Radio & Television

ANALYSIS: Why the decline in trust, not the drop in ad revenue, might spell the end of mainstream news

And four fixes which need to be applied

By Mark Sikstrom

THEY BLAME GOOGLE AND FACEBOOK for the blow to the bottom line and social media for their shrinking audience, but mainstream news organizations may fail for another reason. Most consumers no longer believe they tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Newspaper and TV outlets have largely ignored the erosion of trust in their brands while focussing on their revenue crisis.

While understandable, it reminds me of the early 2000s when my peers were warning that online news would undermine the broadcast news model. We were met with scepticism and some ridicule.

Today, the leaders of major news organizations don’t seem to realize the declining trust in their credibility is as much a threat to their future as plummeting ad revenues. Their only product is credibility. There are thousands of news sources and if consumers don’t believe what they read, hear and see they will go elsewhere.

A recent Gallup poll in the United States, shows only 9% of respondents say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the news, while 31% have “partial trust” of trust and confidence in the media to report the news “fully, accurately, and fairly.” six in 10 have “not very much” trust (27%) or “none at all” (33%).

The Edelman’s Annual Trust Barometer of 1,500 Canadians was equally distressing.

  • 49% of Canadians surveyed agree that journalists and reporters are purposely trying to mislead people by saying things they know are false or gross exaggerations.
  • 52% agree that most news organizations are more concerned with supporting an ideology or political position than with informing the public.

So why have so many people lost faith in mainstream news?

  • The rise in opinion and editorials at the expense of straight reporting: The economic squeeze on newsrooms led to staff reductions and less reporting. Look at how many talking heads and columnists fill the screen and pages because they are cheaper to produce. This has blurred the line between fact and opinion. Readers and viewers aren’t always sure which is which any more.
  • Polarized and partisan coverage: Editorials aside, networks like Fox News put deliberate ideological spin on their news reporting to exploit the deep divide in American politics. What began as a ratings strategy has evolved into an ingrained philosophy. Canadian media is less polarized but based on a sampling of social media, there is a definite undercurrent of belief that mainstream media in this country leans left and ignores regional concerns.
  • The decline in local news: Shrinking local outlets means readers and viewers aren’t getting the coverage they expect. Most dailies barely have the resources to cover courts, city hall and legislatures with little left over for investigative reporting. Consumers hardly recognize their local reporters who used to be trusted names in the community and local papers have lost public support.
  • Advertorials: Almost all media outlets offer paid advertisements that look like editorial content. While they take measures to identify the difference, the reality is even if the difference is noted, it signals that your news organization and content is available for hire.
  • Diversity: Neglected for decades. Today, most organizations are working to increase the number of visible minorities in their newsrooms, but they are still catching up and with reduced budgets for staff, adding reporters from visible minorities is a challenge.
  • Accountability and transparency: Most people don’t know how journalism works and they are increasingly treated to a chorus of “fake news” from a variety of sources. This creates doubt and where is the response? Only the Toronto Star, CBC/Radio Canada and the Globe and Mail have ombudsmen or public editors who respond to complaints and only those organizations publish their full journalist policies. CTV and Global put a summary online.

If consumers don’t know what your standards are and how you report, why should they trust you? Add it all up and maybe it’s not a mystery why people are turning away from mainstream news.

So what can those outlets do to reverse the decline in trust? Or has the tipping point been reached?

  1. Invest in quality journalism: Take a page from the New York Times and the Washington Post, which have spent more on content and reaped the reward in larger audiences. Organizations that want to move to a more stable economic base have to offer a higher quality product and that means hard hitting, original journalism and fewer editorials.
  2. Find ways to sustain and grow local news: There is no better way to connect with your audience than telling them what’s happening in their neighbourhoods. Look to hyper local content sources like local bloggers and geo-location to add relevance. By tagging stories with their location (with Google Maps or even postal codes) readers can find or be alerted to important news in their neighbourhoods.
  3. Diversify: Viewers and readers need to see themselves and their stories reflected in coverage. While most organizations are working to diversify, the economic stress limits their hiring growth.
  4. Be more accountable to your readers and viewers: Respond to critics in a credible fashion. Publish your standards and stand behind them. The more you explain the how and why of your coverage, the more trust you will build.

If the decline in credibility is not a priority for news executives, they are ignoring something as important as shrinking revenues.

Loss of trust is not just another trend in audience decline, it’s an existential threat.

Mark Sikstrom (right) was the editor of journalistic policy and practices for CTV News for more than a decade and a member of the ethics committee for the Radio Television Digital News Association. He helped write the Code of Journalistic Ethics used by the CRTC and the Broadcast Standards Council to settle complaints about news coverage. He is now a media consultant in private practice.

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