Survey Shows, Yet Again, There’s an Erosion in Trust in the Media

Evidence has long pointed to an erosion of trust in the media. A new survey is confirming that trend yet again.

If there was three words of advice that I could give the mainstream media as they face a decline in trust, it would be this: “report the facts”. It’s simple, elegant, straight forward, and something that the mainstream media has forgotten about for decades. Instead, what we generally see today is selective coverage, messaging, suppression of certain sides of the story, general bias, and outright lies being reported as fact.

A portion of the coverage often comes off as content designed to increase ratings. Take, for instance, the recent presidential debates. In Canada, the only thing I’ve heard from the media up here was how Joe Biden stuttered at one point, questions about his mental capabilities, and questions about whether or not he should step down. I have yet to hear any outlet talk about anything Trump did wrong in the debate or even any coverage about the recent allegations of Trump’s connections to the Heritage Foundation’s Project 2025.

Yet, as I sit here today, thinking about why the media has been so pro-Trump as of late, it’s relatively straight forward to see why the media’s bias has shifted to being pro-Trump. That has to do with ratings. Drama, sure, drives some of those ratings, but more broadly speaking, a close election also draws even more ratings. A one-sided landslide victory for one party doesn’t really make for good television – at least, not as much as the famous “horse race” that the media seems to transfixed on. I personally think of all of this as major reasons why I never hear broadcasters talk about Trump wanting to jail all political rivals – this especially in light of the Supreme Court ruling that says the US president is basically above the law.

Of course, trying to manipulate the politics of the day into one that suits the mainstream media’s business interest is far from the only example of this. We saw this in the Online News Act debate with Big Lie 1.0 and Big Lie 2.0 where we busted the media straight up lying about the proposed legislation that ended up becoming a massive disaster in the end. The media tried to will this law into something that would work while attempting to get the population on board in the process.

Another great example is the continued push to try and portray video games (all video games, not just certain kinds of games) as some sort of addiction that is plaguing society. This despite decades of science that says that the claims that video games are inherently dangerously addicting isn’t backed by science in practice (basic common sense would say that it would be extremely obvious if it were). Edge cases, like everything else, does exist, but to say that there is a widespread problem is a gross overreaction. Yet, mainstream media continues to persist in pushing this belief anyway. Again, it’s easy to see why the mainstream media is pushing this myth still. Video games compete for eyeballs and is frequently a more compelling medium to news. Scaremongering readers into these beliefs is a business decision rather than a fact-based decision.

Another recent example is the glowing coverage the mainstream media showered onto Doug Ford after he spent a bunch of money on ads. It was probably the most naked corruption I’ve seen to date in the media where they didn’t even bother hiding how their bias was up for sale to any political party.

I could go on and on about different examples, but the overwhelming theme throughout all of this is “news” coverage meant to manipulate readers into believing something whether it is true or not. As we’ve witnessed with American media, even the health of a democracy or even the long term health of the press itself is no obstacle to this manipulation of the audience. The truth routinely gets cast aside in favour of these financial pursuits. This is not what journalism is about. Journalism is about, among other things, presenting the facts to the audience. It’s about informing the audience and holding power to account. Yet, this style of journalism, these days, is something of a dying breed.

To be clear, we do see slivers of journalism here and there. There is good reporting to be had out there. The problem is that it is an increasingly rare thing to see and it takes an expert, such as myself, to try and differentiate fact from fiction. This is an extremely difficult task and something I don’t always get right. In those instances, I rely on transparency and note when I made a mistake. This is because it’s more important to be truthful to you than to be an ego driven maniac who cares more about self-image than anything else. That doesn’t help anyone involved. It’s also why I laugh so often whenever I see the large news organizations talk about how they are the ones that are accountable and important.

Of course, I’m far from the only person being increasingly skeptical of the mainstream media’s coverage. In fact, Canadian’s are increasingly skeptical of the coverage presented by these outlets. Last year, I noted an Ipsos poll saying that trust in the media has been in decline. This is far from the only data point suggesting Canadians are getting fed up with all of this as well. In fact, today, I became aware of another survey that has had similar conclusions. From The Hub:

Canadians are losing their trust in the media. According to a report from the Reuters Institute at the University of Oxford, overall trust in the media among the Canadian population has fallen from 55 percent in 2016 to 40 percent in 2023. Among English-speaking Canadians, trust in the news is even lower with just 37 percent saying they trust the media in 2023.

The decline in trust comes at a time when the federal government is increasingly intervening to support major incumbent firms in the Canadian media landscape like The Globe and Mail, the Toronto Star and Postmedia. These measures include subsidies supporting the payrolls of qualified private news media, mandating Google to pay $100 million annually to support the journalism industry, and a tax credit for news subscriptions, among other measures. At this point, estimates suggest that there is now as much as a 50 percent subsidy on journalist salaries up to $85,000 per year.

Amid already declining trust in the news media, there are growing questions about how government support for the industry is perceived by Canadians and to what extent this may influence trust. Likewise, further effort is needed to decompose trust along various social cleavages (including education levels and political preferences) to better understand variation in media trust among Canadians.

Survey respondents were given a list of positive and corresponding negative statements about the news in random order and asked to select the statements which came closest to their view of the media. This question was designed to isolate positive and negative perceptions, and rank which specific qualities have the greatest impact on overall perceptions of the news.

As seen in Figure 1, not surprisingly, negative statements were selected more often, with one-in-three saying that there is a lot of bias in the news—depending on who is paying for it. One in four say a lot of news is just government propaganda, and one-in-five say that news is stuff they don’t care about (22 percent) or that they don’t think they get the truth from mainstream news in Canada (21 percent).

By contrast, positive judgements were selected by fewer, with two in ten or less saying the news was fair and transparent (20 percent) or easy to relate to (18 percent), and only twelve percent saying they were getting truth from the news.

This accompanied the following image which really tells the story:

The information from that survey is really worth checking out including how 76% of respondents agreed that government paying journalists can undermine the journalists objectivity. Additionally, 73% of Canadians agree that government funding media outlets will make it harder for the outlet to hold government to account.

I know some out there will look at the results and say that this simply is a reflection of the negative impacts of social media (another meme the large media companies love to push) and the rise in right wing extremism which has long declared war on the media in general. This is true to a degree, but it’s disingenuous to say that is the only reason. It’s only part of the equation. When I look at the coverage offered by the mainstream media outlets, I think the quality of the coverage plays a big role in this as well.

So, the question is, how do we, as a society, reverse this? Well, I think the first major step forward is for the media to admit that they have a problem in the first place. We’re not even close to that step. Instead, I think the media is still in a state of denial where huge portions of them believe that their coverage is perfect in every way. In fact, during the Bill C-18 hearings, I saw shades of that when newspapers told lawmakers that they are bold, innovative, and cutting edge. Lobbyists routinely told lawmakers that there is nothing wrong with how they conduct business. Instead, it’s the world around them that needs to change because it’s totally someone elses fault that they are seeing a decline, not something that they did at all.

Quite frankly, I don’t see this changing any time soon, either. I know media executives in large media companies will continue to say that they run a tight ship of highly professional people and from top to bottom, their organization is perfect in every way. They will further say that there is nothing they need to change, either. After all, it’s totally someone elses fault that their revenues are in decline and there’s no action they feel they need to take to rebuild any trust with the public.

Until this egotistical attitude changes, I don’t see how this trend of an erosion of trust is going to change while the large media outlets continue to exist. Campaigns can be run, laws can be changed, and leadership can change hands. Until we see leadership say something along the lines of, “We need to change and do better to serve the audience”, these problems are simply going to continue to fester. This will continue until the large media companies makes the necessary changes to adapt to a modern age and restore trust in their coverage or the legacy media dies out and new growth takes their place – new growth willing to do better.

(Via @Pagmenzies)

Drew Wilson on Mastodon, Twitter and Facebook.

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