Yesterday’s Essential Report data on where voters source their news, and whom they trust to provide it, sheds light on what should be an uncomfortable fact for all of us in the commercial media, whether mainstream or otherwise: there is a trust gap between public broadcasting (and especially the ABC) and commercial media. And it’s substantial.

According to Essential, ABC TV’s news was regarded as always or usually trustworthy by 82% of voters. ABC Radio wasn’t far behind on 78%, and SBS TV 78% as well. About one in five voters believe these broadcasters are “always trustworthy”.

The closest commercial media gets is the free-to-air TV news bulletins — 69% of voters regard them as always or usually trustworthy, but only 5% regard them as “always trustworthy”.

While newspapers are trusted by 65% of voters, there is an alarming level of distrust towards our mastheads — 29% of voters believe newspapers can seldom, or never, be trusted.

The ABC’s dominance is further reinforced by data in a recent MEAA report on the future of journalism, which found the ABC was the most trusted online news source.

Trustworthiness is critical to a public broadcaster. Its core function must be the provision of high-quality, independent news and current affairs. Despite remorseless complaints of bias, the ABC is well ahead of commercial broadcasters, newspapers and online media in how it is regarded by voters.

The size of the gap between the ABC and SBS and the commercial media, however, must be of concern to all of us outside the public broadcasters, and particularly in our broadsheets, where an ostensible commitment to quality journalism despite constant cost pressures doesn’t appear to translate into readers’ trust. As a publicly funded media outlet, the ABC should set the standard. But it shouldn’t be that far ahead in public perceptions. Commercial media have to do more to earn the trust of their users.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey