Newspapers have retained the trust of their existing readers, even as overall trust in the news media has utterly buckled. As everyone mans their own lifeboats, is it still possible to save the ship from foundering, asks Chris Sutcliffe in this chapter from our Media Moments 2019 report.
This time last year our headline was ‘Publishers are hang gliding over the hell of a public trust crisis’. Since then the situation has become a little more nuanced, with some sections of the news media finding themselves on trajectories away from that crisis – but the vast majority are now in a nose dive.
The situation – particularly the UK – has become acute. We are an increasingly tribal public, mistrustful of institutions that don’t cater to our confirmation bias and blithely accepting of those that do. Politicians and the media are in constant conflict, and while it’s largely positive that the internet has given anyone a platform, the reality is that platform is as often abused as it is used positively.
In this section, we’ll examine how we arrived at this point, and highlight the good work of some titles that are attempting to alleviate the trust crisis.
Where are we now?
Briefly, the UK was rocked over the course of 2019 by a number of confrontations between politicians and the media, especially as the end of the year and a looming General Election approached.
Some of the UK’s politicians were effectively running on a Trumpian anti-media platform – see Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s exhortation that “I ask our media as as good journalists to just report what we say” and prime minister Boris Johnson’s threat to review Channel 4’s license after he chose not to appear on a televised climate change debate. No party was exempt from some attempt to smear or otherwise use the media to a duplicitous end, from the Conservative party misleadingly editing BBC broadcasts to the Liberal Democrats aping the style of a local paper in a political ad.
That, along with the lamentable widespread adoption of the term ‘fake news’, has led to a situation in which the UK public do not trust the news media as a whole and are disengaging from the news entirely.
That isn’t to say that the news media is blameless; at a time when Caesar’s Wife rules are fully in effect, publications the length and breadth of the political spectrum are either pandering to power, failing to disclose conflicts of interest, and peddling clickbait at the expense of the public.
Covering the launch of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Digital News Report 2019, journalism.co.uk’s Jacob Granger wrote: “News avoidance is a real problem, with 32 per cent of overall audiences switching off – a figure up 3 percent from last year.
Why? In the UK – where news avoidance is 35 percent – the answer is obvious. Brexit is to blame for two thirds of news avoidance, with 58 percent of audiences saying the news as a whole is too depressing, and 40 per cent feeling unable to have an impact.”
Though causality is hard to pin down, it’s very possible that the increase in tribalism and the one-note nature of Brexit coverage is behind a 2 percent YOY fall in trust in ‘the media’ in 2019. As the Reuters report states: “As we have already seen, a majority of those who think that the news media fulfil their watchdog role trust the news (55 percent), whereas only about a quarter (28 percent) of those believing they do not fulfil this role say the same.”
While that 2% fall may not sound so bad on its own, it’s worth noting that since 2015 trust in the media in the UK fell from 51 percent to 40 percent in 2019, per the Digital News Report. That in turn is potentially responsible for the relatively sluggish growth in the proportion of people willing to subscribe to a news product in the UK – only 9 percent of the public currently subscribe.