By Adam Bennett
It can take a lifetime to build, and a second to break. No matter where you are in the world, the news media appears to have committed sins that broke the bonds of trust with readers some time ago.
Last month, Reuters released a report into digital news which makes for sobering reading. At a global level, public trust in the news media has crept further down, hitting a record low of 38% (from a comparatively lofty 42% a year ago). That’s very nearly two-thirds of people worldwide who do not trust the information they see on a day-to-day basis. Little wonder, then, that antagonism towards ‘the media’ and decrying ‘fake news’ are fast becoming essentials for any ambitious politician.
But how did it come to this? It’s worth remembering that journalism has never been the most trusted or popular profession in the world. Accusations of meddling and muck-raking have dogged even the best reporters at points in their career. And, of course, perhaps infamy is a sign that a journalist is good at their job. Holding the world’s most powerful people and institutions to account is hardly likely to win you many friends, after all.
And yet our current distaste for the news media is about a lot more than that. Far from being accused of meddling, a modern journalist is more likely to be accused of being too friendly towards certain politicians. In Britain, the BBC is routinely accused by right-wingers of kowtowing to a liberal agenda, whilst its political editor cannot attend the left-wing Labour party’s conference without a posse of bodyguards, such is the level of vitriol reserved for the public broadcaster amongst Britain’s left.
It seems, then, that the news media can’t win. Holding politicians of any party to account is going to result in accusations of bias from whichever side has had their noses put out of joint.
However, there is a great deal more to the story than that. It’s curious, for example, that the steep decline of trust in the media has coincided with the rise in popularity of digital platforms. The past two decades have seen readers flock towards free-to-read websites, and away from the print editions which kept the industry in business for much of the previous century. At the peak of its print circulation in the 1980s, the New York Times was churning out roughly 30 million newspapers in a month. That was when the news media was broadly trusted. Today, with trust at an all-time low, the same paper’s website soars past that number, pulling in 55 million readers in the same timespan. And that’s to say nothing of the 500,000 people who persist in buying the physical edition each day. The less we trust the news, the more we want to read it. To put it bluntly – what gives?
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A successful newspaper is a successful business. For as much as journalists like to think of themselves as public servants, they’re almost exclusively on the payroll of a private company. And that private company will, understandably, do what it takes to keep shareholders happy, keep people employed, and keep profits healthy. And there’s little wrong with that – the alternative to privately employed journalists is state-employed ones, which would rather defeat the purpose. A government employing journalists would be like a restaurant employing its own health inspectors.
That being said, this does leave journalists and media outlets vulnerable to the same pressures that face any other company in a competitive marketplace. In order to survive, newspapers and their reporters need to keep their paying customers happy – and therein lies the uncomfortable truth which has revolutionised the industry. In 1980, a newspaper’s paying customers were its readers. In 2020, they’re its advertisers.
The result is that the business incentive to inform and entertain readers has fallen out of the industry. Instead, news outlets must drive clicks and shares. Hence more headlines aimed at provoking outrage rather than intrigue, with annoyance trumping information. That affects the state of mind we approach the news with; when we click on an article, more often than not it’s in a state of disbelief, or anger. The news pokes us, provokes us, greets us with grim news in the morning and sends us to sleep saddened. Is it any wonder, then, that we don’t trust it?
Build That (Pay)wall
That may not be true for every news outlet. There are a few, mostly higher-brow, publications who have found an element of sustainability behind a paywall. To pick one at random, readers of Le Monde, France’s most-read broadsheet, can receive a daily digital newspaper plus unrestricted access to past articles for a reasonable ten euros per month. The model works just fine for Le Monde, which has substantially increased its readership in recent years, and readers surely can’t complain at receiving the same reporting for which they would have paid far more back in the industry’s print heyday.
And yet. Paywalls build, well, a wall around quality journalism. It’s good that best-in-class reporting has found a way to survive the digital revolution, but nobody wanting to create a truly informed democracy can celebrate the idea of a paywall in the modern industry. They restrict quality journalism, and the understanding it brings us, to a comparatively tiny group of people who a) can afford it and b) are motivated to read it. That group has spent much of the last decade scratching their heads over how people can vote for Brexit or Donald Trump. Maybe they would, too, if the prism through which they saw the world was reliant on clicks and shares rather than quality reporting.
As with any great tragedy, no single party carries the full blame. News outlets can’t be castigated for wanting to stay afloat, and to continue providing a salary to their staff and their families. Readers, too, by and large make the prudent decision not to pay for what they can now get for free. Even advertisers have made understandable decisions – why should a brand not have control over its communications strategy? They’re paying for the advertising space, and it’s only fair they expect results. Today’s current deficit of trust is perhaps the unfortunate inevitable conclusion of the way in which our world has evolved. To rage against it is as constructive as bemoaning the rain.
Glass Half Full
But we shouldn’t pretend that the status quo is the way things need to be. It is true that anyone looking for ideas needs to ground their thinking in realism; people en masse deciding they want to pay for journalism again isn’t going to happen. And maybe that’s a good thing. Isn’t a world where informed reporting is available to all something we should strive for?
So let’s imagine a world where the relationship between advertisers and news platforms wasn’t quite so toxic. News outlets need the advertisers to survive, which means that the power to affect real change is in the latter’s hands. It’s also why success is currently determined through metrics like total clicks and shares. However, advertisers have forgotten an old truth – that there is value in attaching your brand to one which genuinely does inform and entertain its audience.
A brand with an ad popping up next to a picture of Donald Trump saying something outrageous is likely to get plenty of attention. But given that the article’s audience is most likely to be seething with rage (either at the politician or at the manner in which he is being reported on), is that truly the kind of attention a brand wants? The recent exodus of advertisers from Facebook shows that brands have been asking themselves that very question, and may finally be coming up with honest answers.
The solution, then, to the current crisis of trust may well lie in brands and advertisers giving news outlets permission to prioritise their readers again. In order to achieve that, those advertisers must rediscover the benefits of associating themselves with a quality platform, rather than chasing ever-higher sheer numbers of clicks. For those in charge of the marketing purse strings, that’s not an easy case to make given that chasing clicks is trackable, and makes for impressive-looking graphs. Supporting a well-loved platform through association, however, has less tangible benefits.
And yet they are no less desirable. In the marketing world, one of the dominant conversations over the past few years has been that of ‘purpose’. In other words, is a brand showing its audience that it is actively striving to make the world a better place? In a post-pandemic world, purpose is likely to be more important for companies than ever before. For those brands, supporting news platforms which enlighten their readers, rather than agitate them, would be a good way to prove it.
Adam Bennett is The International’s editor-in-chief. You can follow Adam on Twitter here.