Declining trust in journalism mirrors declining trust in politics and politicians
‘This is a dangerous place for a democracy to be and there are good reasons for us to try to understand how it is we got here so that we can take alleviating action if necessary’
‘Traditional sources are still far more trusted than newer home-grown digital sources. Some 59 per cent of Irish people put most trust in either the online or printed version of newspapers, or in radio and TV broadcasters, online and off, whereas just 7 per cent trust social media and blogs.’ Photograph: Getty Images
The Irish media is facing a crisis of confidence as low levels of trust erode the relationships between media, news consumers and citizens. So even though the Irish are among the most voracious readers of newspapers and consumers of news in the developed world, we have comparatively low levels of trust in journalism.
The problem of declining trust in journalism is multifaceted, but in many ways it mirrors the declining trust in politics and politicians recorded by Eurobarometer surveys in recent years. What is clear is that the Irish public takes a cynical rather than a trusting view of the media, and this is even more true among the young than the old.
This is a dangerous place for a democracy to be, and there are good reasons for us to try to understand how it is we got here so that we can take alleviating action if necessary.
Research by the Institute for Future Media and Journalism at Dublin City University (DCU), as part of the Reuters Institute Digital News Report, released this month, has underlined this. The research, which was funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland, found that Irish people trust their news less than do many other Europeans, and even less than UK residents.
Irish people trust their chosen source of news more than they trust news in general, but Ireland is still comparatively sceptical from an international perspective, with 57 per cent trusting their chosen sources and 46 per cent the news in general, compared with the highest level of trust, in Finland, where 73 per cent trust their chosen news sources, and with the UK, where 64 per cent trust their chosen news sources.
Traditional sources are still far more trusted than newer home-grown digital sources. Some 59 per cent of Irish people put most trust in either the online or printed version of newspapers, or in radio and TV broadcasters, online and off, whereas just 7 per cent trust social media and blogs (people were only permitted to take one option).
As Dutch political communication scholar Kees Brans argues, the reasons underlying growing cynicism about politics, the media and other formerly dominant institutions are interlinked in what he has described as the transformation from a golden triangle to a Bermuda triangle of political communication. In the past, politicians, media and citizens were in a symbiotic relationship. Politicians had access to journalists who would give them exposure, increasing their chance of re-election; journalists had access to stories to fill their pages and bulletins; and citizens were informed, enabling them to feel they were playing their part in democracy. This was the golden triangle of political communication.
Now politicians believe journalists are cynical, focused on infotainment, scandal and horse-race politics; journalists mistrust the increasing spin and attempts to control them by parties and politicians; and citizens are turned off by the negativity of both. If this Bermuda-triangle view of the situation is true, journalists may need to rethink political coverage to focus more on issues that matter to people.
While the reasons above may be one explanation for declining levels of trust, the Reuters Institute also conducted online surveys of focus groups in the US and the UK to try to uncover some of the other causes of the global lack of faith in news media.
The evidence from these pointed to the pressures on media caused by increased competition between outlets, as well as to the pressures on individual journalists. There was also concern about the effect on the news agenda of commercial and ownership issues. In addition, the growing use of advertorials or sponsored content posing as editorial content was also having an impact on levels of trust.
The good news is that in the UK, which is a similar market to Ireland, the perceived impartiality and fairness both of broadcasters and reputable online newspaper sites came through strongly as a major driver of trust.
Out of our hands
This presents multiple challenges for the effort to rebuild trust between journalism and the people. Facebook algorithms essentially decide which news any individual gets to see, based on some unknown combination of their past likes and those of their friends. This means, for example, that if someone has never liked an economics story, and these are not popular among their friends, then they may never see one.
In the past, news agendas were set in newsrooms, where what would appear in the next bulletins or the day’s papers was decided. Now, for almost half of all people, it is decided by an algorithm. This is a huge change for journalism, and one that publishers, regulators and citizens need to get to grips with.
Dr Jane Suiter is director of the Institute for Future Media and Journalism at Dublin City University