What’s Driving the Distrust of Media

By Alan McDonald TINZ Director

As a former journalist who has since spent about 40 years in and around the media industry it was no surprise to see journalists and the media in general as the least trusted of New Zealand’s institutions in the annual Acumen Edelman Trust Barometer.

It’s a worldwide barometer of trust in the major institutions of Government, Non-Government Organisations (NGOs), business and the media and has been measured annually since 2001.

It is no surprise that media in New Zealand is at the bottom of those rankings – it usually is - and probably a surprise to many that business is rated the most trusted of those institutions with Government and NGOs ranked second equal.

As a long-time participant and observer of media in New Zealand, what really concerned me was that 55% of those surveyed in New Zealand say media is a dividing influence on our society and only 23% say it is a unifying force.

But that divisive number is significantly higher than the worldwide trend. Why is that?

One factor is possibly our size as a country where divisions appear more quickly and obviously – it’s why many businesses like to use New Zealand as a test market, trends emerge and fade rapidly here.

But there has also been a longer-term shift away from news reporting to news opinions as mainstream media see opinion as a way of boosting/encouraging readership and audience numbers.

In a world often driven by perception as reality, opinions lead, but they also polarise.

The people staffing the newsrooms I entered as a 17-year-old cadet journalist were also highly opinionated, more cynical and far more questioning than those of today. But those opinions were not allowed to leak into stories or coverage the way they do now. The views of owners and advertisers were not allowed to permeate the newsroom and they were often actively repelled.

And that’s why increasing Government funding of media is a concern now.

The merger of Radio New Zealand and TVNZ is an odd mix that appears funding driven and ideological more than anything else – a step back to the Government knows best days of the old government funded NZBC when neither radio or television news was allowed to be particularly critical of the government of the day.

Most Government departments now hire more communications staff than there are journalists in the major newsrooms around New Zealand.

Similarly the Public Interest Journalism Fund with its pre-conditions for access is another step where the perception of government influence may outweigh the reality; but the perception shouldn’t be there in the first place. In a cash-strapped media world the fact that some outlets have expressed concern about the fund or avoid it highlights the perceptions of its possible negative influences on the news agenda. These perceptions are noted in the Sapere report (The implications of competition and market trends for media plurality in New Zealand), released in February this year by the Ministry of Culture and Heritage. 

The days of the “Red Radio” sobriquet of Radio New Zealand are mostly behind it but the name was given for a reason. Interestingly the noticeable pendulum swing back to the middle in its content in some key programmes coincided with its freeze on funding from the National government.

The often toxic environment of social media and fake news needs to be countered by a trusted media. Perceptions of government influence on those outlets should not be part of the conversation.

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