6. Our challenge: the distrust of media

The less you know, the more you believe. — Bono

ONE OF THE CHALLENGES we face as citizen journalists is the distrust of news reported on both conventional and social media. We can put this down to a number of developments:

Films about journalism have formed public perceptions about the profession, some good, others misleading. Medium Cool was a 1970s Paramount film centred around TV news journalists. All the President’s Men was the story of the investigative journalism that documented the Watergate break-in and the start of the decline of the Nixon administration. The 2017 film, The Post, dramatised the Washington Post’s controversial publishing of The Pentagon Papers in the early 1970s. Fourth Estate: The NY Times and Trump is a documentary about how the New Your Times reported Trump over his first year. Graphic: Distributed on Social media. © Paramount Pictures.
  • the appearance of ‘fake news’ that is fabricated (otherwise known as lies) and accusations by politicians and others that authentic news is fake, confusing people and reducing trust in the media
  • the misrepresentation of events in social media reposts, claiming they are something other than what they actually are, often to generate a particular spin or interpretation of events; this is common with reposted photographs that sometimes turn out to be of events other than what they claim to be
  • the use of alarming and misleading headlines to encourage people to click on a link — ‘clickbait’; the perpetrator is paid for every click onto their website
  • made-up or misleading news reports and attention-grabbing headlines used by people selling stuff to attract viewers to their websites; this is less about news and more about marketing
  • selective reporting and deliberate spin to a story by mainstream news organisations
  • the distortion of news by government to achieve political and geostrategic objectives, such as by the government of Russia and organisations including troll farms working for it; see the NATO Defence College’s The Handbook of Russian Information Warfare
  • and more.

Distrust of online and social network news

The June 2017 Sensis report identified the extent of distrust in online and social network news sources.

The survey found:

  • 82% trust in traditional news sources such as radio, TV and print media
  • 12% trust in news sources on social media
  • 7% trust in posts about what is happening from friends or family on social media.

Supporting these findings is the reality that many people access traditional news sources (such a newspapers, TV and radio) not through the media of print and broadcast but through their online presence.

This was the finding of Digital News Report: Australia 2016, the second annual survey of news consumption in Australia. The report was a collaboration between the News & Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. It found that:

print and radio is regarded as the main source and this is reflected to some extent in online news consumption, where the top source of news among online media was through websites or apps of newspapers (21.7%).”

The report disclosed that:

Further analysis on the main source of news reveals that 76.6% cited ‘mainstream news’ as their main source. Mainstream news outlets include traditional sources — broadcast and print — and also the online websites/apps of these traditional news companies.”

It found that although TV news, “including 24-hour news channels, are a dominant main source of news for about 38% of participants, online news and social media as main news sources are very competitive. 18.5% of participants report that social media are their main news source while 27.4% report online news as their main source — a combined digital usage of nearly 46%. This divide between the traditional and the digital is neatly illustrated when looking across age groups.”

Reporting on trust in news reporting overseas were findings that Americans trust in the mass media to report the news fully, accurately and fairly had dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, with only 32 percent saying they have a great deal or fair amount of trust in the media, down eight percentage points from the previous year.

Furthermore, a 2017 poll of American news consumers found a majority of respondents saying mainstream media publishes fake news, further eroding public confidence. This was reported in The Hill as nearly two-thirds of Americans saying the mainstream press is full of fake news, “a sentiment that is held by a majority of voters across the ideological spectrum”.

Comparative figures for confidence and trust in the media as a source of general news discloses:

  • the most trusted news sources in Germany are public broadcast radio (83% a lot or some trust), national television (81%), national/regional newspapers (80%) and local newspapers (74%); the least trusted are friends and family (25%) and blogs (38%)
  • UK citizens give the highest ratings to national television (86% a lot or some trust), friends and family (78%), national/regional and local newspapers (both 75%) and public broadcast radio (67%), and the lowest ratings to blogs (24%), news websites (44%) and international newspapers (55%)
  • Americans give the highest trust ratings to local newspaper (81% a lot or some trust), friends and family (76%), national television (75%), national/regional newspapers (74%), and public broadcast radio (73%) and the lowest ratings to blogs (25%), international newspapers (52%) and news web sites on the internet (55%).

Meeting the challenge

The surveys mentioned above cover both traditional and online sources of general news, the mix we get in newspapers, on TV and radio where events, economics, disasters, politics, celebrities and much more is presented as a mashup.

Trust in mainstream news sources can in part be attributed to the historic role these organisations have had as the only sources of news and information through the Twentieth Century. That built an impetus that continues long after the reputation of some mainstream media organisations has become tainted by selective and biased reporting and their ignoring important events.

The role of investigative journalism once practiced by some mainstream media organisations, such as Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s revelation of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s, and the role of The Washington Post and New York Times in revealing it, reinforced the positive reputation of mainstream media, especially the big-circulation, established newspapers, as trustworthy, although for some that trust has been eroded by politically-motivated allegations of fake news in recent times.

While many news organisations continue to report fairly and accurately, the selective reporting of some has been eroding public trust in mainstream media organisations for some years. With public trust of online media low, educating people to become information-literate and ask questions about what they see in mainstream, online and specialist media becomes important. The role of debunking and myth busting websites becomes more important in a situation of media mistrust.

Trust may well be different for specialist news sources. Look online, and we find a multiplicity of news organisations and bloggers reporting specialist areas such as technology, science, digital culture, economics and so on. These employ writers who have experience and deep knowledge of what they write about and who produce informative, knowledgable and authoritative analysis, opinion and reportage. Organisations and their journalists attract a following. The same happens with independent specialist bloggers whose work is grounded in experience and knowledge and who produce authoritative commentary, analysis and opinion.

For citizen journalists, especially those setting up their own websites, it is the specialist media with its authoritative bloggers that is the model. Writing based on what we know about, what our experience teaches us, and writing blogs that come across as reasonable, accurate and that present verifiable facts lend a tone of authenticity and honesty to our work.

Doing this, we position ourselves in a niche in the blogsphere and, through participating on relevant social media and engaging with commenters, as well as commenting on others’ blogs, we start to become known.

Social media use in Australia

Trust in social media as a news source:

  • traditional news sources such as radio, TV and print media: 82%
  • news sources on social media; 12%
  • posts from friends or family on social media about what is happening: 7%.

Seventeen percent admitted to having reacted to something on social media which they later learnt to be untrue. This has happened to females more than males and people aged 30–49 years more than other age groups.”

Americans’ Trust in Mass Media Sinks to New Low
September 14, 2016:

  • 32% say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust
  • 14% of Republicans express trust, down from 32% last year
  • confidence drops among younger and older Americans.

Australians are equivalent in trusting the news to Norwegians and Austrians. Australia was around the midpoint of 26 countries.

In a comparison of English-speaking countries, Australia and the USA are the lowest in general news trust compared to Canada, UK and Ireland. In Australia 25.5% of participants do not trust news and about 31% neither trust nor distrust news most of the time.

Digital News Report: Australia 2016, a collaboration between the News & Media Research Centre at the University of Canberra and the Reuters Institute for the Study of journalism at the University of Oxford, disclosed:

  • terrestrial TV (53.9%) and social media (52.2%) were reported as the most popular sources of news in the week prior to the survey
  • when asked for one main source of news, 37.6% replied TV; 27.4% replied online news; 18.5% replied social network services/blogs, radio news programs (39.6%), printed newspapers (35.4%) and websites of newspapers (32.5%) were also widely used as sources of news.

Traditional media news consumption devices:

  • a fairly even split between online news consumers using mobile devices (47.3%) and computers (desktops, laptops, 48.3%) as their main way of accessing news
  • Australian (27%), British (29%) and Finnish (30%) respondents used tablets for news access more than any other country.

Other facts:

Facebook continues to rule the social media landscape in all the countries surveyed this year, both for general social networking as well as specialist news access

Australian news consumers have a relatively high awareness of digital-born news brands.

The key underlying issue is that we have moved from an era of information scarcity to one of abundance. One consequence of this high-choice environment has been reduced loyalty to any individual news brand, with the price of most content reduced to zero.

International survey data has consistently shown that only a small minority in most countries is prepared to pay anything for online news. Almost three quarters (74%) of the overwhelming proportion of Australians not currently paying for access to digital news are not prepared to make any payment for digital content in future.

Australia is equivalent in general news trust with Norway and Austria, around the mid-point among the 26 countries in the 2016 surveys. In a comparison of English-speaking countries, Australia and the USA are the lowest in general news trust compared to Canada, UK and Ireland. In Australia 25.5% of participants do not trust news and about 31% neither trust nor distrust news most of the time. There are no differences in trust across age groups, gender, and household income.

A fractured media

We see that the media space in Australia is fractured. Old media of print and broadcast persist and have morphed into online news sources. Specialist sources produced by authoritative bloggers cater for specialist readers.

Although online media played some role in the closure of some newspapers and is responsible for falling newspaper sales and a decline of newspaper revenue by co-opting much of the classified advertisement market, print newspapers continue to supply news to a lot of people. A similar decline was predicted for print books with the appearance of ebook publishing. Even though many people prefer ebooks (and magazines) mainly because of their portability, there remains market for printed editions.
What we see here is not one form of publication forcing the other out of business, we see a diversification of media platforms which leads to a reduction in publishing numbers for some and an increase for others.

Surveys by media analysis researchers point to a confused landscape when it comes to trust in the media.

For us as bloggers, this underlines the importance of being seen as a credible source of information. How to do that is what we look at in following chapters.