Trusting the News?

The emergence of Breitbart News, Donald Trump and the alt-right media ecology inspired a cornucopia of conspiracist websites and streaming services. Their content flows across social media platforms and percolates into everyday life. Falsehoods concerning COVID-19 and vaccine medicine have contributed to the process.

One standard trope is that the mainstream media (radio, television, press) are corrupt, state-controlled and purveyors of “fake news.” Of course, the real situation is more complex. Fake news, along with other forms of disinformation, can be found anywhere, but mainstream media institutions are at least answerable to professional codes of conduct, official standards of basic accuracy and the legal proscriptions of defamation. Meanwhile, the volume, speed and immediacy of noxious, online traffic overwhelms the slow-moving routines of fact-checking and verification.

Yet, the growing reliance on social media co-exists with a trust decline in mainstream media. The 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer report covering 36,000 plus respondents from 28 countries found that 50 percent trusted their media. The survey fieldwork was conducted in November 2021. This represented a significant decline. In May 2020, 56% had expressed trust in their media Among New Zealanders, the decline in trust has been far greater. In 2020, 62 percent of New Zealanders trusted the news they consumed. In 2022, the figure dropped markedly to 52 percent. These findings arise from Trust in News in Aotearoa New Zealand 2022. This report, co-authored by Merja Myllylahti and Greg Treadwell, is published by AUT’s Journalism Media and Democracy (JMAD) Research Centre. Readers of this blog will be familiar with JMAD’s other major publication, on media ownership in Aotearoa-New Zealand. This year’s Trust in News report, the third of its kind, applies and extends a questionnaire template set out by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism in its international Digital News Report. In New Zealand, an online survey of 1,085 adults was carried out from February 22 to March 1 this year. Allow me to identify and consider some key findings.

First up, engagement was high. Seventy four percent of respondents were interested or extremely interested in the news. In terms of news sources, TVNZ and Stuff were mentioned by 64 percent of those sampled. Newshub/TV3 was mentioned by 49 percent, NZ Herald online by 48 percent and Radio New Zealand (RNZ) by 32 percent. Approximately 43 percent of respondents named social media as a news source. These figures suggest that established media institutions and social media platforms compete for the attention of news consumers. For many New Zealanders, social media news is an important component of their overall news diet. However, it seems that mainstream news media is especially distrusted. Of the 182 people who supplied comments to the survey, approximately 26 percent said that they didn’t trust the media because it was funded by government. 

From the verbatim comments recounted in the report, one point is clear—hardly anyone understands the difference between state-led media and public media. Rather, it is claimed that the government “buys” journalists with grants and funds, that mainstream media are “just a propaganda wing of government” and that “New Zealand news is sadly in the pocket of government.” Specifically, most well-known news brands saw significant declines in trust from 2021 to 2022 and from 2020 to 2022. They include RNZ, TVNZ, Newshub, Newsroom, the NZ Herald and Stuff. These figures should be put alongside the answers given to another set of questions. Interviewers asked respondents whether they were concerned about the blurring of real news and fake news on the internet. Sixty five percent of respondents expressed such concerns, compared with 68 percent in 2021. This drop, as I will later explain, coincides with an increase in extremist conspiracist content across New Zealand social media platforms. 

Against this backdrop, the report found, also, that approximately 14 percent of 2022 respondents were not concerned at all about the quality of content on the internet. There was far more concern about the reliability of mainstream news media. In this context, respondents were asked about poor journalism (e.g., stories with spin or twisted facts to push a particular agenda, stories made up for political or commercial reasons, stories that turn out to be advertisements). Approximately 36 percent of the sample were extremely concerned about such trends, compared with 30 percent in 2021. The point here is not that the mainstream media is being criticised unfairly. Rather, it’s that the level and vehemence of the criticism is disproportionate. Respondent criticism of social media sites was comparatively less even though online misinformation and disinformation had been increasing. 

The findings of this report complement those of the Disinformation Project from Te Punaha Matatini at the University of Auckland. In a working paper published late last year, Kate Hannah, Sanjana Hattotuwa and Kayli Taylor analysed the spread of mis- and disinformation across social media from 17 August to 5 November 2021. Over this period, the COVID-19 Delta variant arrived, the government introduced a Level 4 lockdown and vigorously instituted a nationwide vaccination campaign. The researchers found “a sharp increase in the popularity and intensity of COVID-19-specific disinformation and other forms of “dangerous speech” and disinformation related to far-right ideologies. More particularly, they found increases in “volume (amount of content), vectors (platforms and apps [that] content is produced and shared on) and velocity (speed at which content is produced).” 

These trends predate the nationwide spread of anti-mandate protests and the three-week occupation of parliament grounds over February and March. During that time, social media disinformation reached a new intensity. The streaming site Counterspin, for example, provided 24/7 coverage and directives for the protesters. So, on the basis of JMAD’s Trust in News report and Te Punaha Matatini’s online dis- and misinformation research, I make the following observations. These should inform further research.

  • Continuing corrosion of trust in the news media will further discredit and devalue the principles of journalism.
  • Lack of trust in news media combined with social media disinformation will fuel extremist political sentiments with uncertain electoral consequences.
  • Declining trust in the news media coincides with declining trust in government per se. A growing disillusionment with the political system and public institutions is the likely outcome.
  • The preceding tendencies are symptomatic of a deeper trend—society is fragmenting as disparate groups talk past each other. 

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