The Trust Obsession

April 28, 2008

CNN bills itself as the most trusted name in news. Director-General Mark Thompson reckons public trust is the life-blood of the BBC. Politicians and TV presenters wail and tear their clothes in public at the public’s loss of trust in the media. “Woe is us,” wails the collective cry from the journalism profession, “they don’t believe.”

Media organisations want to wallow in trust like hippos in mud. They want to roll in it until they’re covered from head to toe. When it dries up, thanks to dodgy editing on a royal documentary promo or phoney competitions, the mud cracks and it’s a “crisis”.

Trust is also the currency of Nick DaviesFlat Earth News. Davies despairs of journalism as a profession, but he refuses to give it up. It may be broken, but Davies still believes that what he does can somehow restore the sacred covenant between the reporter and the public through honest graft and shoe leather.

All this is well and good, but forgets one thing: the media is in the business of grabbing your attention. And that business becomes more competitive every day.

The more elevated programme-makers and journalists, the Nick Davies’ of the world, still cling to the notion that they are, in fact, purveyors of the ‘truth’, guardians of public standards, the fourth estate.

Journalists are story tellers. The best of these stories may be parables with implications beyond the mere facts of who, what, where and when. They may prompt further preaching on op-ed pages and talk radio – family values, common sense and decency versus moral failure, corruption and greed. But they are stories nonetheless – ‘real stories about real people’ to use the TV slogan – and the media is losing its monopoly on telling them.

The elevated professional ideal of the power of the media and its public role held up pretty well through most of the twentieth century, despite villainous proprietors and a pub-going proletariat. Courts, councils and parliamentary proceedings were all reported, along with racing results and sex scandals.

Still, journalists liked to imagine that they were trusted, and in fighting to defend newspapers their obsession with trust leaked into broadcasting.

The modern obsession with trust, as reflected in polling numbers, really started in the late 1950s with the advertising showdown between newspapers and television across America.

As Americans abandoned evening papers for the evening news on networks like CBS, the newspaper industry looked for ways to reassure advertisers about its relationship with readers. The networks met the challenge by making the same claim about viewers.

And the quality that both branches of the media decided made their customer relationship special? Accuracy? Content? No, it was trust. A trusted medium was good for advertisers because the products and services they were pushing were likely to benefit by association with newspaper or TV show.

But how would you put a number on something as ephemeral as trust? Enter the pollsters. Newspaper industry groups and TV research departments competed with each other to commission polls to prove that their medium was more trusted than the next.

But polls, of course, reflect the poll makers. They ask particular questions to elicit particular answers.

The polls showed, funnily enough, that people trust the media they use. In the 1960s, television news grew in trust as more people tuned in. Newspapers had still to reach their high watermark.

In the 2000s, Google has become one of the most trusted sources of news, even though it gathers no news. And therein lies part of the problem. Asking people what or who they trust doesn’t make the media trustworthy.

On the back of a lengthy stint anchoring America’s favourite newscast, Walter Cronkite became the most trusted man in America. Trust stuck to Cronkite even after he stood down from the role at the start of the 1980s. He was the benchmark against which Presidents were judged.

It took several years for public trust in Cronkite to wane. He lost America’s trust simply because he wasn’t sitting behind a desk every night.

As critic Neil Postman recognised at the time, trust “does not refer to the past record of the teller for making statements that have survived the rigours of reality testing. It refers only to the impression of sincerity, authenticity, vulnerability or attractiveness.”

Yet by the 1990s, polling on trust had generated such a history and so much data that the sniping of critics like Postman could easily be ignored. Postman was one man, the data was legion. Besides trust was embraced not just by the media, but – ironically – by its critics too, who wanted to revel in moral failure.

Media critics saw declining trust as the result of a fall from grace by broadcasters and journalists. For the left it was commercialism; immorality for the right. Corporations with good poll numbers wore their high levels of trust as a badge of public probity.

Trust was particularly appealing as a benchmark for an organization like the BBC. In the twentieth century the BBC had sold itself as authoritative. But authority was old-fashioned and hard to express in percentages when the licence fee came up for renegotiation with government officials who spoke the language of consultancy – metrics.

So at the start of the twenty-first century, the BBC, too, put its faith in trust. That faith was articulated at the beginning of 2008 by BBC Director-General Mark Thompson, who devoted a lengthy public lecture to just this topic, following last year’s dissertation on trust and the media by none other than Tony Blair, and Jeremy Paxman’s eloquent stand on the subject at the Edinburgh International Television Festival.

I think it’s time the public saw the obsession with trust for what it is – a desire by the media to have to the pulpit to itself. It’s a not a malicious desire, but it lies behind most of what professionalism journalism wants to do – moralise, chastise, improve.

So what is the answer? More public scepticism? In my opinion, the British public is more than sceptical enough for its own good, and in any case, serious and positive scepticism – the good kind – is time-consuming and wearing.

I believe the answer in part is in restoring public access to the areas of public life that the ‘elevated’ media was supposed to shine a light on. Make court transcripts available electronically. Make government and corporate data easy to search and free. The kinds of campaigns that already exist in nascent form like Free Our Data, and in groups like My Society.

At the very least we can make public ignorance a tougher choice. And at best, the more raw information that’s out there the more opportunities there are for intermediaries to find new ways of packaging and presenting it.

Some of those ways are going to meet with the disdain reserved for news coverage of celebrity court cases, some of them with the grudging admiration that goes to a great investigation.

But they will be what happens next in journalism, if we can only lose our obsession with trust.

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