We are witnessing a series of man-made tragedies. Apart from the deep psychological wounds and the human toll of these disasters, there is a tragicomedy that is taking place on social media. One would assume that the focus would on the losses, the factors that led to these tragedies, and on creating a system that would effect course correction so that these cruel events do not recur. However, some of the criticism on social media is aimed at the mainstream media. When children died allegedly due to lack of oxygen supply at Baba Raghav Das Medical College in Gorakhpur, the media was attacked vociferously by some on social media for pointing out that the current Chief Minister was the MP representing that constituency for five consecutive terms since 1988. Again, when the media drew attention to the fact that Charlottesville is a university town not far from Washington, D.C., to explain the tacit complicity of the ruling regime in fuelling the violence, similar groups landed another avalanche of abuses on the media. The question of trust in the news media is invoked rather easily, leading to a spurt in the number of surveys to quantify trust.
Reputed organisations like the Reuters Institute for the Study in Journalism at the University of Oxford, the Pew Research Center in Washington, D.C., and the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) in Geneva have all come up with extensive surveys. The EBU survey asserts that at this time of information abundance, trust in the media seems to be an important factor in determining the relationship between the media and its audience, and so measuring trust is essential to track the evolution of citizens’ perceptions of media organisations. It is true that digital disruption has impacted the business models of news organisations, but all the findings reiterate that people not only trust but also rely on respectable news organisations to get information. Why then this lacerating self-induced doubt?
Some key findings
Let us first look at some of the key findings of these surveys. The Reuters Institute’s study read: “The Internet and social media may have exacerbated low trust and ‘fake news’, but we find that in many countries the underlying drivers of mistrust are as much to do with deep-rooted political polarisation and perceived mainstream media bias.” The most important component of this survey is the role of mainstream media and social media in separating fact from fiction. The number of people trusting mainstream media is twice the number of those who trust social media.The Pew Research Center figure is interesting as it disaggregates the figure based on political affiliation of the citizens. For the Republicans, the trust in national and local news organisations is 35%; it is 3% for social networking sites. In the case of the Democrats, it is 70% for news organisations and 6% for social media. The EBU survey reads: “The gap between broadcast and new media is widening: while traditional media increased their levels of trust compared to last year, new media (Internet and social networks) lost even more trust.”
These figures indicate that the problem with credible news media organisations is not the trust factor. Emily Bell, a former editor of The Guardian’s digital platform and now director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University, said in an interview to Andrew Harrison of The Guardian: “We should be careful about exactly who is telling us that mainstream media is less trusted and why that narrative is circulated… It’s often politicians like Trump or new media outlets seeking to establish their own credibility or propagandists or PR companies. It’s people with a vested interest. That doesn’t mean the media isn’t having problems. But is trust really declining or are we just being told that it is?” Her argument is that with the multiplication of media outlets, the phrase ‘the media’ has become meaningless. She asserts that news coverage is better in many ways now compared to earlier times. She makes a crucial distinction between reasonable scepticism and total cynicism.
In my straw polls, I ask people who are critical of the media to list the stories they found disagreeable. Most list reports from news outlets that are not known for their quality, values, or principles. The yardstick of social media — to judge the entire profession based on the worst practitioners — is no yardstick at all.