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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