on the stool anymore and I’m not passing information down to you. I take it for granted that my readers know more than I do. We begin to say actually the horizontal world is really interesting, that people were right about often to know much more than we do about a lot of things and how can we begin to harness that and to listen to them.’
Taylor underlines the crowd-sourcing’s advantage of giving much more in depth than contacting people on social media, especially because social media platforms do not represent the population. She says, ‘Particularly vulnerable people are missed out, people who don’t have an internet connection, the elderly, the homeless, the people who are living in poverty, all those people will be very, very hard to reach on social media, so you have to make a special effort to get out and reach them.’
‘There are all sorts of ways that journalists can create a relationship of trust’, says Beckett, ‘When people become familiar, when they learn over time that they can trust a news brand, then that’s easier. That means the journalist has got a relationship, obviously you have to make sure as a journalist, when you make mistakes, just like in a human relationship, you admit them, and you correct them and you’re trying to make sure you won’t make the same mistakes again.’
Despite all the bad news, the Edelman’s Trust Barometer 2018 shows that the global trust in journalism has risen by five points since last year while trust in social media has decreased by 2 points (In this case study participants were asked to rank their trust on a nine-point scale).
This shows that people still have faith in journalism and journalists. Like Rusbridger says, ‘people still like to see their journalists do important things in the public interest and being defenders about the truth’.