Friday, April 12, 2024

Dr Bryce Edwards: What's to blame for the public’s plummeting trust in the media?

The media is in crisis, as New Zealand audiences flee from traditional sources of news and information. The latest survey results on the public’s attitude to the media show plummeting trust. And New Zealand now leads the world in terms of those who want to “avoid the news”. But who or what is to blame for this striking and alarming trend?

The Shocking survey results about plummeting public trust in the media

Yesterday the annual report on Trust in news in Aotearoa New Zealand 2024 was released, containing statistics that the authors describe as “shocking”, and which others say should be a “massive wake-up call” for media. The report has been produced by the Centre for Journalism Media and Democracy (JMAD) at Auckland University of Technology (AUT), in collaboration with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

The main finding is that public trust in the media continues to plummet: ‘In 2020, 53 per cent of New Zealanders said they trusted the news in general. In 2024, that figure was at 33 per cent. In five years, general trust in the news has fallen [20 percentage points].” One of the study’s co-authors, Merja Myllylahti, says she was “shocked” by the results.

The chart below shows the decline of trust in the media:

Click to view

Generally, trust in the media has been declining all over the world. But in New Zealand that decline is much steeper than elsewhere. According to the authors of the report, the overall trust levels have dropped by 38 per cent in the five years the AUT study has been carried out.

For the first time, New Zealand’s trust score is lower than the global average of 40 per cent, recorded by Reuters Institute’s Digital News Report. And it’s now like that of the US (32 per cent) and the UK (33 per cent). See how other nations compare in the chart below:

Click to view

The survey also asked the public to rate the trustworthiness of the 16 main news media. None of them managed to score more than an average of 5 out of 10. The percentage of people trusting individual broadcasters has fallen particularly heavily: RNZ fell 7.5 per cent, Newshub 7.8 per cent, TVNZ 9.4 per cent, and Whakaata Māori TV 14.6 per cent.

Perhaps even more alarming is the proportion of New Zealanders who say they now avoid the news. Last year, the survey registered that 69 per cent say they actively avoid the news – making New Zealand the world leader in this trend. This year it’s got worse – now 75 per cent say they avoid the news. The international average is only 40 per cent, and the next most media-avoidant country is Greece on 58 per cent.

Click to view

New Zealand’s world-leading media avoidance is made worse by the fact that New Zealanders are actually still very interested in news and information – over 70 per cent said they were interested in news to some degree

All of these trends are reiterated by another survey on public perceptions of the media, carried out in March by polling firm Rangahau Aotearoa Research New Zealand. You can the report here: In news we trust

Here’s their summary of the research findings: “Almost two-thirds of respondents (62%) stated they were personally concerned about ‘the falling trust in the news in general’. More specifically, 78% said they were concerned about the ‘spread of fake news and information’, while 64% said they were concerned about the quality of the news (which we defined as ‘in-depth analysis and the news being dumbed down’).”

You can see more answers to the questions in the chart below, including that 55 per cent of respondents are concerned about “freedom of the press” – defined as concerns about “the news not being censored”.

Click to view

Late last year, the Global IPSOS polling company also asked New Zealanders about the professions that they trust. Unsurprisingly, the highest proportion of New Zealanders said they trusted doctors (65%) and teachers (61%), and only 21% said they trusted journalists. But the least trusted professions were politicians (17%) and “Advertisement executives” (14%) – see Trent Doyle’s Newshub report, The most trustworthy professions in New Zealand and other countries

Who or what is to blame for New Zealand’s distrust of the media?

The main AUT report on media trust provides some details of what the public says is their problem with the New Zealand media: “Those who say they don’t trust and/or avoid the news are most concerned about the negativity of news, including its impact on their mental health, and what they perceive as political bias and opinion masquerading as news.”

This is covered very well by RNZ’s Colin Peacock: “The report asked New Zealanders whether they believed that the news media ‘were independent of undue political or government influence most of the time’. Twenty-seven percent agreed, but the proportion of those who ‘strongly or tend to disagree’ increased from 43 percent in 2023 to 47 percent. A quarter of respondents neither agreed nor disagreed. Eighty-seven percent of those surveyed who did not trust news said it was ‘biased and unbalanced", while 82 percent said news reflected the political leaning of the newsroom and 76 percent regarded news as "too opinionated, lacking in actual information’.” – see: People's trust in news has tumbled over the past year, survey shows

The criticisms of the Public Interest Journalism Fund are also obviously resonating with the public. The $55m fund was established by the last government, and continues to fund a number of media projects. But it has been contentious with critics because it aligned with the Labour Government’s Te Tiriti agenda of change – it required all applicants to show a “commitment to Te Tiriti o Waitangi and to Māori as a Te Tiriti partner” — alongside a commitment to te reo Māori.

Hence, some believed this compromised the media outlets, encouraging them to report more sympathetically on Treaty and co-governance issues. And the AUT study shows that 59 per cent of the public appears to accept these sorts of critiques of the media, agreeing the statement that “government financial support for the media means you cannot trust journalists to hold the government to account”. Although the number was slightly down from last year’s 61 per cent, arguably it reflects the impact of the Public Interest Journalism Fund controversy.

Is “media bias” to blame?

The AUT survey suggests that the public blame the media for becoming less trustworthy. According to the report, “Those who say they don’t trust and/or avoid the news are most concerned about the negativity of news, including its impact on their mental health, and what they perceive as political bias and opinion masquerading as news.”

Respondents who did not trust the media were asked what factors had reduced their trust:

* 87 per cent believed the news was “biased and unbalanced”

* 82 per cent believed news reflected the political leaning of the newsroom

* 76 per cent regarded news as “too opinionated, lacking in actual information”.

In terms of bias, there’s some interesting evidence about the self-declared ideological leanings of journalists in Massey University’s Worlds of Journalism survey in 2022. It found that about two-thirds (65 per cent) of journalists identify as being leftwing, 23 per cent call themselves centrists, and 12 per cent say that are rightwing – see: Worlds of Journalism Study 2.0. Journalists in Aotearoa/ New Zealand

Click to view

Some of this bias is also evident in a Curia Research survey carried out in December, which asked the question: “Do you think the New Zealand media overall are biased towards the right, biased towards the left or not biased?” – see: NZ media bias (paywalled)

The overall results were interesting: 37 per cent said the media was “Biased towards left” and 12 per cent said the media was “Biased towards right”, with another 31 per cent saying there was no bias, and 12 per cent not sure.

Similarly, the same research company asked the public to identify where on the left-right political spectrum each of the main media outlets was in April last year. The results suggested that the NZ Herald was the most politically balanced media outlet, with very similar left and right scores – see: NZ Herald rated as NZ’s most politically balanced media outlet

Click to view

The alleged bias of the media was discussed yesterday by Newstalk ZB broadcaster Heather du Plessis-Allan, who says “we are seeing [the bias] play out right now, with this new Government being given absolutely no honeymoon whatsoever because their conservative, liberal and centre-right ideas are an anathema to left-leaning journalists, who rail against it every single day” – see: The media's been given a wake-up call about bias

Media academic, and former editor of the NZ Herald, Gavin Ellis, has also written about yesterday’s media trust report, saying that the results “should shock the media sector”, and “Surely to God that sends a message to all mainstream, media that their approach to journalism has to change” – see: NZ media’s lab test results spell bad news

Ellis ponders whether, rather than bias, it’s the media’s overwhelming negativity that is the problem: “I went back and reviewed the front page lead stories of our metropolitan papers published last year and found that, with only irregular glimmers of hope, they were unremittingly negative. A third of the New Zealand Herald’s lead stories in that period were crime related… Unrelenting gloom is something we shy away from. And, if we see media painting an exaggerated picture that does not reflect our own reality, our trust in them is also likely to diminish.”

He also points to the fact that the Otago Daily Times has the highest trust rating in the survey, which Ellis says is significant because that newspaper “takes a more traditional or measured approach to selection and presentation” of news.

But will those in the media accept their faults, or just blame others?

Last year I talked to a head of one of the top media outlets in the country, during which I asked about the public’s perception of bias at the company, and whether they thought it was a problem that their media company was perceived in a certain way. I was surprised to hear that this was news to them – they said that they had never received such feedback. They weren’t denying that this might be a problem, just that they had never been told this before.

Sometimes institutions and those in them suffer from “living in a bubble”, and can get out of sync with the public mood. This is a major problem if it’s true, as playwright Arthur Miller once said, “A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself.” Instead it might be alleged that journalists are just talking to themselves and other elites, and when they talk to the nation, they are talking down to them.

Similarly, Heather du Plessis Allan says that she thinks that journalists and broadcasters will simply reject this latest landmark survey and the notion that the media has a trust problem: “I genuinely think newsrooms up and down this country don’t believe this is true. That is my experience of talking to editors in various media. They don’t see it, or they do and they make excuses.”

Dr Bryce Edwards is a politics lecturer at Victoria University and director of Critical Politics, a project focused on researching New Zealand politics and society. This article was first published HERE


Ken S said...

From my point of view a succession of articles and commentary from a number of pointy-heads has done nothing but confirm that my contempt for most of MSM is justified.

Fred H. said...

That many media workers have lost their jobs is because they deserve it. None of them protested against the signing up to the PIJF, when a little bit of moral courage would have gone far. I cannot say I have any sympathy for them, and even less now that they use the very same media to continually put out sob stories about their sackings. It is not as though they did that for the 10s of thousands of ordinary workers who get sacked each year and are left to their own devices to find new jobs so they can feed their families -- after all, they are not on high salaries like the media personnel. It is well passed time that media people taste a bit of reality as they have done untold damage to New Zealand and New Zealanders with their tendency to turn their opinions into "News".

Anonymous said...

A great article Bryce. It's insightful to hear how little insight and self-awareness there is in the bubbles. Even as long ago as 20 years I asked my colleagues why they thought the TV1 and TV3 networks both had basically the same news threads every day. I thought TV3 was meant to be independent and offering something different. TV3 did do local news better. Then the social conditioning component of the news started to intensify especially with Climate Change and medical issues. Then we got the PIJF, the daily Covid podium of truth and maorification. That was it for me. I could not bear to watch it. I had done Te Reo courses and still support Maori endeavours and culture but didn't think I needed to be compulsorily immersed in it or bombarded daily with highly speculative doom mongering.
So I weaned myself off the 6pm news, which I had watched for at least 40 years as a way to be informed and relax. In fact the weaning wasn't hard, it was the habit that was hard to break but it only took a few weeks. It felt like an exorcism.

Anonymous said...

"...and whether they thought it was a problem that their media company was perceived in a certain way. I was surprised to hear that this was news to them – they said that they had never received such feedback. They weren’t denying that this might be a problem, just that they had never been told this before."

Or maybe, when they receive feedback they just ignore it. In November 2023 I wrote to the Editor NZ Herald:

"In any newspaper the 'Letters to the Editor' page is an important outlet for readers to express opinions about the news of the day, make suggestions, comment on matters important to both local and national affairs, and on occasion respond to articles and opinions by journalists and editorial staff. It has been one of the features I, as a print subscriber for many years, look forward to reading.

So why has the Letters to the Editor section been reduced, as on Tuesday this week, to five letters occupying 48 column centimetres ... from a previous average of 10-12 letters plus 5-6 quick letters plus 5-8 Premium Debate comments, an average 20-25 reader submissions occupying 120 column centimetres? A 'Photo of the Day', on Tuesday a photo of canoeists in Cambodia (?!), takes up almost as much space as the readers' letters.

Surely there is not a shortage of letters? Please restore the Editorial & Letters page to the previous layout and content."

The letter, needless to say, was neither published nor its receipt acknowledged. And the pointless 'Photo of the Day', always sourced from overseas, continues to occupy valuable newsprint real estate.

Rob Beechey said...

Our corrupt MSM’s lack of public trust is level pegging with the USA. No surprises, for our last Marxist govt shared so many parallels. The US MSM protects the most blatant criminal behaviour that the American public have ever witnessed. Democracy has been trashed as Biden and the Deep State try to take out their political opponent with every dirty trick that they can muster. With the media firmly supporting these Marxist criminals a strange phenomenon is occurring. An overwhelming majority see through the media‘s manipulation and totally ignore its propaganda. As a consequence, Trumps popularity is escalating.

Anonymous said...

Honestly I have no idea why niupepa are failing. It is a mystery. Perhaps mātauranga could investigate.

Anonymous said...

Great article Bryce. This is damning. I wonder just how far it will go before they cotton on to what they've done. I can only conclude that they can't change and therefore it's only going to get worse for the media. Fantastic.