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In the '70s, Gay Byrne was the man to trust but who would get that vote now?

Only around 50% of Irish consumers trust the news – with Ireland coming 8th out of 26 countries, writes Jane Suiter.

Dr Jane Suiter

IF THERE IS a common factor underlying sentiment towards politics, public institutions and media in the past decade, it is one of declining trust.

Indeed, trust in politics and the media has been declining for roughly two decades.

This is all a long way from the mid-20th century when the news media were among the most respected institutions.

For example, a famous 1972 poll found that 72% of Americans trusted CBS Evening News anchor Walter Cronkite more than any other public figure.

Gay Byrne no doubt would have received the same vote of confidence in Ireland.

Now, only around 50% of Irish consumers trust the news – although this is up from 46% last year – placing Ireland 8th out of 26 countries in the 2016 Reuters Digital News Report.

Trust in news is highest in Finland (65%) and lowest in Greece (20%). Typically, affluent Western European and Scandinavian countries – with a mix of strong, well-funded public service broadcasters and commercial players – scored highly.

Trust is lower in the United States (33%) and in Southern European countries.

Almost everywhere, editors and journalists are trusted less than news organisations.

Tech savvy consumers less trusting again

At the same time, public confidence in politics has weakened, with declining levels of trust in the Irish Government, the Dáil, and political parties. Political parties are the most distrusted institution on the trust index in the latest Eurobarometer.

Headline results suggest that tech-savvy digital consumers are the least trusting. In particular, 18-to- 24-year-olds report the lowest levels of trust.

Trust in the news media rises with age, education, and income.

A broadly similar pattern is found in relation to politics.

Declining trust in media and politics has been accompanied by the fragmentation of both the news media and the political party system. Just as anti-establishment and independent politicians are on the rise, so too are alternative news outlets.

We now have a proliferation of talk shows, online news, and opinion from Tumblr and Reddit, as well as an abundance of spoof news.

The news media compete with this cacophony of voices and, with reduced resources, face demands for more partisan or entertaining styles of news.

Given the diversity of our digital media landscape and the proliferation of news on social media, people are now encountering more news and from more sources than ever before.

Greater exposure to information may increase critical engagement and even scepticism. One result is that, in the US at least, many citizens tend to trust fact-checkers more than traditional media.

In Ireland, TheJournal.ie’s fact-checking in the past election was well received.

The establishment problem

Another challenge for journalism is that rising distrust in politics is accompanied by an increasing distrust of elites and the establishment. This is reflected in the emergence of candidates – as far apart as Trump and Sanders, Corbyn and Iglesias and even our own independents – who appear to be outside the norms of politics.

This situation calls for a recalibration of journalistic norms, which is difficult to achieve and particularly difficult for established outlets.

As Ed Williams of Edelman argues in this year’s global Reuters Digital News Report, political rhetoric now subsumes opinion into the same calculations of value as fact.

Consequently, balanced argumentation is harder to achieve and public discourse becomes shallower and more partisan.

The challenge for the news media is to hold firm to traditional journalistic values while challenging the new rhetoric and providing accurate information.

In the US, many outlets encounter this challenge in terms of deciding whether to cover Trump as simply another Republican contender or as a potentially dangerous demagogue.

To understand trust, we also need to consider why people go to particular outlets for news; or indeed, why they choose to click on a particular story when browsing through their social media feeds.

Often, these choices are based on a desire to be entertained or even outraged. There are suggestions that those who click for entrainment are likely to be less trusting.

However, an initial analysis of this year’s Reuters Digital News Report data does not support this view. Rather, the one variable which does appear to matter is the extent to which the news consumer believes an outlet is free from political influence.

Although, concerns about commercial influence do surface, they do not matter as much. It would seem then that if news organisations are to increase levels of public trust, they need to worry more about perceptions of political partisanship than about perceptions of commercial influence.

Of course, there are also dangers here. Treating all politicians as potentially corrupt likely undermines trust not only in politics but also in media.

A balance, which holds power to account without giving rise to perceptions of political influence, may be the sweet spot in terms of building trust. Whether this continues to hold, especially as native advertising develops, remains to be seen.

Dr Jane Suiter is Director of the Institute for Future Media and Journalism (FuJo) at Dublin City University. Ireland’s inclusion in the Reuters Digital News Report, for a second year running, has been funded by the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland.

The BAI also commissioned a more detailed and specific report on the Irish results of the survey, undertaken by the Institute for Future Media and Journalism (FuJo) at Dublin City University.

Read: The Sun has come out for the ‘Leave’ side as polls point to a Brexit

More: Trump says Obama might ‘get the Orlando shooting better than anybody knows’

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Dr Jane Suiter

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