The crisis of trust facing the news media

by Stephen Tall on July 22, 2012

The Hansard Society this week published part two of its annual Audit of Political Engagement, focusing on the media and politics. Three graphs in particular stood out for me…

63% of public say tabloids “look for any excuse” to tarnish politicians

… tabloid newspapers are consistently identified by two-thirds of the public as displaying negative traits in their coverage of politics and politicians. … Tabloids are three times more likely to be perceived to be negative in their approach to the coverage of politics than are the other forms of media. … Perhaps the most notable finding, however, is that tabloid readers themselves strongly agree with the negative statements about their own newspapers of choice; indeed they are more likely than the national average for all three statements to agree that the tabloids are negative in their approach. Almost three-quarters (74%) of tabloid readers agree that their newspapers ‘are more interested in getting a story than telling the truth’, 71% that they ‘focus on negative stories about politics and politicians’, and 70% that they ‘look for any excuse to tarnish the name of politicians’.

Just 29% of public say tabloids “do a good job” of holding politicians to account

Broadsheet newspapers are viewed much less negatively than tabloids, but not as positively as television in respect of their coverage of politics. … Just 15% agree that tabloid newspapers are ‘generally fair in their representation of politicians’, and only one-quarter (25%) that they ‘help the public to learn about what is
happening in politics’.

Yet majority of public says media influences public and politicians

42% of the public claimed that the media was one of the two or three institutions they believed had most impact on people’s everyday lives, surpassing the influence of local councils (40%), the UK Parliament (30%), business (28%), the European Union (16%), the civil service (15%) and the Prime Minister (13%). Indeed, throughout the Audit lifecycle, the media is the institution that the British public consistently believes has the most impact on their life. … Only 3% think that the media has no influence at all on the public’s electoral decisions.

What does this all mean?

The findings are clear enough. And pretty unsurprising. The public view of the media, and in particular the tabloid/mid-market press, is deeply critical: newspapers are regarded as overwhelmingly negative in their political coverage and yet at the same time also incompetent at holding politicians to account. Yet they have real and significant influence. That’s a pretty toxic combination, both for the media and democracy. Television news and broadsheet newspapers score better, though not by much. As the report argues:

Overall, these results would therefore suggest that the media – particularly the print press and specifically tabloids – do not greatly benefit our democracy from the perspective of nourishing political engagement. The link between a vibrant and effective media and the dynamism of our democracy is compromised. Indeed, in this respect, the press, particularly the tabloids, appear not to be living up to the importance of their role in our democracy.

Yes, they certainly entertain and it is this that surely helps explain the sales of the red-top and mid-market titles. Understandably, looking for their own unique selling point, many of them are also effective promoters of campaigns: for example, the ‘Help for Heroes’ campaign to support military veterans, or the Sarah’s Law campaign to name and shame paedophiles. Whilst this is perceived as a form of public service by the media, nonetheless, at times, some of these campaigns could be said to actively undermine the democratic process for, unlike politicians, they have no need to mediate between different, often competing interests and demands, and they rarely grapple with nuance or complexity.

In the opinion of most members of the public, the press are simply not effective at conveying information and knowledge to their readers, nor at performing their crucial watchdog role of holding politicians and government to account. Indeed, it is not always clear exactly how some sections of the press perceive their watchdog role: denigrating politicians and undermining the political system and citizens’ faith in it, is not the same as holding the political class accountable.

Should the press (and indeed TV news) care? After all, most of the popular press continues to make money for their owners. In the short-term, perhaps not. But as Mark Pack has argued many times before, newspapers that value their brand reputations as newspapers (rather than simply Heat-style gossip-mongers) should worry that the public has such a cynical view of their trade:

Isn’t a major reason that people increasingly turn elsewhere for news that they don’t trust the quality of what comes from traditional and paid-for sources enough above those other sources? “Pay for news from us because it’ll be accurate” could be a good sell. If people trust you.

Politicians have worried for years that their negative trust reputation will impact on their ability to function. The media, until the hacking scandal and the Leveson Inquiry, has regarded itself above such considerations. Not any more.

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum, and also writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.