Can You Trust The Media? – review

April 27, 2008

Stephen Pritchard, readers’ editor of The Observer, reviews Can You Trust The Media? He thinks trust is good and important:

[CYTTM] makes this startlingly cynical claim: ‘Not being trusted never lost anyone a reader or a viewer. Editorial cock-ups and journalistic frauds are not followed by dramatic drops in circulation or ratings.’

Try telling that to the Sun, boycotted in Liverpool after vilifying football fans caught up in the Hillsborough disaster; try telling that to the New York Times after the Jayson Blair affair.

Try telling that to the thousands of readers who contact me every year to complain about our coverage. If I were to nominate one single issue that preoccupies readers above all else, it would be trust.

‘How can we believe anything in your newspaper if you can’t even get this right?’ is an oft-repeated question on virtually any topic of complaint. And it’s a perfectly valid question.

We happen to believe that we need your trust. What possible incentive have you to read a paper if you feel you can’t trust it?

So did Jayson Blair cost the NYT readers? What happened to circulation in the six months around the Blair saga (May 2003) – a slump?:

The New York Times also recorded gains over that period. It reported that its daily weekday circulation for the six-month period ended on Sept. 30 was 1,118,565, an increase of 5,565, or 0.5 percent, over the period a year ago.

Not a blip…maybe Blair had taken a job in the sales department.

Hillsborough and the Sun boycott in Liverpool is a remarkable incidence of a community taking up arms against a newspaper.

But did the Sun’s coverage of Hillsborough (April, 1989) have a particular impact on circulation? According to the audited circulation figures:

Mar-Aug 1989 %change

Today 0.6 +26.4
Mirror 3.19 + 2.8
Record 0.78 + 0.6
Sun 4.11 – 1.6
Mail 1.74 – 2.7
Express 1.57 – 6.1
Star 0.89 -11.5

The Sun had in fact reached its high watermark of circulation in February 1989 at 4.3m. Decline had already begun in March – a month before Hillsborough – and as you can see, its rivals fared badly too. Hard to explain decline at the Mail and Express because of Hillsborough.

And if they value trust so much, why didn’t Liverpudlians boycott the Sun over its reporting of a fake shark off the coast of Cornwall? Selective application of the trust principle?

The increase in newpaper ombudsmen is not associated with a growth in levels of trust in newspapers. Stephen Pritchard falls into the trap of thinking that because people frame their criticisms in terms of trust that this in some way correlates to readership.

For example, how many readers were lost over this report? Misreporting does not seem to impact on trust as revealed in opinion polls. It may prompt letters and emails but the overwhelming driver of trust is consumption, and consumption is driven by demographics and social change.

My main point is that the obsession with trust grew out of the advertising war of the 1960s between newspapers and TV, and the broader social changes of that decade that saw trust polling applied across a range of institutions, to no-one’s great benefit. And its pernicious influence frames debates to this very day.

This post is part of this month’s Carnival of Journalism, hosted by Yoni Greenbaum.

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