Illustration: Frank Maiorana.
Trust between the public and the media is eroding and that’s bad news for everyone.
FOR more than 30 years as a journalist I’ve heard people say, ”You blokes make it all up anyway”. Yet these same people clearly watch the news on television, follow events in their newspapers and make decisions based on what they hear and read.
The question I have to ask myself is why? What do people actually believe and how do they come to believe it? And if they genuinely doubt the veracity of what they are consuming, to what degree does the truth matter to them?
It’s a conundrum that is only becoming more complex with the rise of the internet. News is a bigger, more frantic and competitive business than ever – and the News of the World phone hacking scandal has further damaged journalistic credibility. People increasingly doubt that the information they consume is completely factual.
According to a study by the Pew Research Centre’s project for excellence in journalism, when Osama bin Laden was reportedly shot and killed by US Navy Seals and hastily buried at sea, one in six Facebook pages and twitterings debated if it was a hoax. A significant number believed it to be so. One in 10 blogs similarly frothed with conspiracy theories.
Clearly, a big part of the world did not believe the reports they saw on the evening news.
The Pew Research Centre, which examined 120,000 news stories, 100,000 blog posts and 6.9 million posts on Twitter, found these doubts continued to hold ”significant” and consistent purchase for days afterward.
While this is mostly a matter of lack of trust in authority – whether President Barak Obama lied to us – it also reflects negatively on the news media that reported it. If bin Laden’s death was staged to prop up a wobbly Obama administration, news media organisations are either incompetent, complacent or, to take a stroll on the lunatic fringe, colluding in a massive fraud.
But none of this matters to the people drawn to the bin Laden hoax theory. The role of news media as a fundamental pillar of a democratic society isn’t what they care about. (I could only find a handful of rants online that accused the media of failing to uncover the ”truth” of the matter.) For some, the mainstream media was all but irrelevant to one of the biggest stories of the year.
How did this come to be?
Social scientists have long argued there is a broad disconnect between journalism and its voracious consumers, where the hole in the transaction is trust. What the bin Laden story illustrates perhaps is how big that hole has become.
”The issue of trustworthiness is increasingly difficult for media outlets,” says Nick Couldry, professor of media and communications at Goldsmiths, University of London, where he is director of the Centre for the Study of Global Media and Democracy.
He points to surveys that show declining levels of trust in journalists and to serious-thinking media critics who question whether news media can reliably deliver truthful information. In a long email discussing the relationship between truth and trust in the media, Couldry cites:
■Philosopher Bernard Williams, who argued that a disposition towards truthfulness – and specifically a will to strive for accuracy and sincerity – are basic human virtues. ”But he is sceptical about whether media markets can satisfy our needs for truthful shared information,” Couldry says.
■British Guardian journalist Nick Davies, in his 2007 book Flat Earth News, who argues that staff and other resource cuts in the British broadsheet press and press agencies ”mean that there are no longer the resources available for journalists to be truthful, except by accident”.
Couldry says Davies’ work raises an important question about truth and media. ”What if, as trust in media falls further, we were to come no longer to expect media to be in the business of truth-telling?” Couldry asks. ”That would generate a deep conflict between the apparent – and officially pronounced – aims of media in a democracy and our expectations of their actual practice.”
The fact is, as Couldry points out, despite the compromised trust, the need for truthful information about what’s going on in the world – news – continues to exist. However, if people don’t believe fully what they’re being told … how do they decide what is true for them?
Social researchers and sociologists say consumers have always responded to news emotionally more than cognitively and the truth of the situation will be what their heart tells them.
University of New England sociologist Peter Corrigan says: ”We generally need to know very quickly if we can trust somebody and often we don’t have complete information. We neither have the time nor the evidence to make a more intellectual judgment – so we are left with emotion as a quick and dirty guide.”
It’s somewhere in this gap of partial belief dirtied with distrust that people make up the truth that suits them best. Social researcher David Chalke says: ”Without jumping on the post-post-modern bandwagon, truth, like beauty, has always been in the eye of the beholder.”
Chalke is the head of AustraliaSCAN, an annual monitor of cultural change in Australia that started in 1992. This pulse-taking includes the level of confidence that adult Australians have in various institutions and bodies.
According to the 2010 survey:
■12 per cent of Australians have a great deal of confidence in news reports in newspapers. By comparison, ASIO scores 11 per cent.
■Radio and television reports do a little better at 14 per cent (the same as the federal government). Chalke says the electronic media earns the extra 2 per cent because it’s more immediate.
■Journalists, however, score a measly 4 per cent, the lowest of the low. Trade union officials score 6 per cent. These attitudes are ruthlessly indiscriminate, says Chalke.
IT’S not only tabloids or news media at large that have suffered a steady decline in reputation over the past 15 years – in tandem with the rise of the internet – but also consumer advocacy publications such as Choice magazine.
Chalke says: ”Choice is now regarded to have become an elite propagandist machine, while confidence in recommendations from local shopkeepers has gone up. People trust somebody they can eyeball.”
It’s not that most people have completely written off news media as rubbish, but rather that public trust exists on a sliding scale. ”Most people say they have some confidence, but they reserve the right not to believe what they’re reading,” he says.
David Braddon-Mitchell, a senior lecturer in philosophy at Sydney University, wonders if intellectual laziness and a form of cool snobbery by the consumer also play a role. ”My guess is that we live in a time when possibly more genuinely true and interesting material is available through the old and new media, but no one is prepared to believe much of it, even what’s reputable, because believing anything is uncool.”
Braddon-Mitchell believes this attitude assists a lazy rejection of truth as a goal to aspire to. ”I say lazy because I think that’s the motivation … much easier to say, ‘Well that’s your truth and I’ve got my truth’. Then no more actual thinking has to be done.”
Brian McNair teaches journalism, media and communications at the University of Queensland. He believes media audiences approach their news and journalism with quite a sophisticated understanding of its potential flaws.
”The UK, where I’ve just come from, has been through many scandals and debates about the limits of truth, even on esteemed channels like the BBC,” he says. ”There is, however, a legitimate expectation that journalists do not lie, even in the popular end of the press. A commitment to truth is still an essential part of the contract between the journalist and his or her reader/viewer and without it journalism loses its value.”
At the top end of the tree, the truth, and the appearance of telling the truth, seem to matter a great deal. Fabrications and plagiarism by reporters at The New York Times (Jayson Blair in 2003) and The New Republic (Stephen Glass in the late 1990s) were not only major scandals, they sparked a lot of angst and a review of practices at both publications.
Closer to home, Channel Seven reporter Mike Duffy last year threatened to sue journalist Paul Barry for defamation after Barry accused Duffy of a ”shocking beat-up”.
Duffy’s story about the lack of security for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi was picked up by news agencies around the world. It featured Duffy acquiring a detonation unit in a suitcase that he then carried into a reportedly restricted area outside the Games stadium.
Paul Barry, hosting Media Watch, alleged the detonation unit was a fake and the suitcase was empty when Duffy walked into the stadium area that was not at that time in ”lockdown”.
At one point, Channel Seven offered The Sunday Age interviews with Duffy and the network head of news and current affairs, Peter Meakin, and access to all the footage from the story.
We declined to do so while legal threats were in play.
Months later, Barry says he ”hasn’t heard a squeak” from Seven and believes the lawsuit has been dropped. Last week, a Channel Seven spokesman said they could no longer help with this story.
At the racier end of the market, however, some news outlets appear to have given up even trying to be truthful if there’s a dollar to be made in doing otherwise.
Late last year, a week after Barry gave both barrels to Duffy, Media Watch thumped Woman’s Day for fabricating a cover story about actor Kate Richie’s wedding. The apparently exclusive photographs of the bride and groom’s September 2010 wedding were in fact taken at the 2009 AFI awards and crudely Photoshopped to make it appear as if the happy couple were on the verandah of the wedding venue.
The magazine also provided a breathless eyewitness account of the ceremony: ”The dappled golden sunlight streams through the massive glass windows catching the tears gently pooling in Kate Ritchie’s eyes as she gazes at the man she adores … and says, ‘I do’.”
The story was as bogus as it was cheaply lyrical. It had to be: the magazine’s scheduling meant the edition was printed one or two days before the wedding even took place.
At the end of his report, Barry raged at this flagrant bucketing of the truth: ”In the media, it’s the bottom line that really counts.”
Woman’s Day editor Fiona Connolly didn’t respond to emails or phone calls from The Sunday Age.
However, there was a curious development in the wedding affair that suggests the social scientists are on to something: the truth is an elastic toy in the hands of some consumers, if only because they half expect to be lied to in the first place.
A Woman’s Day reader, M. Clements, of Albany, Western Australia, had been awarded the $50 letter of the week prize by the magazine for praising the wedding story. ”There is nothing like a good wedding to lift the spirits,” she wrote.
Media Watch contacted Ms Clements and asked if she was concerned the magazine had deceived her. She replied: ”It wouldn’t bother me that much actually because it’s media so, yeah, I’m not that stupid as to realise everything’s true in the magazine.”
With a shake of his craggy head, Barry seemed genuinely dismayed: ”Remarkable isn’t it? Just tell me a story, who cares if it’s true?” Well, it depends on what kind of truth you are talking about. Jonathan Marshall, an anthropologist with the University of Technology, Sydney, says it’s fundamental that people tend to consume information in a fashion that meets their own needs.
”People are likely to judge information by what they already know, or the purposes they have for it,” Marshall says.
”For the person who liked the wedding story in Woman’s Day, it was a good wedding story about people she cared about … The real story would not have worked so well.”
This isn’t an ivory tower notion. As one viewer wrote on Media Watch‘s online forum: ”The people who read Woman’s Day got exactly what they wanted – more so perhaps than if it had been a true account – and since they’re probably not Media Watch types, there’s not much chance of their investment in such a dopey reality being challenged any time soon.”
In the grand scheme of things, does a fraudulent wedding story in Woman’s Day matter that much? Couldry reckons it does. ”Small scandals well beyond the broadsheet press can matter a lot, depending on their details, because they may disturb people’s broader assumptions about the point of media operations, and so our point in consuming media,” he says.
Braddon-Mitchell agrees. ”I’m pretty sure it does have a knock-on effect,” he says ”The horrible truth is that lots of readers of Woman’s Day don’t really know it’s trash and take it seriously. When they get disillusioned, they don’t draw a distinction between Woman’s Day and the ABC. They just form the view that in this corrupt world of ours, what you read is no guide to the truth. And then that’s what they start to tell everyone they know and the cynicism spreads.”