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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