I hear it all the time. “You can’t trust the media.” It is often used to delegitimise a piece of information or dismiss an argument, which can be frustrating, and use of the term “the media” is too reductive in its assumption that all media are the same. Beyond the logical fallacy though, the phrase is far more sinister in what it proposes about the state of journalism.
I know there is some truth in it. After all, media ownership in Australia is one of the most highly concentrated in the world, especially following the merger of Nine Entertainment and Fairfax last year. The ABC too has suffered ever-increasing cuts to funding and pressure from the Liberal Party. A 2018 Edelman survey of 28 countries showed that Australians’ trust in media was second lowest, next to Turkey. Admittedly, we’re not the best, but we’re certainly not the worst. Australia still ranks 21 out of 180 countries listed by Reporters without Borders on their world press freedom index.
However, when you consider that two-thirds of Australian adults get their news from social media, and over 50% expect this news to be inaccurate, it leads you to wonder whether people want trustworthy media, or whether they simply want to mistrust the media. There will always be media that is corrupt and there will always be “fake news” for as long as there are social media sites like Facebook to host it, but these should not define “the media”. There are countless media organisations and journalists who are risking their lives every day to uncover corruption, offer fresh perspectives and bring us more accurate information. They do all this so that we can act on injustices and make better informed decisions about how to navigate the world.
Saying “you can’t trust the media” is more than just an annoying conversational ad hominem; I’d go so far as to say that it is dangerous. Attacking the credibility of the institution of journalism is an existential threat to freedom.
It also overlooks the risks that so many journalists undertake in less democratic and less safe parts of the world. It delegitimises Jamal Khashoggi, who was tortured and killed last year in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey for his criticism of the Saudi prince Mohammad bin Salman. It delegitimises the two Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo who have been jailed in Myanmar since December 2017 for reporting on the killing of Rohingya Muslims. It delegitimises Lyra McKee who was shot dead in Londonderry just two weeks ago during an uprising of Irish nationalists. Not to mention the 100+ journalists killed in the last two years, over half of which were targeted murders.
In fact, journalism is a more dangerous profession than it has ever been before, and although a sad and frightening fact, this to me signifies that it is just as effective a profession as it has ever been. Nobody kills a journalist because they are outdated and ineffective. They kill a journalist because they are a threat to corruption and power, they are a threat to secrecy and mistruth, and they are just as important and relevant today as ever, if not more.
Respect for media is integral to the safety and effectiveness of journalists in a world where they have increasingly fewer protections. Disengaging from media is one thing, but delegitimising it is another and, given our unprecedented access to information, painting all media organisations with the broad brush of mistrust amounts to intellectual laziness and a refusal to acknowledge the very lifeblood of a democracy.