Magazine article The Spectator

Media Culpa: Journalists Are Losing Public Trust

Magazine article The Spectator

Media Culpa: Journalists Are Losing Public Trust

Article excerpt

Journalists are losing the public's trust

A thread runs through several of the stories that have defined this turbulent summer: reporters have been shocked by the levels of hostility they have encountered. 'They hate us,' one seasoned producer told me returning from a Grenfell Tower protest. 'I haven't felt anything like it in 20 years.'

When the battalions of the media descend on any big story, the experience rarely leaves those caught up in it feeling warm and fuzzy about the fourth estate. But this is different.

In each case there is a specific, albeit related, animus. During the election, it was Corbyn supporters convinced the mainstream media was bent on doing down their man. At Grenfell, it was an alarmingly widespread suspicion that the media -- and especially the BBC -- were part of an establishment conspiracy to play down the scale of the disaster. For the Finsbury Park attack, the charge was that the sensationalist coverage of previous attacks had whipped up Islamophobia.

Saying that trust has been declining in most institutions is a bit like noting that fewer people go to church these days. But confidence in the media has been ebbing quicker than a spring tide. The percentage of people in the UK who said they trusted the media fell from 36 to 24 in the last year, according to the annual Edelman Trust Barometer. If things continue at that rate, fewer than one in ten people will trust us three years from now.

It doesn't take much imagination to see what a wholesale breakdown of trust in the media can do to a society. In the US, average levels of trust in the media have more than halved since the 1970s. But they have collapsed among Republicans, just 14 per cent of whom say they trust the media. When whole portions of a society don't believe what they read or hear, the prospects of building any kind of cross-party consensus about what's true and what isn't become vanishingly thin. What's left is a vacuum in which made-up stories are as plausible as any other kind. Fake news is not a tech problem; it's a symptom of broken trust in the media.

We tend to comfort ourselves that the picture in Britain is nothing like as grim; that our debate is more reasoned. Broadcasters still command relatively high levels of public confidence and even the BBC's detractors acknowledge that it's trusted by more people than not. …

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