28 Apr 2021

We’ve got trust issues - with news

From Mediawatch, 9:03 pm on 28 April 2021

New research shows New Zealanders' trust in the news media slipping, even when it comes to the news they choose themselves. That's obviously a bad news story for our media - but what can they really learn from asking us what we think?

Dr Merja Myllilahtia and Dr Greg Treadwell from the AUT's Centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy.

 Dr Merja Myllilahti and Dr Greg Treadwell from the AUT's Centre for Journalism, Media and Democracy. Photo: RNZ / Jeremy Ansell

Global news agency Reuters is in the business of reporting news from about 160 countries. It has been in the business for 170 years, earning a solid reputation for credible reporting.  

So its outgoing chief editor Stephen Adler, in his farewell note, said he was shocked and disappointed when the latest Edelman Trust Barometer found that six out of 10 people surveyed worldwide reckoned journalists intentionally report things they know are false - and that most news organisations are more concerned with supporting a political position than with informing the public.

Since 2016, the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism based in the UK has studied the increasing lack of trust in news around the world. 

The Reuters Institute’s main annual report for 2020 found overall trust in the news was at its lowest point since it started asking about it in 2016. Only 38 percent of those surveyed in 40 countries trusted most of the news most of the time.

Fewer than half of respondents (46 percent) trusted the news they consumed themselves. 

Adler urged journalists to follow this formula: humility + transparency + objectivity = trusted journalism.  

Nice idea - but even if journalists and editors take this to heart and up their game on all three, would increasingly jaundiced and cynical news consumers give them any credit?

In 2018 Reuters launched the Trust in News project to try to reverse the trend, backed by millions of dollars from Facebook - the company which, more than any other, has been blamed for allowing fake news to flourish and spread. 

You would think Facebook could have saved its money. If people do not trust the news, just make sure you give them reliable news they can use - when they need it and where they can find it.  

Simple, no? 

Not according to the Reuters Institute. 

Last week its latest research concluded trust in news was not based on things like editorial standards and journalistic practices. For most people it interviewed in Brazil, India, the UK and the US "ill-defined impressions" of the reputations of news providers  - and how the news "looks and feels" held more weight. 

New Zealand is not one of the 40 countries the Reuters Institute monitors, but the AUT’s Centre for Journalism Media and Democracy uses the Reuters Institute’s survey as a model for surveying on trust in news here.  

Last year it found trust in news here was higher - more than half of Kiwi respondents said they can trust 'most of the news most of the time'.

Almost two-thirds trusted the news they personally consume - and New Zealanders were more likely than those Reuters surveyed overseas to be sceptical about news from social media and online search engines. 

Respondents were concerned fake news was used by politicians and others to discredit news sources they did not like. 

But in the 12 months since then we've had the Covid-19 crisis, the US election  - and an election here which - for the first time - featured candidates and political parties practically founded on fake news and misinformation. 

So has all that eroded Kiwis' trust the media in 2021?

Last August Research NZ surveyed people about which professionals they trust. Only one in three said they trusted people who work for our government - and less than one in four trusted journalists.

The news seemed better when the News Publishers Association surveyed 1200 New Zealanders over 18 last month. 

Just over half said they were engaging more with news websites and apps than they were a year ago. 72 percent said newspapers and news media were "highly important to them" in the wake of Covid-19- and 67 percent agreed they were "an important element of the social fabric of New Zealand".

But the details of the results are not out until June - and it's hard to compare those with the NPA's previous 2017 survey - Trust In Media .

The  NPA only asked about trust in various types of media - papers, radio, TV, social media and search - and did not ask people if they trust individual outlets. 

But the AUT Centre for Journalism Media and Democracy survey did  - using the same method as the Reuters Institute. 

1,226 New Zealanders aged 18 and over were surveyed between March 4 and 9 by Horizon Research Ltd.

The findings in this year's report (PDF) show our trust in news slipping - 53 percent trusted the news in 2020 - but just 48 percent did this year. 

No caption

Photo: supplied

55 percent trusted news in the outlets they chose in 2020, down from 62 percent this year.   

These are larger falls than the average in the 40 national monitored by the Reuters Institute.  

However, trust was higher when it came to news about Covid-19; 62 percent said mainstream news coverage was the best source of information. Only 12 percent said they thought social media was better.

The report found high levels concern about “twisted and spun” news and the vast majority were 'somewhat, very or extremely concerned' about poor journalism.  Three quarters also believed Google and Facebook should do more to separate fake news from legitimate information

As in 2020, state-owned RNZ and TVNZ were the most trusted news brands for respondents. Newshub remained the third most trusted. 

But the trust score for all major news outlets in New Zealand dropped - and the survey said declines for Newshub and Newstalk ZB were "statistically significant".

No caption

Photo: supplied/

“In general, trust in the news has declined because the news media is seen as increasingly opinionated, biased, and politicised,” said the report's co-author Merja Myllylahti.

Comments submitted by some respondents backed this up, indicating some news outlets offer too much opinion rather than news and information.

“The problem with the news is that it is no longer the news. It is one side of an opinion and the other sides are left out of the story,” said one. 

“Journalists appear to want to own their stories by selectively reporting to a predetermined plan,” another commented.

The researchers said the survey shows New Zealanders want factual information and not opinion dressed up as news.

NZME's Newstalk ZB and New Zealand Herald were criticised for this during 2020. Both outlets routinely published aired strident contrary and contradictory opinions of radio hosts and columnists in spite of the CEO promising "the highest journalistic standards  . . giving Kiwis the news and information they need.” 

But the survey's respondents gave the Herald online a similar trust score as Stuff. 'Commercial radio' was rated only marginally less trustworthy , and higher than “other outlets” including news ind information website Newsroom

"It's a wider issue that one media outlet. The recognition for some brands is not so good when compared to the likes of The Herald so you have to be careful with those numbers," Dr Myllilahti told Mediawatch.

"When you ask New Zealanders if they trust the news. you're not entirely sure they are making a distinction between non-news types of media - opinion columns, talkback - and reporting," said Dr Treadwell.   

"But people don't trust news organisations if they don't see a distinction between comment and fact, he said.