This is a background briefing paper for the Journalism Credibility strand of the LSE Truth, Trust and Technology Commission. Other strands will include Platform Responsibility, Media Citizenship and Online Political Communications.
A workshop with practitioners was held at the LSE on 9th February 2018. Read a summary of the discussion here.
Just a few decades ago, "trust" was a topic that did not receive a lot of attention, because in bureaucratic and relatively stable systems "it was neither a scarce resource nor needed in a large quantity". Today, we are far more mobile, change jobs more frequently and digital communication is almost ubiquitous - and in this situation, "where flexibility is required and uncertainty abounds, trust is needed more than ever". Today's media markets are saturated and highly competitive. In the attention economy, the time people spend reading or viewing content is inextricably linked to financial revenue.
At the same time, trust in traditional media appears to be declining, and this allows misinformation to compete with real news for the public’s attention. The 2017 survey for the Reuters Institute’s Digital News Project showed that trust in media in the UK had fallen 7% in a year. Edelman’s annual report on trust found the institutions of government, business, media and NGOs were trusted less around the world, with the greatest drop for media, which is now distrusted in more than 80% of the countries surveyed. Politicians now deploy the pejorative label ‘fake news’ to undermine the legitimacy of established news media.
However, these survey results leave a major question unanswered: What do audiences mean when they are referring to trust in media? Are they looking for unbiased, factually accurate information? Or do they rather trust information that mirrors their own values, views and lifeworlds? As Charlie Beckett put it: “Trust is a relationship, not a fact”.
Looking at audience perceptions of ‘fake news’, Rasmus Kleis Nielsen and Lucas Graves wrote in their report:
Tackling false news narrowly speaking is important, but it will not address the broader issue that people feel much of the information they come across, especially online, consists of poor journalism, political propaganda, and misleading forms of advertising and sponsored content.
It’s important to remember that for some time, trust in media has not been particularly high. Gallup polling on American trust in mass media shows that it falling steadily from a high of 72% in 1976. But it does seem that - exacerbated by unusually polarised elections in the US and western Europe, which exposed gulfs between the media and the public - trust in media is at an unusually low ebb, especially among under-35s and those who describe themselves as left-wing. This is partly a result of financial pressures. In an industry which has seen massive disruption to its business model as a result of the shift to digital, some editors feel that they have no option but to resort to clickbait to pursue advertising money. Almost 200 local newspapers closed across the UK between 2005 and 2016. But as attacks on the BBC’s current and previous political editors have shown, commercial factors are not the only thing eroding public confidence.
“Media is now seen to be politicised, unable to meet its reporting obligations due to economic pressures, and following social media rather than creating the agenda,” wrote Richard Edelman following the release of the results of his company’s trust barometer. “In fact, 59 percent of respondents would believe a search engine over a human editor,” he continued, echoing the findings of a Reuters Institute report launched in late 2016, Brand and Trust in a Fragmented News Environment, whose respondents preferred algorithms for news curation - particularly the younger and more technologically engaged.
A key issue here is diversity: the public needs to feel that the media can represent them. There is continuing underrepresentation of women, ethnic minorities and people with disabilities in journalism and media companies, both behind the scenes and in front of the camera. There are also class issues at play which are harder to measure, but media seems to remain a relatively elite profession, despite - or perhaps because of - its relatively low pay and insecurity.
The Grenfell Tower tragedy - particularly devastating because it seems to have been preventable - brought sharply into perspective both the lack of local media in one of the richest boroughs in London, and the gap between the media (seen as part of the elite) and ordinary people. Angry local residents told reporters after the fire: ‘The mainstream media has dropped the ball.’ Anger at the media merged with anger at politicians, seen as part of the same system, with the media regarded as the mouthpiece of the government: there were unfounded rumours that the latter had issued a D-notice to cover up the true number of victims of the fire.
The perception of collusion between government and the media is also particularly acute during elections, as alternative players claim to expose ‘truths’ that the mainstream press ignore. Now that news organisations no longer have the same ability to shape public opinion during election campaigns, some Western democracies - notably France - are considering election-specific laws to address misinformation on social media. This is likely to create significant tensions, and may have ramifications for the way journalists cover campaigns, and how they explain their role in disseminating information and opinion. In turn, that raises questions about how journalists can best engage in media literacy.
Our Commission will address issues such as:
What can be done to reduce the misinformation around the reporting, analysis and commentary on topical events and issues?
How can we ensure a sustainable and diverse range of news sources that are transparent, accurate and accountable?
What can be done around personalisation to ensure that ‘good’ content reaches the widest public audience?
How should journalism change to engage better with diverse publics, to reach underserved audiences and to report on overlooked areas?
How can journalism improve and demonstrate its ethical and social public value?
What strategies should the news media adopt to cope with the challenges and opportunities of new technologies and new audience and market conditions?
What is the role of government, civil society as well as corporations and political organisations in sustaining journalism credibility?
What relationship should journalists have with the platforms?
How can news organisations improve media literacy among members of the public?
What can be done to reduce misinformation and malicious interference around elections?
We will be focusing on the UK but, by its nature, this is a set of issues that has international contexts.
“Fake news is not a tech problem; it’s a symptom of broken trust in the media” - Ian Katz writing in the Spectator
“Post-truth: circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” - the OED
“Traditional media boosts and profits from fake news even as it tries to fight it.” - James Ball, How Bullshit Conquered the World