WHY do 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 or phoney phone competitions, the mud cracks and it’s a “crisis”.
Trust has become a key concern in our media-obsessed age. Journalist still cling to the notion they are purveyors of the “truth”, guardians of public standards, the fourth estate.
Journalists are storytellers. The best of these stories may be parables with implications beyond the mere facts of who, what, where and when. But they are stories nonetheless, real stories about real people, to use the TV slogan, and the media are losing their monopoly on telling them.
The elevated professional ideal of the media’s public role held up pretty well through most of the 20th century. Courts, councils and parliamentary proceedings were all reported, along with racing results and sex scandals.
The modern obsession with trust really started in the late 1950s, with the advertising showdown between newspapers and television across the US. As Americans abandoned evening papers for the TV news, 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. The quality that both decided made the relationship special was trust – which would reflect well on the advertiser’s products or services.
But how would you put a number on something as ephemeral as trust? Enter the pollsters. Newspaper industry groups and TV research departments were competing with each other to commission polls to prove their medium was more trusted than the next. But polls 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, TV news grew in trust as more people tuned in. In the 2000s, Google has become the most trusted source of news, even though it gathers no news. And therein lies part of the problem. Asking people what or whom 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 it simply because he wasn’t sitting behind a desk every night.
As the 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.”
But by the 1990s, polling on trust had generated such a history and so much data that the sniping of critics like Postman could be ignored. Ironically, both critics of the media, and the media themselves, rushed to embrace it. Critics saw declining trust as the result of moral lapses by broadcasters or journalists. Corporations with good poll numbers wore high levels of trust as a badge of public probity.
Trust was particularly appealing as a benchmark for an organisation such as the BBC. In the 20th century the BBC had sold itself as authoritative, but authority was old-fashioned and hard to express in percentages when its budget came up for renegotiation.
So at the start of the 21st century the BBC too put its faith in trust, to the extent that at the beginning of this year the BBC’s director general, Mark Thompson, devoted a lengthy public lecture to just this topic, following last year’s dissertation on trust and the media by Tony Blair.
It’s time the public saw the obsession with trust for what it is – a desire by the media to have the pulpit to themselves. It’s not a malicious desire, but it lies behind most of what professional journalism wants to do – moralise, chastise, improve.
I believe the answer in part is in restoring access to the areas of public life that the “elevated” media were supposed to shine a light on. Make court transcripts available electronically. Make government and corporate data easy to search and free.
—The Guardian, London
The writer is the professor of journalism at City University, London.