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Mistrusting the news

What Australians want from news media

IN RECENT TIMES, academics, policy-makers, politicians and activists worldwide have been debating the growing crisis of trust in the core institutions of liberal democracies. In his remarks at the opening of the 2018 UN General Assembly, the UN Secretary-General António Guterres observed that ‘our world is suffering from a bad case of “Trust Deficit Disorder”…people are losing faith in political establishments, polarization is on the rise and populism is on the march’.[i]

A critical element of this change has been growing mistrust of news media amid rising anxieties about ‘fake news’, disinformation and what author and academic Yochai Benkler and his collaborators at Yale have termed ‘network propaganda’.[ii] As digital platforms play a greater role in news distribution and consumption, and news businesses face a crisis in terms of their business models, the relationship between platform power and the sustainability of quality news production has increasingly been perceived as a crisis.

Mistrust of news in the digital environment is an area of significant public concern in Australia. The Senate Select Committee Inquiry into the Future of Public Interest Journalism and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission’s (ACCC) Digital Platforms Inquiry have both addressed the decline in journalism jobs, and the implications of power imbalances between traditional news media and digital platforms for the future of news as a public good.[iii] The federal government’s response to the ACCC in 2019 endorsed the majority of its twenty-three recommendations, prioritising measures to review anti-competitive practices in online advertising technology, address bargaining power between digital platforms and traditional media, reform media laws to achieve greater continuity between online and other media, and address privacy and data protection issues.[iv]

In his address to the Chifley Research Centre on 7 December 2019, Anthony Albanese, the federal Labor Opposition leader, expressed concern that digital platforms are unwilling to filter out content proven to be misinformation – if it is not in breach of their community guidelines – and that communities can judge for themselves the validity of claims made by politicians and other political actors.[v] Recognising the inadequacy of such laissez-faire approaches to claims of truth made on digital platforms, a Senate Inquiry has been announced to investigate the ‘use of social media for purposes that undermine Australia’s democracy and values, including the spread of misinformation’.[vi] In this sense, there is a surprising degree of political consensus in Australia at present around addressing the power of digital platforms and their influence over news.

Public mistrust of news comes from two places. One is mistrust of the traditional news gatekeepers and professional journalism. The question of whether people mistrust news more than they used to is complex. In the US, the Gallup Confidence in Institutions surveys find public confidence in both newspapers to be less than half of what it was in the 1970s, and confidence in TV news to be half of what it was in the 1990s.[vii] The 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer found that mistrust of the media was greater in more countries (sixteen of twenty-seven) than trust, a finding that has been consistent in its surveys over a number of years.[viii]

At the same time, mistrust of news and journalists is not a recent development. Public inquiries into Australian news media, from the 1992 House of Representatives News & Fair Facts report on print media ownership to the 2012 Finkelstein Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Media and Media Regulation, have found evidence of high levels of mistrust of Australian news media. The Finkelstein report cited several surveys from the 1990s onwards that indicated public concern about sensationalism and inaccurate news reporting, journalistic bias and unethical journalistic behaviour, and identified particular concerns about bias in newspaper reporting on political issues.[ix] In 2019, Roy Morgan Research found that the Net Trust Score (the number of those surveyed trusting a source minus those distrusting it) was negative for newspapers and television, with more Australians distrusting individual news brands than trusting them. The exceptions were the ABC and SBS.[x]

The other source of public distrust is news accessed via digital platforms. Part of this is genuine ‘fake news’ – for example, the stories promoted by the Macedonian teenagers who bought BMWs with the proceeds of successfully gaming the Google AdSense algorithm with pro-Trump news stories in 2016, not to mention the world of ‘9/11 truthers’, anti-vaxxers, believers in the ‘lizard people’ conspiracy and ideological entrepreneurs such as InfoWars founder Alex Jones.

But even the idea of ‘fake news’ has some inherent problems. It can encompass anything from conspiracy theories to news parody, from falsehoods distributed online for financial gain to bad journalism and news that is ideologically oppositional to mainstream views. When used by some of its proponents – most notably US President Donald Trump – ‘fake news’ is basically that which is oppositional to one’s own point of view.

It is also not necessarily a new phenomenon. Some of what we call ‘fake news’ today is what we used to call propaganda. When the US-born Briton and fascist politician William Joyce, known as Lord Haw-Haw, broadcast radio programs during World War II designed to mislead and demoralise the Allied opponents of Nazi Germany, he would present a mix of fake and factual information.

Sometimes, tabloid journalism has played fast and loose with the truth, resembling what we now call fake news. Teaching media courses in the 1990s, I would show a news story from the UK’s The Sun newspaper with the headline ‘Why I’m Backing Kinnock, by Stalin’. Based on the account of a London-based clairvoyant, The Sun proposed that the deceased Soviet dictator was recommending that UK voters support the Labour leader Neil Kinnock in the 1987 election, whereas Winston Churchill and Boadicea were apparently supporting ‘Our Maggie’ and the Conservative Party.

News satire obviously also features here. Popular sites such as The Betoota Advocate in Australia, The Daily Mash in the UK and The Onion in the US produce stories with sufficient real-world plausibility to make us laugh. There may not actually have been explorers who were shocked to find Palmer United leaflets at the bottom of the Mariana Trench[xi]– but we would not be too surprised to discover, as The Betoota Advocate alleged, that the leaflets were indeed down there, such was the size and scale of Palmer’s extravagant tilt at electoral office.

 

SO SHOULD WE trust journalists? The proliferation of online news satire may well point to some sources of mainstream news mistrust, and these satirical news stories receive ready expression and circulation through digital media platforms. Mockery of the powerful has long been the satirist’s aim, and insofar as journalists are seen as being too close to the political class and those in power – inside the bubble on which they should be reporting – then news satire becomes comedy targeted as much at the news industry as it is at politicians and other elites. The price of being a fabled political ‘insider’ can be a loss of critical self-awareness, and the public now has plenty of means to answer back to such hubris online.

The question of what we want from journalists in democratic societies is more complex than it first looks. At its simplest, what we want from the news is information that is reported accurately, fairly, concisely and in a timely manner. The provision of factual information through which citizens can make informed political and other choices is thus central to the functioning of democracies. The absence of such reliable and accurate information, and the proliferation of disinformation and ‘fake news’, is a profound threat to what Lydia Polgreen, editor-in-chief of HuffPost, has termed the information ecosystem of liberal democracies.[xii]

But accuracy and objectivity are never the only things we seek from the news media, particularly as the media itself becomes a player in the political arena. As Max Weber observed in 1910 at the Congress of Sociologists in Frankfurt, ‘one hundred and fifty years ago the British Parliament forced journalists to apologise on their knees for breach of privilege after they reported about its sessions; yet today a mere threat from the press not to print the speeches of representatives forces Parliament to its knees.’[xiii]

The majority of public media organisations are also private businesses, meaning that the commercial interests of owners and proprietors can and do inform news coverage – especially of political matters. News Corporation and the Nine/Fairfax group dominate commercial news, and both have well-documented histories of being involved in partisan politics.[xiv] More generally, audiences look for news content that entertains as well as informs. One of the reasons for the decline in political coverage on Australian commercial television is the perception that audiences ‘turn off’ when politics is discussed. In the wake of this, ‘newstainment’ formats such as The Project on Network Ten and The Weekly with Charlie Pickering, Mad as Hell and Sammy J, all on the ABC, seek to make news entertaining for those who do not otherwise seek out mainstream news and current affairs.

Finally, the media also has an oversight role to play with regards to governing power, and this necessarily brings it into conflict with authority on a range of matters, including its questioning of the truthfulness of public statements. The political scientist Pierre Rosanvallon has observed that the legitimacy of media in democracies is ‘directed toward encouraging society to subject itself to constant scrutiny. In this respect, distrust serve[s] as the basis of a demanding and constructive vision of politics.’[xv] John Keane, co-founder and director of the Sydney Democracy Network, has referred to this as monitory democracy – characterised ‘by instruments of public monitoring and scrutinising of government power’ – and argues that it has flourished in the internet era, where whistleblowers such as Julian Assange, Edward Snowden or Christopher Wylie can more readily expose the operations of power (for example, the fake weapons of mass destruction claims that led to the Iraq War or the more recent Cambridge Analytica scandal) and can do so with or without the support of the established news media.[xvi]

A healthy scepticism towards authority figures, particularly political leaders, is thus a feature of vibrant and well-functioning democracies. The media is an important part of this in terms of being prepared to speak on behalf of the people as citizens and ensure accountability and responsibility on the part of the powerful. Public mistrust of journalists can be productive, just as it can be expected that journalists should be prepared to mistrust those in power.

Scepticism can, however, tip over into cynicism and full-scale disbelief in news and journalism. Even where people disagree about interpretations of the facts, and even about the facts themselves, a healthy and effective news system relies upon shared understandings of what is important, and on the existence of people who can reliably deliver useful information on important matters. The news media, like other public institutions, is thus what Rosanvallon terms an ‘institutional economiser’[xvii] in that we can draw upon a shared pool of common informational resources from which competing interests can engage in the battle of ideas. When this base level of trust disappears, ideological differences easily transform into conspiracy theories, and journalists are accused not just of purveying ‘fake news’, but of being the ‘enemies of the people’.

 

A RECENT SURVEY undertaken by researchers from Queensland University of Technology and the University of Canberra provides insights into what Australians trust and mistrust about the news.[xviii] The study surveyed 1,050 Australians, with an equal weighting given to those with a university degree, a trade or technical qualification, or a high school education. The survey also had 35.33 per cent of respondents in regional areas and 11.43 per cent in rural areas, and covered a range of nationalities, states and professions.

One finding indicated a moderate level of trust in news compared with other social institutions: on a one-to-five Likert scale, respondents returned a mean score of 3.05 for the statement I think you can trust news most of the time, and amean score of 3.22 for the statement I think I can trust most of the news I consume most of the time. People thus demonstrated higher levels of trust in the news sources they accessed regularly than in news as a whole. They trusted news less than their close friends (3.94) and less than educational institutions (3.49), but more than business (3.05), government (2.85) and politicians (2.53).

The perceived quality of news brands mattered. In a finding that aligns with other surveys, ABC TV (3.92 on a five-point scale) and ABC Radio (3.90) had the highest levels of trust, followed by SBS TV (3.87). The most trusted newspaper was the Australian Financial Review (3.74), followed by The Age and The Australian (both 3.69). Online-only news brands such as Crikey (2.88), BuzzFeed (2.81) and Junkee (2.75) had the lowest levels of trust, while Guardian Australia (3.45) and news.com.au (3.42) had lower levels of trust than the three commercial TV news services (3.60, 3.58 and 3.53 for the Nine, Seven and Ten networks, respectively), but higher levels than the Daily Telegraph (3.40) SKY News (3.37) and The Saturday Paper (3.24). People tended to trust news brands with which they were familiar more than those with which they were unfamiliar. These findings generally echo those in the annual Digital News Report: Australia, undertaken by the University of Canberra.[xix]

The factors most likely to promote trust in a news source were depth of coverage (3.89 mean on a five-point scale), followed by the reputation of the news brand (3.82), the reputation of journalists and presenters (3.79), and a neutral standpoint on contentious issues (3.78). Factors most likely to promote distrust were a past history of inaccuracy (3.87), opinionated journalists and presenters (3.83), lack of transparency (3.83) and sensationalist stories (3.76). It was notable that a news outlet being open to comments and feedback from the public was highly valued (3.70), whereas engagement through social media platforms was not (3.32). It was also apparent that popularity did not equal trustworthiness, as the number of readers/viewers of a news story was considered the least relevant factor in promoting trust in a news outlet (3.29).

Regarding how to increase trust in news outlets, the main responses suggested that journalists declare any conflicts of interest, remove all traces of bias or opinion – or at least openly flag biases – and undertake more in-depth reporting on stories. Making it easier for consumers to give feedback or make complaints about content was also an important factor, as was providing more coverage of news outside major cities. The two proposals that garnered the least support in terms of increasing trust were employing more journalists and being more active on social media platforms.

This suggests that the two approaches most likely to feature in the business models of news organisations – hiring more staff and being more active across social media – are those that the Australian public sees as the least significant in increasing trust in news outlets. Instead, the survey revealed that accountability and transparency initiatives lie at the core of building trust. For instance, being able to comment directly on articles is seen as more important than commenting on or sharing them via social media platforms. It is also apparent that the challenges associated with building trust in a new news brand are considerably greater than those of maintaining trust in an already established news brand.

 

ONE OF THE main messages from the survey is that Australians are prepared to trust the news generally, and that we have not seen the kind of dramatic decline of trust in news that has been identified in the United States. The high levels of trust in the ABC and SBS also indicate that trust or distrust in the major news outlets does not sit neatly on any left–right political axis. There does not appear to be a strong hankering for new news brands that can address mistrust of more established media, with only Guardian Australia establishing a significant trust reputation comparable with that of established news brands.

Another clear message is that greater engagement on social media platforms will not engender greater trust in news. Trust in news on social media platforms is considerably lower than trust in the websites of news media organisations themselves. As the relationship between digital platforms and news publishers has become more fraught in recent years – as demonstrated by submissions to the recent ACCC Digital Platforms Inquiry – it seems that news organisations must look within their own cultures to rebuild trust rather than focusing primarily upon giving their content greater reach through social media.

What Australian news consumers seek is not complicated to understand. At the core of what they want is a demand for greater accountability and transparency around news content. In particular, perceptions of bias need to be openly addressed, and the line between fact and opinion more clearly demarcated. It is not necessarily that Australians trust public service media more than commercial media – but they do think that any potential conflicts of interest should be openly declared. Comments sections on news sites appear to be highly regarded as an outlet for feedback, but as with any attempt to give greater voice to public concerns, there also needs to be evidence that those concerns are being taken seriously.

The Australian public does not spend much time worrying about business models that engage with how news is produced or received. Rather, it requires that news organisations take seriously the expectations of greater public accountability that are also being directed at many public institutions, from churches and banks to digital platforms and political parties. In this way, rebuilding trust in news requires measures that are similar to those used in other parts of Australian society.

 

REFERENCES

[i] Antonio Guterres, 'Remarks at opening of the 74th Session of the UN General Assembly'' September 17, 2019, https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2019-09-17/remarks-opening-of-74th-session-of-unga.

[ii] Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts, Network propaganda: Manipulation, disinformation, and radicalization in American politics(New York: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[iii] The Senate, Select Committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism—Report (Commonwealth of Australia, 2018), https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Future_of_Public_Interest_Journalism/PublicInterestJournalism; ACCC, Digital Platforms Inquiry: Final Report, 2019, https://www.accc.gov.au/system/files/Digital%20platforms%20inquiry%20-%20final%20report.pdf.

[iv] The Treasury, 'Government response and implementation roadmap for the digital platforms inquiry' (Canberra: Commonwealth of Australia, 2019).

[v] Anthony Albanese, 'Address to the Chifley Research Centre Conference—Labor and democracy'' December 7, 2019, https://anthonyalbanese.com.au/speech-address-to-the-chifley-research-centre-conference-sydney-saturday-7-december-2019.

[vi] The Senate, 'Foreign interference through social media', December 5, 2019, https://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/Senate/Foreign_Interference_through_Social_Media/ForeignInterference.

[vii] Gallup, 'Confidence in institutions', 2018, https://news.gallup.com/poll/1597/confidence-institutions.aspx.

[viii] Edelman, '2019 Edelman Trust Barometer', 2019, https://www.edelman.com/trust-barometer.

[ix] Ray Finkelstein and Matthew Ricketson, Report of the Independent Inquiry into Media and Media Regulation (Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 2012).

[x] Roy Morgan Research, 'Risk report' (Sydney, 2019).

[xi] Wendell Hussey, 'Explorers shocked to discover palmer united leaflets at the bottom of the Mariana Trench', The Betoota Advocate (blog), no date, https://www.betootaadvocate.com/world-news/explorers-shocked-to-discover-palmer-united-leaflets-at-the-bottom-of-the-mariana-trench/.

[xii] Lydia Polgreen, 'The collapse of the information ecosystem poses profound risks for humanity', The Guardian, November 19, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/nov/19/the-collapse-of-the-information-ecosystem-poses-profound-risks-for-humanity.

[xiii] Max Weber, 'Towards a sociology of the press', Journal of Communication 26, no. 3 (1976): 97.

[xiv] See e.g. Rodney Tiffen, Rupert Murdoch: A reassessment (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2014).

[xv] Pierre Rosunvallon, Counter-democracy: Politics in an age of distrust (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008): 120.

[xvi] John Keane, The life and death of democracy (W W Norton & Co., 2009).

[xvii] Rosanvallon, Counter-democracy: Politics in an age of distrust. 4.

[xviii] Terry Flew et al., 'Trust and mistrust in Australian news media' (Brisbane: Behavioural Economics, Society and Technology Centre, Queensland University of Technology, Digital Media Research Centre, Queensland University of Technology, and News & Media Research Centre, University of Canberra, 2020).

[xix] Caroline Fisher et al., 'Digital news report: Australia 2019' (Canberra: News and Media Research Centre, University of Canberra, 2019).

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