THE BLOG

Lost Trust In The News? Let's All De-Fake It

People are tuning out and tuning in elsewhere.

22/06/2017 9:07 AM AEST | Updated 22/06/2017 10:15 AM AEST
Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

Trust.

It is intangible, but reputations are built on it, relationships can founder over it and elections are fought over it.

So what is going on with our main instruments of information? A hungry audience is tuning out of the news and tuning in elsewhere.

Just when we need to get our facts straight, trust is low and it is not budging. Reality is under question. U.S. President Donald Trump declared journalists were the "enemy of the people".

Less than half the population (41.7 percent), according to the latest findings of the University of Canberra's Digital News Report: Australia 2017, trust the news. More than half of people online actively avoid the news, mostly because it makes them feels bad or, yes, they distrust it.

It's more than an anti-establishment mood; it matches research in the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer that found, through surveying 33,000 people, that public trust in the media around the world, and just about everything else, at a record low.

How did we get to this?

Just as the major media organisations, like the ABC, Fairfax and News Corp, go through yet another round of redundancies, experience in journalism is being called for. Where are all our mid-level reporters?

People are consuming more news and information than ever before, but thanks to the online juggernaut, industry business troubles and media convergence, the barriers between reportage, journalism and commentary are being broken down, but the news has long been accused of deliberate disinformation and bias.

As a career journalist, it feels like the walls of the dam are crumbling and every story or blog I do plugs a hole.

Taking a position or being a "keyboard warrior" is seductive and may be good for a social media profile, but ultimately it is self-destructive. All journalists have are their reputations. And once they are compromised, the game is over.

The speed and wide audience of social media promise so much, especially during crises like recent terror attacks in the United Kingdom and Australia. But the Digital News Report finds trust among those who mainly use social media news source dropping. And the number of people who neither trust nor distrust the news most of the time is growing.

People appear to trust the sharer over the source. What does the keyboard warrior know over the source?

Is this deserved? Well, as ever, it depends on what or whom you read or listen to.

Major news outlets are now refusing to use some of the social media output of the U.S. President as he uses "unconfirmed information" from favoured news outlets.

Whether it is correctly applied or not, 'fake news' is a tag building in Trumpian proportions.

Co-opted prolifically by Trump and increasingly by Australian politicians, like the Treasurer Scott Morrison and One Nation leader Pauline Hanson, no one denies fake news exists and circulates as people seek social media infamy or to push an agenda, but it does not and cannot exist in all the places it is accused of being in.

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News flash! Fake news, as an accusation, cannot be trusted.

If it comes from a politician's mouth it is likely to be a lazy deflection or diversion. It should always be questioned.

The politicians' own credibility is on the line as their claims are speedily contradicted and recorded evidence is inexplicably denied. In Australia, never before have people had less faith in politics.

The media needs to be questioned too. It always has been. Nothing has changed there. But the time honoured, and often justified, practice of picking holes in reportage has become painting the whole story as 'FALSE'. And such social media hollers or howlers are now RT'd with the speed and devastation of the Spanish Flu.

But if the source, like the U.S President, cannot be trusted or the source is using untrustworthy sources, the news cycle is corrupted.

And reputable media outlets like the Washington Post, CNN and the Sydney Morning Herald are having their reputations trashed, accused of lying, "group think" and running 'jihads' against the government of the day. This is happening as politicians increasingly use social media to get around traditional media and present an "unfiltered" message to the public, even by their parties secretly or clumsily using 'bots' to boost support and farm out propaganda.

Campaign journalism certainly exists - and it may be hard to work out the difference between a report, an opinion piece and a biting bit of satire – but quality public interest journalism is vital for a functioning democracy. At its most base level, it can expose howling hypocrisy, waste and stupidity. It also shines a light in dark places and holds corrupting power accountable.

And, apart from #advert, who's to know these days what the legitimate story is and what is the masquerading sponsored bargain? And perhaps it is sleazy, intrusive reporting that is turning people off? Or plagiarism?

Like a broken relationship, getting back trust is not easy. Most relationship advice in this area urges an apology or acknowledgment of wrongdoing.

The media does itself no favours sometimes and the whole profession pays. What is left is a grinding doubt and a concerted attempt to redefine reality. It is good to be skeptical, but if the trust is gone in news, what is the point of it?

Just as the major media organisations, like the ABC, Fairfax and News Corp, go through yet another round of redundancies, experience in journalism is being called for. Where are all our mid-level reporters?

People still want information and are increasingly going to other non-traditional sources for news. This distrust is creating a hole and it is being filled by citizen journalism, but it is also fueling those 'fake' yarns.

The distrust with the online space is evident and falling.

According to the 2017 Digital News Report, a third of those who rely on social media (32 percent) and just over a third of those who use online sources (37 percent) as their main source of news are less likely to trust most news most of the time.

Newspaper readers (52 percent), TV viewers (50 percent) and radio listeners (48 percent) have the highest general trust in news.

It is a jump in trust for newspapers of four percent since 2016, but it is hardly a convincing result.

News fact checking is one remedy, from within media organisations and without. And the efforts can prove widely popular.

But for outlets, fact checking takes much needed resources from the main news game of reporting and investigating. This business model is yet to proven.

What's left is what's available to all people who don't like what they see, read and hear.

The big switch off.

Good, ethical, un-biased public interest journalism has never felt more important and needed.

It is not just the media that people have lost faith in and are switching off from. Trust in authority and public institutions is falling away. Even trust in our most trustworthy professions, like health, is not what it used to be.

Surprising no one, journalists and politicians remain down low in terms of ethics and honesty, just hovering about car salesman, real estate agents and advertising people.

While more people are turning off and tuning out, there's a mysterious middle third of news users who neither trust nor distrust the news.

Without knowing their motivation, it appears to be a group that could go either way.

Who are these people? Like elections that are traditionally fought "in the middle," could they point to winning back trust in news? Are they an untapped audience for a potential new approach to the news?

The Digital News Report finds they are a wide group of non-committed regular media users that is more likely than not to be a young female educated city dweller with a high interest in the news.

But, of course, that is not the whole story.

It is easy to say 'don't lose trust in the first place,' but it is too late for the media now anyway. Like a broken relationship, getting back trust is not easy. Most relationship advice in this area urges an apology or acknowledgment of wrongdoing.

Yeah nah, that is unlikely to happen.

But honesty is being called for here. The news media has to be clearer than ever in its reporting. Facts need to be checked and links, where possible, need to be made to sources. Errors need to be acknowledged, and nobody likes to know how sausages are made, but the construction of the news needs to be demystified. People think it is staged and in many ways it is.

Good, ethical, un-biased public interest journalism has never felt more important and needed.

Trust me.

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