21 Apr 2024

The tough questions behind the media's declining trust

From Mediawatch, 10:09 am on 21 April 2024
Falling trust in news in New Zealand recorded by the JMAD survey.

Falling trust in news in New Zealand recorded by the JMAD survey. Photo: JMAD

As another report shows another decline in New Zealanders' trust in the news, two editors sat down with Mediawatch to discuss the findings and what could be done to turn things around.

At the big reveal of the 6pm news deal between her company and Newshub, Stuff owner Sinead Boucher also said she hoped it would push back against those who believe the media are not to be trusted.

But last week, as TVNZ cut news programmes and jobs and the closure of Newshub as we know it was confirmed, there was more bad news for the media in the latest annual report from the Journalism, Media and Democracy Research Centre (JMAD) at AUT - a further fall in public trust. 

One of the AUT report’s co-authors, Dr Greg Treadwell, told RNZ the preponderance of opinion in our media came through as one of the big reasons for the decline.

“This is our strongest message to the media companies of New Zealand, is that you need to improve the volume of straight reporting in your publications and they need to be better labeled.”

But opinions also engage the reader more than straight news, so is that actually against editors’ best interests in these tough times?  

There’s also the complicating factor of social media. Many of the respondents to the AUT report said they check their news sources against information they seek out on the big social sites, much of which is more opinionated and less stringently fact-checked than the content they’d find from most mainstream media outlets.

Last Wednesday JMAD held a forum to talk over their report’s results. 

Among its panelists were former Weekend Herald editor Miriyana Alexander and Paul McIntyre, the editor of the Otago Daily Times - which got the highest trust score of any outlet in the survey.

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Photo: PHOTO / RNZ Mediawatch

McIntyre told Mediawatch after the talk he couldn’t say for certain why respondents rated his paper as the most trusted but he thought it might have something to do with the fact that it’s still mostly consumed in a broadsheet format.

One of the issues he saw with people consuming news on social media is that they tend to consume content from outlets in discrete chunks – and often that means only reading one thing that makes them angry and then moving on.

In a paper, they can see the breadth of a paper’s coverage - the 'veggies' and the 'dessert' side by side. 

He also said the ODT also has retained a sharp focus on straight news reporting locally.

“We do the basics right. We cover the major institutions and we do that in a fair and balanced way. We still have rounds covering health and the university etcetera,” he said.

Alexander didn’t believe opinion itself was the real problem at the heart of the media’s trust issues.

But she did see a case for more considered opinion and analysis, and for turning down columns that seem designed to provoke rather than illuminate.

It may also help to embed links to people writing from different perspectives within opinion pieces, so people can see that outlets are considering other views, she said.

NZME's Miriyana Alexander at He Whenua Taurikura.

Miriyana Alexander  Photo: screenshot / He Whenua Taurikura livestream

“The best kind of opinion writers make the case or state a point of view and support it with evidence. They don't just rant.”

Both McIntyre and Alexander saw social media as a key contributor to the media’s declining trust. 

People’s sources of news and information have proliferated, and while there have been some positives to that, it has also contributed to an influx of misinformation, Alexander said.

“People are bombarded by information today like they never were 20 years ago. The digital disruption means people are scrolling through their social media not knowing whether something is from a reputable news organisation or something else entirely.”

McIntyre said it’s a challenge for news organisations when many people believe things, often quite strongly, that don’t stand up to close scrutiny. Giving credence to those views might help retain a little trust, while clashing with an outlet’s foundational responsibility to report what is true.

What would he do if, for instance, a large section of his audience believed the moon was made of cheese? Would he risk losing their trust by not reporting the belief the moon is made of cheese?

“It's a very tricky conversation because some people don't agree with the truth. And so when you get to this, what is the truth and facts? What is that? And how do we do that?” he said.

“I believe that in the main in this country, mainstream journalists work really hard to do a good job. And some people just will not believe what they say, even if it is the truth. And so that is a really difficult thing because my view is we shouldn't be then going ‘Yes we agree with you: the moon is made of cheese’.”

That might sound like blaming the audience for the media’s declining ratings. 

But both Alexander and McIntyre said news outlets also needed to be more open and accountable to the people they serve, and develop a deeper connection to their communities.

While there are some red lines they shouldn’t cross, media outlets also have a responsibility to provide a range of views and be responsive to their communities, said Alexander.

“I think we have to avoid being too arrogant. We have to absolutely give people a range of information,” she said.

McIntyre said a little humility often went a long way with readers.

He often found that when he engaged directly with the people who complained to him, they’d often quickly make peace.

“They're surprised when you do go back to them - which is a bit concerning as well, because why are they surprised that we're even answering their concerns and trying to build a bit more trust," he said. 

"You may never win them over. But at least they're being listened to.”