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Collapse: Trust in media falls to just 42% in Ireland

Yesterday, the Central Statistics Office released their semi-regular “trust survey” – in which they conduct research amongst the public and ask them which institutions they do, and do not, trust. This particular data set was recorded in December, last, but only released yesterday. As one might expect, politicians took a battering: Only a quarter of people said they trust political parties. But running in second place, in this poll, on the list of groups that Irish people don’t trust was… the media, which appears in the top line of this graphic:

Image courtesy of the CSO

37% of Irish people don’t trust the media. Only 42% say they do. What’s more, when you delve into the breakdown, it gets worse:

Respondents who use social media at least once a week, as one of their sources of information about politics and current affairs, had a lower mean score (4.6) in trust for the news media when compared with respondents who do not use social media as an information source (5.0).

In other words, the more people are exposed to other sources of information, the less they trust the media. This makes sense: If you’re only getting your information from the media, then what reason do you have to think that the information you are receiving is not trustworthy? If you are looking at alternative sources and perspectives, then you are naturally more likely to spot the assumptions and biases built into mainstream news coverage.

But even those – presumably older – people who are entirely reliant on the mainstream media for their news are returning anaemic scores in terms of trust: 5.0 is bang in the middle of the 1-10 scale used by the CSO to gauge trust levels. Which suggests that even devoted RTE viewers are increasingly sceptical of what they are seeing on their screens.

What’s interesting is that this is not part of a general collapse in trust: The Gardai, the Civil Service, and the Courts and Legal system all score very highly on trust. Even the National Government itself – as distinct from political parties – scores higher than the media. What’s interesting here is that the media is much closer to “political parties” in terms of trust than it is to other, non-partisan institutions.

The data is obviously limited, but that does suggest that more and more people are seeing the increasingly hard to deny fact that the media is, like parties, a partisan political institution. People have good reason not to trust political parties: Political parties don’t deliver objective and factual information. They are always trying to persuade you of something. That, too, is increasingly true of the media. For example, does anybody think Matt Cooper is capable of objective and factual coverage of Boris Johnson or the UK Government?

Think of just a couple of other topics: Does the media provide objective and factual information on Climate Change, for example, or is it engaged in a partisan effort to persuade the public of the “urgent need for climate action”? And on Covid 19, and the pandemic, were the media neutral arbiters of fact, or cheerleading for more, and constant restrictions? Even if you never read an alternative source, it’s increasingly hard to miss the trend on those two topics, and many, many, many more.

The media has a major structural problem, here: In the long term, a collapse in trust will lead to a fragmentation of the media. If there are no neutral arbiters, people will be more and more comfortable simply getting their news from people and outlets that share their own broad view of the world. This is bad news for the dominant players in the market. But can they reverse it? Probably not.

That’s because of the rising trend of activist journalists, and the change in how journalists see their role. Newsrooms are much younger than they were 30 years ago, full of much more politically engaged people, many of whom see their job as being more “facilitator of a national debate” than simply reporting on what’s happening. Even if the editors and managers in big mainstream outlets decided to go down the road of strict neutrality, it’s doubtful their newsrooms would let them.

All of this is bad news in the long term, however deserved it might be. This process is much more advanced than it is in Ireland in other western countries: In the USA, for example, it’s possible to consume news that is entirely liberal and skewed towards the Democratic Party, or news that is entirely nationalist and conservative, and skewed towards Mr. Trump and the Republican Party. We’re headed in that direction here, too. The end result will be many more angry and alienated people than we already have.

It would be for the betterment of all of us if the mainstream media decided to take the steps necessary to restore people’s trust. But they probably can’t do it.

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