By Gavin Ellis
Public trust is a percentages game. A survey released last week tells us 53 percent of New Zealanders trust overall news sources most of the time.
That isn’t a particularly high number, but it ranks well against other countries. We sit behind Finland (59 percent), equal with The Netherlands, and ahead of Germany (47 percent), the United Kingdom (40 percent) and Australia (38 percent). We are well ahead of the United States, where a dismal 32 percent of the population trust most news most of the time. America, though, has become a very strange country under the leadership of President Trump. And when it comes to the news sources New Zealanders personally use, the percentage who trust it jumps to 62 percent.
Our ranking will help to validate the campaigns being run by news media to demonstrate to the public that they are the trusted sources to news.
The survey was a first for AUT’s Journalism Media and Democracy research centre. It drew its survey questions from an international Reuters Institute annual study of digital news that includes public trust in the media. By repeating the same questions, the JM&D centre was able to place this country alongside 38 other countries in measuring how much trust we have in the news we receive.
A percentage that barely broke through the halfway mark needs to be kept in perspective. The Netherlands ranked fourth out of those 38 countries on overall trust in media. And the trust its population has in the news sources they personally consume is roughly similar to our own. New Zealand isn’t doing badly at fourth equal.
Comparison with the Netherlands helps to validate the New Zealand findings. Apart from the overall trust percentages, the two countries share similar attitudes to the news brands they access. The highest trust score in the JM&D survey was Radio New Zealand on 70 percent followed by Television New Zealand on 68 percent. The Dutch television and radio state broadcaster NOS topped its country’s ranks with 74 percent. Newshub ranked third in the New Zealand survey (66 percent) as would its equivalent, RTL News (69 percent), if Dutch state radio and television services were split. New Zealand digital start up Newsroom came in fourth on 64 percent but its Dutch equivalent De Correspondent lagged slightly on 59 percent. Perhaps it was spending too much of its attention on developing its English-based service. Our largest newspaper, the New Zealand Herald, was a disappointing fifth with a trust score of 63 percent. If it is any consolation that was well ahead of the largest Dutch newspaper, De Telegraaf in twelfth place on 60 percent. With Stuff on 61 percent one might wonder whether our newspapers – and those in the Netherlands – are paying the price for excessive clickbait on their websites.
There is strong divergence from the Dutch, however, when it comes to attitudes to fake news. New Zealand ranks fifth equal – with Mexico and Spain – in concern about what is real and what is fake on the Internet. More than two thirds of us are worried about it, exceeded only by Brazil, Portugal, the United Kingdom and South Africa. Given the relatively low level of fake news to which New Zealanders are directly exposed, I’m left to wonder whether this reflects what they read about in other countries and hear with monotonous regularity from the White House. The Dutch have the least concern among the surveyed nations. Perhaps that is because in March last year the Dutch government launched a campaign, ‘Stay Curious Stay Critical’, to raise awareness of disinformation and to teach people how social media, algorithms, and filter bubbles function.
The New Zealand study’s authors, Dr. Merja Myllylahti and Dr. Greg Treadwell, were well aware that the survey was conducted while the country was beset by the Covid-19 virus and admitted they were unable to quantify the effect that had on the results, which they characterise as ‘a snapshot report’.
It is likely that that the New Zealand media has gone up in the country’s estimation during the Level 4 lockdown. With the exception of a couple of ill-considered headlines (and allowing for the free-speech prerogative of naysayers and shock-jock columnists), reporting has been comprehensive and aimed at helping people through the period of enforced isolation.
Surveys are never more than approximations and, while rankings are a useful guide to relative performance, their real value lies in tracking changes over time. I hope AUT continues to fund JM&D to add its data to ongoing Reuters Institute annual studies so those trends can be mapped.
Since 2016 the Acumen Edelman Trust Barometer has tracked trust across various New Zealand institutions as an adjunct to the 28-country Edeleman survey. Over that time, trust in traditional media here has see-sawed between 47 and 64 percent. Last year saw a drop from 64 to 60 percent. Trust in online-only media has seen similar fluctuation and in the latest survey sat on 41 percent trust, down eight percentage points.
Covid-19 coverage is likely to see an upward swing in the next Acumen Edelman survey, but the challenge of sustaining trust will remain.
Koi Tū: The Centre for Informed Futures last week issued a report titled “The Future is Now: Implications of Covid-19 for New Zealand”. It noted that social cohesion is greater when there is a commonly held perspective of ‘the enemy’ or ‘the challenge’. However, at a later stage this is often replaced by grievances, anger, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety and a sense of winners or losers.
Levels of trust in media will be determined for years to come by how news organisations navigate their way through those turbulent waters. If they see themselves as agents for social cohesion, they will earn the trust they need to survive. If they allow themselves to be driven by headline-seeking malcontents and to milk grievances and anxieties for every last drop of emotion, they will be seen as click-baiting manipulators…and untrustworthy.
Think Big…I mean it
It is one of the more unfortunate facts of history that Robert Muldoon prevented present-day New Zealanders from using the term Think Big in any positive sense…but I’m going to try.
Events both in New Zealand and around the world during the Coronavirus pandemic have lent weight to the view held by many – including me – that news media are in an existential crisis.
I have said (and will keep saying) that we need the equivalent of a Bretton Woods Conference to reshape our media ecosystem. That suggests structures and governance systems. It is much more, and it most certainly includes our approach to journalism itself.
Alexandria Neason from the Columbia Journalism Review has been thinking. This is what she said:
Today’s crisis demands that journalists reconsider what news is essential. “More information” as a default setting doesn’t fly. The twenty-four-hour news cycle—the compulsion to produce, to fill time and space, to never stop talking is as much a characteristic of our industry’s technology-induced neurosis as it is a product of our hyper-capitalist system. This moment of self-isolation, of stillness, is an opportunity for us to take stock of our habits and behaviours.
It is past time we take an honest look at the ways that capitalism infects journalistic mission. Do we trust corporate managers, who are largely in control of our crumbling local-news infrastructure, to prioritize community health even as the desire to compete—against a backdrop of plummeting ad sales and a heightened desire to gain clicks—mounts? There are opportunities right now for collaboration between newsrooms; we have seen readers band together to form mutual-aid funds for laid-off workers, or free cyclist delivery systems to keep people off the streets and out of grocery stores. What would such efforts look like in journalism?
This moment of fear will undoubtedly leave the industry changed. The weaknesses that COVID-19 is exacerbating have long existed; if we’re smart, we’ll channel the ingenuity currently on display in our communities long after the virus is kept at bay. My hope is that journalism, as an industry, will stop viewing itself as an external body meant to serve the public and instead begin to see itself as a member of the public. It’s an opportunity we can’t afford to miss.
That sums it up: It is an opportunity we can’t afford to miss. However, to take full advantage we must Think Big. We will need to bring to the discussion every ounce of creativity and ingenuity we can muster. The scope of change must be across the spectrum – from the Big Five legacy media organisations through digital start-ups that are established (and those that might be established) to a legion of groups that can articulate the public’s needs and wishes. And we must find ways to return to the media ranks the hundreds of workers who, through no fault of their own, have lost their jobs.
To everyone in those organisations that were able to continue to gather the news and inform the public during the Covid-19 Level 4 lockdown: The frontline workers who had to keep themselves and others safe while newsgathering, those who stayed in their bubbles but continued to produce content, the news executives who created and managed unprecedented editorial systems, production staff who found new ways to do the job, sales staff valiantly trying to restore revenue, and office staff and management trying to preserve what we have. You did the industry proud. And to those whose livelihoods were swept away during this phase of the pandemic – for their work in the past and the triumphs I hope will come.
A bouquet somehow seems inappropriate, but to the anonymous writer who shared – across four pages in Monday’s New Zealand Herald – his diary entries in the days leading to his mother’s death from the Covid-19 virus: Thank you for so poignantly bringing home the stresses on the families of victims and the care and compassion of the health professionals involved in patients’ care.
Dr. Gavin Ellis is a media researcher and commentator. His work appears on www.whiteknightnews.com.