UMR Research has today [7 October] released the results of a survey of New Zealanders that show, on the whole, that we don’t trust the news media.
As UMR Executive Editor Tim Grafton said in a company media release, the findings really come as “no surprise”.
What would have been newsworthy and surprising, would be a survey that says the news media’s doing well in terms of accuracy, balance and a willingness to admit mistakes.Nearly two-thirds of respondents felt there was a problem with the media: only 35 per cent said the media was accurate, 30 per cent that the news was balanced and only 27 per cent believed the media was willing to admit to mistakes.
Age and gender also appear to influence the results, which is also not surprising really. We might expect older men to be more inclined to read newspapers and therefore perhaps more inclined to complain and to notice potential problems.
The real issue is what, if anything, the news media – or more accurately perhaps, editors and senior journalists – are going to do about their poor standings.
the lack of public trust in journalism and the news media is not a new issue, consistently over the past 20 years print journalists have always come close to the bottom of surveys that measure public attitudes towards professionals.
The Readers’ Digest has conducted annual surveys of the most trusted people and professions for the past 15 years or so. In the 2008 New Zealand survey the top-ranking journalist was retired newsreader, Judy Bailey at number 15. Current affairs host John Campbell was next at number 45 and the only other journalist in the top 100 was broadcaster and columnist Paul Holmes at 65. In the Australian most trusted profession survey journalists were 35th out of 40. Well below ambulance officers (1st); locksmiths (15th); hairdressers (21st) and bartenders (26th). Journalists were only two places above prostitutes (37th) and did marginally better than car salesmen (38th), politicians (39th) and in last place at 40th, telemarketers (Atkins, 2008; Readers’ Digest, 2008a).
In the 2008 New Zealand sample, journalists were 34th; spot 35 went to psychics and astrologers and 36th place was reserved for real estate agents. The bottom three were the same as the Australian list (Readers’ Digest, 2008b). Unfortunately Readers’ Digest does not appear to conduct similar surveys in the USA or the UK, but we can compare the trust status of journalist in these and other countries using other survey data.
A 2004 Pew Center report on public attitudes to American newspapers found that overall trust in the largest US news brands is declining and that in general people trusted newspapers less than other media. The researchers concluded that this might have something to do with the visual nature of TV news being more appealing than the reading of newspaper text. The report found that people tend to think that the newspaper industry is motivated by commercial imperatives and that journalists are “out of touch” with ordinary readers. The “believability” of newspapers was tracked from 1985 to 2003 and in that time it fell by about 19 per cent; from 78 to 59 per cent. At the same time the proportion of those who did not believe newspapers grew from two to nine per cent (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2004). A 2005 survey found that around 60 per cent of Americans trusted the news media to report “fully, fairly and accurately”, a decline from what Robert Love (2007) called the “high water mark” of 70 per cent during the 1970s.
In 2006 a similar report found that people were becoming to rely more on the Internet for news because of the convenience factor. At the same time the researchers found that audiences tended to trust the Internet more and also liked the greater diversity of opinion that it offered.
The researchers reported that about 68 per cent of people who consume their news online believed “almost all”, or “most” of what they found there. However, levels of trust tended to vary between established and branded news sites and individual sites, such as blogs. Seventy-nine per cent of respondents trusted major news brands, while only 12 per cent trusted sites posted by individuals (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2006).
The news media certainly has some work to do to regain the public’s trust.
To enter into the life of a journalist is to accept personal responsibility for the credibility of your work and to serve the interests of the consumer of the information. You can do that only if you fully understand how the system works. Because of this importance of the journalist’s work to others in the community, to become a journalist is an act of character. For the public’s ability to become a force in self-government depends upon the integrity of your work. (Kovach, 2005)
Bill Kovach is right: the value of a journalist’s work is measured by its public acceptance. The integrity of a journalist’s work leads to public acceptance or rejection and thus to public judgment of the journalist’s character. A journalist must be trusted, must be seen to be honest and reliable. It seems then that as a profession, journalism has failed the public test of its character.
For Kovach the problem has several root causes—a failure of leadership in newsrooms around the world; the “thinning of professional staff” through cost-cutting measures and a resultant failure to “ask the right question at the right time”. In other words: a professional failure to challenge entrenched economic and political power, or to the stand up to the purveyors of “flat earth” news.
And the fact that people are now tending to believe more of what they read on the web than in newsprint should also be worrying. In particular, the suggestion that the amateur or “citizen” journalism and the blogosphere is better than the professional news media at delivering what people want should be causing waves of nausea and panic among senior news managers.
Atkins, M. (2008). Australia’s most trusted professions 2008. Retrieved 17 July, 2008, from http://www.readersdigest.com.au/content/australia-most-trusted-professions-2008
Kovach, B. (2005, 1 February). A new journalism for democracy in a new age, Madrid, Spain. http://www.journalism.org/node/298
Love, R. (2007). Before Jon Stewart. Columbia Journalism Review, (March/April). Retrieved 19 July 2008, from http://www.cjr.org/feature/before_jon_stewart.php
Project for Excellence in Journalism. (2004, 15 March 2004). The state of the news media 2004. Retrieved 19 July, 2008, from http://www.stateofthemedia.com/2004/
Project for Excellence in Journalism. (2006, 15 March 2004). The state of the news media 2006. Retrieved 19 July, 2008, from http://www.stateofthemedia.com/2006/
Readers’ Digest. (2008a). 2008 New Zealand’s most trusted people. Retrieved 19 July, 2008, from http://www.readersdigest.co.nz/content/2008-new-zealands-most-trusted-people-list/
Readers’ Digest. (2008b). 2008 New Zealand’s most trusted professions. Retrieved 19 July, 2008, from http://www.readersdigest.co.nz/content/2008-new-zealands-most-trusted-people-list/