Why people don't trust the media anymore
In a time when almost anyone can claim to be a “journalist” (thanks to social media) and real, professionally trained journalists are losing the trust of the public, the “facts” vs. reality are getting skewed. You can no longer assume that just because you saw it on TV, that it’s the truth.
On this episode of the Mind Meld vlog, we chat with Jimmy Thompson, the managing editor at Capital Daily News and we discussed the findings of a recent report that found the public has developed a deep mistrust of the media.
Read the following excerpt to get his insights on how society feels about what they read or see on popular news outlets, and what journalists need to do to earn the public’s trust again, or watch the full video to reap the benefits of this insightful interview.
JN: So the Edelman Trust Barometer 2021 report was recently released. It’s claiming that trust is at an all-time low. And I'm going to quote a bit from this report:
56% of Americans agree with the statement that journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things that they know, are false, or gross exaggerations.
58% think that most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public.
This is the level of trust in reporters. I think there's a suspicion that this is purely a Trump-era phenomenon. In fact, what the report says is that these numbers are echoed across the whole world. They're mostly not a function of, as Axios puts it, Donald Trump's war on fake news. So we don't have a misquote or misinformation problem, we have a trust problem.
JT: I would argue we have both!
JN: Right! So what's your initial response to this article and some of the findings?
JT: There's so much to that. I mean, I don't even know where to start. Okay, let's start with social media. That's an easy place. Because I think you’re right that Donald Trump is not the cause of this. Donald Trump is a symptom of this. And he capitalized on this low trust in the media, and he hammered at it and he made it worse and worse and worse. And I think that's sort of indisputable, but he didn't cause it.
He just saw that there was an opportunity there that people already didn't really trust the media. He had friendly media that he could sort of say ‘these are the real ones and the rest of you are not,’ you know. Everyone else is fake news. And now Fox News, too, is apparently fake news and in the mind of him and his supporters.
But even before all of that there was social media and what social media did was two things. First, it gave everyone the ability to become a publisher. Before, journalists had been the gatekeepers and the source of information. If you wanted to get something in the newspaper, you had to send it through these people who were generally white, middle-class, upper-middle-class men who had an influence on the media. They were also educated and operated with some kind of idea of what the public interest was.
So, you know, it had pros and cons. But with social media, the doors got thrown open. And suddenly anyone can call themselves a journalist. It was no longer seen as a profession, it was an activity. So from small, reputable outlets to huge, horrible sources of misinformation, you have this huge proliferation of media. And what that caused was, overall general lowering of the journalistic standard.
Some outlets still have extremely high standards, like the New York Times, and still fact-check everything that they publish. Many magazines and newspapers still fact-check everything they publish. Some outlets are somewhere in the middle, in terms of relying on factual information but not having the resources to necessarily check every single fact. When they get something wrong, they correct themselves.
But we've got an enormous media ecosystem now. So when you say “journalist,” it’s not the word it used to be. Some people have a master’s in journalism or PhDs in journalism. And some people have no education whatsoever, that doesn't preclude them from doing the act of journalism. But it doesn't necessarily mean that they have the shared standard of what journalism should contain and what it should mean.
JN: I'll give a little bit of context from where I come and how I've evolved in my position on this. When I grew up, there were pretty much only three main news channels. When I was a kid, if it was said on television, it was correct. Or at least it was assumed by me as a kid and my family. There was so much more trust in the media and frankly, in all of our institutions like the military and the cops. Trust in general has definitely gone down.
Honestly as the years have gone by, I went from kid to student then into journalism. And like I said, you're the successful version of me because I sort of meddled in a journalism career before switching over to the marketing and PR side. That’s where I found the ability to tell stories came in useful for companies.
But as an adult, I started seeing the cracks in the wall. It's like The Matrix. At some point, I took the red pill. And I don't know whether I sort of diluted it or if it was building over the years. I can't pinpoint the moment when it happened.
It's somewhat ironic, but I have a natural BS detector. Anytime I read an article, listen to the radio, watch a TV show, or listen to a podcast, I can pick out when something doesn't add up. What is the thing that they're not telling us? Why aren't they talking about this? Why aren’t they asking this question or that question? And maybe that's a common thing that all of us do.
JT: I don't think that's common enough. I think that's an extremely important impulse in media literacy if you're not asking yourself “who didn't they talk to?” “What questions didn't they ask?” “What presuppositions underlay this whole premise of this article?”
That's what we need more of. And I think what's happening isn't that there's more of that happening, but for the first time, people are being exposed to those questions. Those questions have always been there but we just never questioned it until, until the last maybe 10-15 years.
You mentioned earlier about having a lot of trust in the military or in cops or in government. In the 1970s, the US military was invading Vietnam, and bombing civilians with napalm, cops were beating up black and gay people in the streets, and governments doing horrible things overseas and at home. We've always had institutions that are not worthy of our trust, we just trusted them anyway. And that is because we had a mainstream media that was essentially complicit in those things. Because the perspective of the mainstream media was considered to be objective, and that objective perspective happened to be that of rich white men.
JN: I'm gonna push back on you slightly, I'm not a big fan of identitarian politics, and, the whole “rich white men” thing, but I do agree that elite groups trying to propagandize us, but my take is that there's more than one group of people behind the scenes and that power takes many forms.
JT: Yes, but who were the elite throughout history? You're thinking of rich, white men. That's not to say they’re the only group who held power.
JN: I agree with you about that. My point is that it goes beyond skin colour, gender, and those kinds of physical attributes that are physical attributes. There may be cultural class issues there. I literally don't know what ideas would come to someone based on skin colour or gender or immutable characteristics.
JT: I don't think it's immutable characteristics. I think the social strata that were available to people that look like you and me, were different from the social strata available to Indigenous people in Canada, for example. Perhaps as a result of this, they suffered extraordinarily at the hands of the media for all of Canadian history.
JN: I agree. I want to circle back to something you alluded to earlier. The business model of media and how it’s appearing that some media outlets are more about making money than working to retain the trust of their audience. How can they get more readers or listeners if they don't have their trust? That's a problem. So how did we get into this vicious circle where they're seemingly working against public interest either consciously or unconsciously?
JT: That's a really good question. I don't necessarily think that they're working in their own interest. But the first thing I would say is, you're absolutely right that there is a cycle here. As the media have had to shed jobs, they have lost the resources to do the quality reporting they want to do. And as they lose that quality reporting, they lose subscribers and advertisers, and it goes downhill.
A perfect example of this would be Canadian Geographic, which has been an incredible magazine and still publishes great content. What they've done as they've lost money, is they've taken on extraordinary partnerships with the oil and gas lobby and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers (CAPP). In doing that, they've not only sold out their own brand, but they've actually sold out their value to their advertisers, because people don't trust what they're reading in Canadian Geographic anymore.
People don’t trust when they see a CAPP piece, essentially propaganda in a National Geographic that's not labelled as sponsored content. So it actually undermines the very purpose of CAPP wanting to advertise with them in the first place.
This gets back to what you were getting at earlier when you said that low trust is a problem for you as a PR person. If people don't trust the media, then why would clients want to advertise, place advertorials, or editorials in the media?
Getting back to the business model, I think that trust has started to erode during the era of the internet. People are less willing to pay for things they find online and I think there's a new assumption that if you find something online, it should be free.
And that's unfortunate because the media still costs a lot of money to produce. It actually probably costs a little bit less per article to make, because you don't need to send someone to the courthouse or to the library in person anymore. You can send them to Wikipedia. Well, ideally, you're not doing journalism based on Wikipedia. But you know what I mean, a lot of the research, a lot of the contact has become much cheaper. But it still costs a lot of money to make journalism, and we still pay people salaries to do that work. But we don't pay for it anymore. And advertising has also gone out the window in favour of places like Google and Facebook.
JN: I love these points that you're making. One of the things that came out of the Edelman study was that in contrast with the low trust in reporters, there's far higher trust in CEOs. This coincides with the rise of thought leadership.
The basic idea of thought leadership is getting company CEOs, Founders, or Executives to write articles about their big ideas that go into places like Bloomberg, Forbes, The Wall Street Journal, or Inc.com. They’re often things like “this is how I built a business” or “this is how I have failed and failed and failed and then succeeded,” or, “here is my magic idea.”
I love the stories of redemption, where people share how they went off the rails then got back on and they shared how they did it. Thought leadership pieces are popular and an increasingly popular form of contributing content to outlets. I'm curious about what you think about this trend.
JT: Let’s start with just advertorials. Generally, I think that advertorials don’t necessarily mean “bad journalism,” or that it's not good for the reader. I think advertorials done properly and done really, really transparently, can be fine. It can be as good as a product that wasn't paid for by someone outside of the organization or by the subscribers.
As for thought leadership, it’s not a substitute for journalism. For sure that it can help a business or founder or CEO get their message out and maybe to inspire others. For example, a TED talk can be really a great way to get to new ideas in your mind and to try and understand how someone did what they did.
But journalism at its core is about holding truth to power. And it's about investigating those CEOs or other powerful people, and about holding them to account. You're never going to get the people that are left behind writing a thought leadership column in Bloomberg. You’re never going to get the workers who were infected with COVID at the cargo plant to write a thought leadership piece. Their bosses, however, probably could. So who has access to these platforms is really worth considering.
I’m not saying that those voices are not valuable, like the voice of the CEOs are not valuable. These are people that have done great things and who have great ideas. You may think of that as a more trustworthy source of information than journalism.
JN: Another topic I wanted to discuss is the quality and effort in journalism today. The resources and money just aren’t there as much as they were in the past.
For me growing up, I remember the investigative journalists were, all they did was they would write these 8, 10, 15, or 20 story series on something going in-depth undercover. And I know this is still done, but it's harder to do and to fund. I see journalists doing that effectively by crowdfunding in order to go outside of the system.
There was a film called Spotlight a few years ago. It was about the years-long investigative coverage of abuse in the Catholic churches in Boston. That kind of journalism was hard-hitting and went to places very, very few people have access to in order to get facts that people want to hide. That is so hard to do now. Do you have any thoughts on this?
JT: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I have a lot of thoughts. So, first of all, I think that that kind of journalism is still done. And it's not only done at the New Yorker for you know. For example, we just hired George Packer to write a 30,000-word piece on Coronavirus. It was an incredible piece that took me a couple of days to get through but I got there.
At the Capitol Daily, we've got Tori Marlan who has been working on a story for the past four months. This is a huge investment for Capital Daily and she works on this investigation every single day. When I was a freelancer, I got picked up by the Narwhal to do an investigation that took me I think three and a half or four months on the treatment of Fisheries observers on trawlers on the West Coast. We got results.
It's not that people aren't able to do this anymore. It’s more that the resources are much rarer. So whereas at the Times Colonist, you might have had two or three investigative reporters on staff in the 80s. They don't have any real investigative reporters now. They have great reporters who do great work, but they don't have the resources to do a month-long investigation anymore.
JN: Now, I want to tie this back to the whole trust issue in the media. From my standpoint, journalists who are paid less or don't have the resources to do their jobs properly, will look for other motivations, other incentives in order to keep doing what they're doing. And in fact, new journalists who have no prospects or very, very dim prospects of, you know, being the kind of journalist who gets on TV and gets book deals. And, you know, if they think, “Hey, I'm good, but I don't know if I'm gonna be great. I might be a Jonathon Narvey kind of journalist.”
So, if the money isn't gonna be there, what’s the other incentive for me? Well, I'm going to speak truth to power, I'm going to change the world. And this is where the perception of ideology influences stories, and I think this comes back to journalists appearing to be motivated because they are activists, more than they are journalists.
I feel like this trend of stagnant or declining pay rates for journalists as social media was taking off, has created this real change. For people who called themselves journalists 20 or 30 years ago, there's not a tonne of overlap in where their motivations are coming from and why they're doing the work.
I'm not the first person to come up with this hypothesis. I like to give credit where credit is due, but I'm trying to remember who I am stealing this from.
Jimmy, what’s your perspective on this?
JT: So first of all, the salary thing is absolutely true. Journalists are underpaid. That's across the board. Unless you work for NBC or something, you can’t probably pull in a six-figure salary. Especially not in Canada. Most journalists, especially young ones, are working for $40-50K per year.
But, they’re not taking revenge on the world in exchange for not getting paid. The only people that are able to and willing to work in journalism are people that want to do that work because they want to hold all powerful people to account. They could make more money going into PR. In Canada, there is a 4:1 ratio of PR professionals to journalists. That says something about the amount of money available in different fields and the amount number of jobs frankly,
With this whole idea of activism, one man's activism is another person's baseline truth. I'm not questioning the notion of truth. I'm questioning the notion of objectivity. I think that the idea of objectivity or neutral ground is wrong, it doesn't really exist. No person can claim that they hold the neutral ground. You can say there are facts. I'm not questioning the existence of facts. Gravity and climate change are facts, but 10 years ago, to say climate change is real, would have been seen as an act of activism in the media.
JN: I think this is an interesting point. I had a relative tell me a few years ago that they love FOX news. They said “They just run things straight down the line. There's no bias there. They're totally objective.”
And I sort of looked at them. It was interesting that they didn’t recognize their own biases. When you can't see the bias, that's your bias.
Now let’s look at climate change. We know the climate changes. I don't know a human being who would say the climate does not change. But then that is a loaded phrase, so let’s break it down. What are we talking about? Are we talking about natural climate change volcanoes? Are we talking about man made causes? And what about the consequences? Are we saying if climate change exists, we must do XYZ? Or is there openness to different avenues for resolving this problem?
My point is that we need to ground our conversations in media and elsewhere in a shared reality, and it's so easy to get tripped up over things that should not be loaded terms, but maybe are.
JT: Journalists are people, and people have opinions. And people have biases, histories, cultures, and all kinds of things. So to say that journalists have some claim to a neutral ground, or should or should pretend to have a claim to neutral ground is wrong.
Now, just because you can see Walter Cronkite’s tweets doesn't mean that he didn't have opinions on things. Now it's a little more evident out there that you can go on Twitter, and you can see somebody like me, shooting his mouth off about whatever thing. Just because I'm able to express that today doesn't mean that if I was doing this job, 15 years ago, I wouldn't have had those opinions. I just wouldn't have had the place in public to share them.
JN: That's really that's an interesting point, that sort of a lack of transparency. We have this illusion that journalists are more objective.
JT: Yeah. And I think that illusion has been broken. This has contributed to the loss of trust in the media. And that's not good. At the same time, it's inevitable. Journalists need to regain that trust by just doing their jobs and doing it well. And I think a lot of them are out there doing their jobs and doing them well. They're out there every day trying their best to interview a person that they may completely disagree with and to give them a fair shot.
When journalists are investigating someone for something that they did wrong, they're reaching out not just because they're legally obligated to, but because they genuinely want a more complicated picture of that person. Villains are boring. But what's much more exciting and interesting is someone complicated who has thoughts and feelings about the world and talking to that person is going to help you understand how this happened to begin with.
JN: That's such a great point. And I feel like that's actually where a lot of the media is sort of went off the rails. Villains are boring. You want a more nuanced lead.
Look at the recent Trump era that is swiftly thankfully receding into the past. People close to me have on occasion called me a Trump Supporter, but my response has always been no. For one, I'm Canadian and don’t have a dog in this fight. And second, as I alluded to before, as being sort of a skeptic, it's always the shoe on the other foot test. I feel like a lot of reporting went off the rails for four years, with Trump being castigated as this villain where if he said something, it had to be wrong.
And so you had these bizarre situations of Trump reversing himself and suddenly reporters and columnists would reverse their own positions too. It was boring.
But, you know, by the standard of how media reported on Trump, you might have said that in the Trump era, there were 7000 soldiers in the Capitol protecting the White House, and that on his first day of his new term, Trump was legislating from the side of his desk, as opposed to approaching Congress with 15 new executive orders in a single day. People would be like, “Oh, he's a tyrant.” Then silence from the media. So again, that's not a pro-Trump position. That's a sort of a, like, “what is going on here?” If the people are seeing a bias in the US, how much of this is reflected in reality versus that they've been brainwashed or propagandized?
JT: It definitely appeared that everything Trump did was bad automatically. And that he didn't necessarily get a fair shake when he did things that otherwise people might agree with. I don't cover US politics but I followed it rapidly like the rest of the world because it was the biggest sideshow in town, but I can see why someone especially a conservative would get that impression. He wasn't being treated very well, especially when he did things that seemed logical or like a giant tax cut. He was greeted with great skepticism.
JN: The reason I brought that up is that it's mentioned in the Edelman poll. But, putting politics aside, what other topics exist in the US or Canada, that seem to be ideological more than they should be?
JT: Carbon taxes might be a good one. It seems like your position on carbon taxes is essentially your position on whether you're voting Liberal, NDP, Conservative, or Green. When, ultimately, it's an issue of economics and whether climate policy is effective.
Ultimately, taxes should be an issue of economics, not politics. Does it have an effect? Does it have a positive effect on people's behaviour? Or company's behaviour? Does it lower carbon emissions? And there, there's a lot of studies and information about whether that's true. But what happens is that the media outlets who have aligned with carbon taxes are more willing to entertain stories in favour of it, and the media that has disavowed carbon taxes will always run stories that are skeptical of it.
JN: Absolutely. And of course, in Canada, this crosses over not just to carbon taxes, it's the energy industry as a whole. So again if you've got a position about the carbon taxes, this probably affects how you feel about whether or not people should have jobs working in the oil industry in Alberta.
Again, I'm picking up on something that I think Sam Harris said a couple of years ago. He said that, if I know that you smoke cigarettes, I probably know a lot about you, aside from the fact that you smoke cigarettes. That one variable alone can tell you a lot. I'm going to know what you think on 12 different policy topics, which didn't use to be the case.
I want to get your thoughts on how the media gets out of this and how society gets out of this. I'm assuming that more trust in the media would be a good thing. People not thinking that everything is ideologically constrained is a good thing. Or maybe people should just recognize there are no objective journalists out there and no objective publications. Everyone's taking a certain side. So just be aware of what that bias is. And maybe journalists and journalism producers need to be more transparent about what angle they’re coming from.
JT: Firstly, when I said that journalists are people and they have opinions, I definitely don't mean to say that the journalism they do is pushing a particular direction. That distinction needs to be made and that’s a tricky thing in journalism. Because every decision you make as a journalist has an ideological component:
Who you talk to
Who you don't talk to
What questions you ask
What facts you include
What context makes into the story
What shots do you get (if you’re a video journalist)
The light angle you shoot from
All of this could be construed as a decision that you're making in service of a particular point of view.
So the point I'm trying to make is not that as journalists we should just accept that it's a free-for-all and everyone is pushing a particular point of view. What I'm saying is that journalists need to recognize their own biases and really work to confront them. Media and consumers need to recognize that journalists are people who have biases, but who are really trying not to push a particular point of view. And in most cases, I believe that's true.
If you go and work for The Rebel, you probably have a very particular ideology. If you go and work for Press Progress you have a different ideology. Now, I don't want to equate those two things, they're not equal. The Rebel is not a journalism outlet in any way. But if you go and work for something like that, you have a very specific ideology. And if you go and work for something that's more progressive, you probably have a very specific ideology as well.
This doesn’t mean that people who go and work for the Globe and Mail wake up every morning and open up their book of facts and absorb their facts for the day, and that's the only thing that they think about that day. Like other human beings, they have ideologies, but what they also do is they work really, really hard to call up people at every level of their story to get their point of view and try and understand what the story is and what forces are at play. And then and then to honestly, and transparently communicate that.
JN: I agree with you that a vast majority of journalists are not knowingly letting their biases impact how they report things. And in fact, that's probably day one of journalism school: Do you know your biases? What are they, how to look for them, and how to be responsible around that.
As a skeptic, whenever I'm checking out a news show, I'm looking for what the bias is because I know there will be one. It would be great if on every publication, in the masthead or right below it they just said “these are our values so here’s how we’re reporting it. Take it or leave it.”
JT: Yes, and I want to go back to your question earlier about how journalists can work this way. Your question was how can Journalists move forward from here. From my point of view, I don't think it's something that people just need to get used to, I think that journalists need to keep doing their jobs and they need to do them better.
Journalists have screwed up big in recent memory. Caliphate being a notable example, where The New York Times podcast relied on sources that very clearly had a particular agenda. Their agenda was to make us think that there were terrorists behind every corner and back in Canada and the US. And then they let a source completely lead them astray who was making stuff up. And when that came out, the outlet did a good job of apologizing and retracting the podcast.
At the same time, Michael Barbaro’s fiancé had worked on the show, and Michael Barbaro, as the host of The Daily, was out there being the interviewer of the I think the managing editor of the New York Times. I think you need to separate people from their obvious biases whenever you can.
I also think that news journalism is really quick, and the sort of one-off stuff where you don't get the chance to have any context. You don't have the chance to explain to people what's really happening in the story, which is ripe ground for people to lose trust in the media, because they're going to see what's missing. And they're not going to forgive you for it when they know the story better than you. They're gonna think that you're deliberately doing it, you probably are, but they're gonna think you are.
So one of those solutions to that is writing longer. And that's what we're doing at Capitol Daily, to do yet another plug for my own outlet. We're writing long stories about Vancouver Island. We're writing stories to help people make sense of Vancouver Island, through investigative reporting through long-form through explainers. And a lot of this is just trying to get into the real nuance of an issue.
We all come to the table with unique sets of experiences and viewpoints. Journalists and news outlets need a renewed focus on looking at every story from a variety of angles to minimize their personal biases from showing through. When this can be done with a consistently higher frequency, then maybe they can start to earn back the trust of the public.
If you’re looking for a new Vancouver PR agency who really gets the mindset of a journalist, get in touch.