Australians received more evidence last week that the news media are the big losers out of the political turmoil from the last 12 months — and that’s before we factor in the impact of the conservative parties’ surprise election win last month.
The 2019 Digital News Reports found that trust in news in Australia had slumped by 6% year on year to 44% percent. Trust in “News I Use” was not much better: 51%.
The reports were released last week in two steps: the University of Canberra’s Australian report on Tuesday and the global report from the Reuters Institute (which incorporates the Australian data) on Friday.
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No surprises in the trust fall in Australia. The Reuters report found that just about every country with fractious political elections saw trust in media fall. It’s part shooting the messenger and part clear-eyed assessment of media failings in crisis.
The two reports track media performance over a number of dimensions. Australians — like news consumers in most other countries — give our media high points for “keeping me up to date” (66% agree) and “helps me understand the news of the day” (57% agree) — perhaps a bare pass mark for journalism’s core task.
And media will be less concerned that 44% agree that news is “too negative”. Here’s a dirty industry secret: mass media consumers may say they don’t like negative news, but given a choice they’ll opt for it over the positive.
More concerning is the lack of enthusiasm for the topics the media actually chose to report, revealed through the double negative finding that only 24% disagree that “the topics chosen by the news media don’t feel relevant to me”. There’ll be some comfort that almost half neither agree nor disagree, but what does it say about “news” that almost three-quarters either don’t think or don’t know that it’s relevant to them?
Followers of the media’s coverage of Australian politics won’t be surprised. While the report suggests that many Australians have little interest in politics, those that are interested are more likely to follow news. We know that the more engaged consumers are likely to be frustrated with gotcha moments and rehashed party issue talking points.
The Australian figures show that television remains the major source for news, with a surprisingly widening lead over online. This perhaps explains the political power of all those action-man Morrison stunts on the evening election news.
The global report highlights that not all media are the same, and consumers know it. A fragmented media, it suggests, has followed voters by sorting themselves along a left-right horizontal axis and a populist-non-populist vertical axis. We can see this happening in Australia, with News Corp manoeuvring into the right-wing/populist quadrant.
How much readers or viewers trust a particular masthead or broadcaster depends as much on how their values and beliefs align with their news source of choice.
Trust rankings show, for example, that News Corp’s Sky News, Herald Sun and Daily Telegraph are ranked from about 7 to 7.25 (out of 10) by their readers or viewers but 5.79 to 5.96 by people who have only heard of them.
Charter-bound to the centre, the ABC ranks top for trust at 7.11 by those who have heard of it and 7.76 by those who use it for news.
The Australian report’s figures also show the full-year impact of Facebook’s algorithmic tweak in 2017 and 2018 to downplay news in their news feed, with only about half of regular Facebook users saying they use the social media platform for news, down about 5% on the previous year.
However, the federal election indicates that partisan political content may be replacing political news — fed by closed Facebook groups and paid political advertising or shared by friends and family.
The overall trust decline probably still has some way to go. It won’t be until we see next year’s figures that we can see the impact of, for example, the pending ABC funding cuts, the increased partisan barracking of News Corp and the price in trust the media will pay for its over-eager acceptance of all those advertising dollars pumped in by Clive Palmer’s UAP.
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