Even on its own results, the “Trust in Media” survey labours under a misnomer. “Distrust in Media” would be closer to the mark.

With the sole exception of The Sydney Morning Herald, Essential Research has had to lump together the newspaper figures for “a lot of trust” and “some trust” to get any of its totals into positive territory (that is, beyond 50%). Only a few categories managed to jump even that low hurdle: local newspapers (52%), ABC and SBS TV news and current affairs (67% and 65% respectively), and ABC radio news and current affairs (63%). Those tireless cultural warriors at The Australian (A lot of trust — 14%, Not much trust — 21%) might take note of those figures for our national broadcasters, but I doubt it.

Do any of these breakdowns really tell us much about the performance of the media? It depends on how you interpret the meaning of “trust”, and whether the survey methodology was truly reliable.

Here’s the deal on trust in the media. For information about anything beyond our immediate experience, we must all rely on the media. In return, the media can only credibly exist if that trust is repaid by fair and accurate reporting. Otherwise the whole implied compact between the media and its consumers would collapse. Yet the fact that our media repeatedly betray that trust through beat-ups, rumour-mongering, selective reporting and sheer invention somehow doesn’t demolish the deal.

But it does show up in some of the dismal figures in the Essential research. Only 4% of respondents declared “a lot of trust” in commercial talkback radio.

At the other end of the scale, SBS TV news and current affairs scored very highly — their “a lot of trust/some trust” total was 65%. But the surveyed group was only around 1000 people, according to Essential, and restricted to those aged 18 and over. Using average nightly viewership as a guide, that would mean no more than 50 of those respondents could reasonably be assumed to be regular SBS viewers. So the rest were telling Essential what they thought about SBS, not what they knew from regularly watching it. Big difference.

Notwithstanding these quibbles over methodology, the overall figures confirm a distressing central issue: the steady long-term decline in trust that the public now extends to its media. Historically (or, more accurately, anecdotally) we know that the media — and newspapers in particular — earned far more respect a generation ago than they do today. They may have been a bit dour, conservative and dull to look at, but they were trusted. Readers weren’t put off by high word counts and sparse pictorial content. They believed the journalists and their editors were providing them with a fair and accurate service.

Television, and then the internet, changed all that. Facts and carefully reasoned opinion are now subordinate to entertainment, the peddling of prejudice and click-bait journalism with the credibility of a New Idea cover story. The most depressing aspect of this decline is that while the public clearly holds the media in diminishing regard, our politicians increasingly enslave themselves to its frenzied news cycles. Apparently, it hasn’t occurred to the political class that the same people who so distrust the media — or ignore it altogether — are also voters.

Should we be concerned? Well, when only 9% of Queensland respondents reckoned they put “a lot of trust” in The Courier-Mail, then we know that something is very rotten in the state of metro newspapers. And remember, Brisbane is a one-paper town.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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