A global survey has revealed twice as many people distrust the media as trust it, a third of people say they’re watching less news than they used to and only 6% of UK adults describe themselves as “informed”. Nonetheless, many in the media see this as good news.
The reason is that the survey shows people trust journalists more than they trust “platforms”, such as Facebook and Twitter, and this is being taken as a reassuring piece of news that quality journalism and traditional media institutions are beginning a fightback against technology giants.
The risk is that journalistic outlets get distracted by what is in essence a phoney war with social media giants
However, by focusing on social media’s failings, traditional news outlets are fighting the wrong war: just because faith in the social media giants is falling – surely unsurprising after a year’s focus on “fake news”, Russian propaganda and filter bubbles – it doesn’t automatically make things better for traditional reporting.
Trust in social media platforms fell just four points year-on-year in the UK, and even after the relentless coverage of social media being exploited for propaganda, and the big tech backlash in the US, fell just 11 points there. Globally, media was trusted less than business and NGOs, and is equal to government – and this trust level isn’t increasing. It might be nice for journalists to see people looking more sceptically at social media firms, but schadenfreude aside there is little here that is reassuring.
Beyond the headlines, the news from the 28-country survey is not good. Of the respondents, 66% said the media is more concerned with attracting a big audience than reporting; 65% said they believed outlets sacrifice accuracy to be the first to break a story; and 59% said the media prioritised supporting an ideology over informing the public. The reflexive response of most media outlets – and their leaders – on hearing statistics like this is to go on to the defensive, to say the criticism is unfair or exaggerated, and to highlight the best bits of their reporting as a counter to the unflattering figures.
Some of these rebuttals have grounding, but most are largely meaningless. If so many people have such a dim view of media, this needs to be addressed rather than rejected as unfair.
The loss of faith in the media isn’t the worst news the survey reveals. This is that large portions of the audience are cutting back on or abandoning news entirely. The study found a third of the UK population said they were cutting back on news, and about 20% said they now avoided the news entirely. Perhaps more alarmingly still, some of the people most likely to switch off the news are in the demographics most appealing to advertisers, and the influential people news outlets would hope to reach. In the UK, the most likely rejecters were educated professionals aged 40 and over, living in London, with children. Their top reasons for switching off were that news was “too depressing”, “too biased” or “controlled by hidden agendas”.
This speaks to two simultaneous crises: the first is that, when people turn off mainstream news through fear of “hidden agendas”, they become increasingly vulnerable to polarising and extremist messages from other sources. The crisis in trust, paradoxically, could easily leave us with a proliferation of media that are less trustworthy.
The second problem is the more serious: people increasingly see news as just another form of media, which they can choose to dip into or not. If it’s depressing, or doesn’t fit their interests, then why not just turn off? As politicians and others diminish and demean the media, this view becomes all the easier to hold. Let’s face it, news isn’t as entertaining as a new Netflix comedy, but we’re all better off if most of us tune in now and then.
Ultimately, government and society benefits from a free and high-quality news media, even if journalists are often a pain in the arse (if they’re doing their job right).
The risk at present is that journalistic outlets get distracted by what is in essence a phoney war with social media giants, seeing that tussle as a zero-sum game. In reality, it’s likely they are now wedded to one another, and will sink or swim together. News won’t be saved by the public falling out of love with Facebook. It will take much more than that.
• James Ball is a former Guardian special projects editor, and the author of Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World