10 Apr 2022

Measuring trust is tricky with suspicious minds

From Mediawatch, 7:10 pm on 10 April 2022

Last year the biggest annual survey of Kiwis’ trust in news found it was on the slide, though it wasn’t quite clear why. Since then there’s been plenty of anti-media sentiment at anti-government protests - and record levels of online misinformation misleading ever more people. So what's the story now? 

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Photo: photo / RNZ Mediawatch

Every year the international PR company Edelman surveys trust in institutions, governments, services and companies in 28 countries. 

In almost all of them, it has recorded annual declines of trust in all sources of general news and information. 

Last year it found that six out of 10 people surveyed reckoned journalists intentionally report things they know are false - and that most news organisations are more concerned with their political point of view than informing the public.

When the company’s chief executive Richard Edelman presented the results of the 2022 survey earlier this year, they weren’t good for the media.  

"We believe that we are in a new low level of distrust in the world. In short, media and government today are seen as divisive. They are locked in a cycle of distrust. News sources have failed to fix their problem of trust. We see this as an aeroplane slowly losing altitude. And the extent to which social media has polluted the bloodstream is evident by this concern about fake news."

New Zealand is not one of the countries in that survey released in January.  

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Photo: supplied

But this week a local survey by an affiliate of Edelman - PR company Acumen - found trust in media dropped to just 41 percent, well below the global average of 50 percent.

This alarming result was reported in several media outlets including RNZ

BusinessDesk headlined the finding that most people surveyed considered media a divisive force for society and pollster and pundit David Farrar suggested on Twitter increased government funding of news media was behind the reported plunge in trust. 

But the Acumen report actually tells a different story. 

The 41 percent figure is for all media, including social media. 

A chart inside the full report shows trust in media not plunging but steadily rising every year since 2017, when 29 percent said they trusted the media. 

When people were asked which source for news they trusted this year, 58 percent chose ‘traditional news media’ - a greater proportion than the US, Japan or Australia, and far greater than the 19 percent of respondents who trusted ‘social media’. 

Sixty-one percent said they believed information from news media in New Zealand. Again, that's far higher than Edelman’s international average.

And that majority considering Kiwi media divisive? The fine print from Acumen said the question was only put to half of the sample. 

The sample size is not in the report. It’s also not clear when people were surveyed.  

A bigger international survey picked up a different trust trend last year. 

The Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism annual survey found trust in news grew by 6 percent during the pandemic, powered by news outlets known for reliable reporting. 

Survey highlights slide in trust

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Photo: supplied

New Zealand is not one of the countries that count in that research - but the Centre for Journalism Media and Democracy (JMAD) at AUT does its own local survey based on the Reuters one. 

Fifty-three percent of respondents said they trusted ‘most of the news most of the time’ in the first one in 2020.  

But in 2021, that slipped to just under half.  

Almost two thirds trust the news they personally consumed back in 2020 - and people were more skeptical than those in many other countries about news from social media and online search engines. 

But last, year that slipped too.

Since then New Zealand has had lockdowns, vaccine passports and mandate debates, anti-government and anti-Covid protests and much more more misinformation and conspiracy theories online. 

There’s also been appreciable uptick in animosity towards the media - and individual journalists - even death threat rhetoric and occasional assaults. 

This year’s AUT Trust in News (PDF) survey came out last Thursday and it found general public trust retreated again. Just 45 percent were prepared to say they trusted it last year. The gap with with international average Reuters recorded has closed to just 1 percent. 

“It is certainly time to worry about not just the nature of the environment that the media has to operate in today, but also (about) the audience,” Dr Greg Treadwell from the AUT’s JMAD told Mediawatch.

“The fall is ongoing and steep. But these are self-reported responses ... and there is a difference between what people say they trust and what they actually do,” he said. 

“If they really trusted the news to the levels that they're reporting, they wouldn't open the newspaper, would they? And they do. And they do go to websites. So they say they don't trust it. But when the chips are down, they turn to it,” he said. 

“When the pandemic first hit, editors saw, in some cases, traffic to the news websites quadruple because people were returning to mainstream media for reliable information,” Dr Treadwell said. 

“There's a sense that the mistrust in news is connected to this wider mistrust of social institutions. Some people confuse the media with the government and think the media is somehow part of the government,” he said.  

Eighty-three of the respondents chose to offer comments about their distrust of media in addition to answering the questions.

Dr Merja Myllilahti 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

A quarter of those said they didn’t trust the media because it was funded by the government - and they believed the media were reporting the government’s narrative. 

Given all the turmoil and misdirected anger at the media - is it a good thing the overall fall in trust recorded wasn't greater? 

“Seventy-five percent of those who we asked said they are interested in news and consuming the news. That’s a high level so it's good interest is high. Only a tiny percentage said they mistrust news because of Covid or misinformation,”  AUT’s  Dr Merja Myllilahti, the other co-author of the report told Mediawatch

RNZ and TVNZ retained their position at the most providers in news in news in this year's JMAD survey, but it also recorded declines in trust for all major New Zealand news outlets.  

"The Reuters report, which we benchmark ourselves against, had trust in news going up 6 percent last year) and we have a decline. I think what's happening here is that we have been in a crisis for a few years now. Crisis reporting all the time," she said. 

"The media has been there in government press conferences etc, etc - so maybe the people perceive that they are doing the government's bidding because they are reporting the issues which are important," Dr Myllylahti said.

Opinion vs news

Last year’s JMAD trust in media report concluded trust in the news has declined because the news media is seen as increasingly “opinionated, biased, and politicised.” 

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

But this year a former journalist participating in the survey said most New Zealanders “do not understand how journalism works and don't know the difference between news and opinion." 

This year’s survey asked - for the first time - how well respondents understand the news process. 

“Some people, we thought, just think the journalists sit down and write their own opinion all the time. Just over 50 percent said they understand journalistic processes," Dr Treadwell said. 

"I think editors and journalists should be working hard to build trust - don't get me wrong. But I don't think it's just an isolated case of the media suddenly being seen as untrustworthy. I think it's the wider, worrying trends of a fall of trust and social cohesion," Dr Treadwell said.