There has never been a greater sense of distrust in the media than there is today. In fact, while an estimated 72 percent of the public said they trusted the press in 1972, only 32 percent said so in 2016, according to Jeremy O’Grady, Editor-in-Chief of The Week.
“Is there anything that can be done to reverse this feeling that [the media] are all partisan or they’re all just interested in the culture of smear?” O’Grady said. “What could reverse what seems to be the long decline in the belief of the integrity of the press?”
As part of Advertising Week Europe, The Week Live hosted a series of Daily Debates with esteemed panelists each day to tackle conversations related to both the European and US political, economic and creative arenas. Monday’s debate, “Never Trust the Press,” focused on whether the established press has forfeited its claim to accuracy and objectivity, or if consumers should still trust in the good faith of major media and trust what they have to tell the public.
O’Grady moderated discussion between Alan Rusbridger, former Editor-in-Chief of The Guardian, and Peter Jukes, CEO of Byline Media Ltd., each with their own, sometimes opposing, thoughts for the varying levels of the larger trusted media conversation.
While Jukes tended toward the more contemporary side of journalism, Rusbridger was initially keen to call attention to the importance of the fundamental, traditional reporting methods in order to win the trust and pockets of today’s readers and consumers. He said he believed people are still prepared to give the media the benefit of the doubt, so long as there is fantastic journalism that people can trust. He was also quick to caution the audience to what the alternative to trusting the work of the established press may be.
“Donald Trump says almost daily that the New York Times, which is one of the best media outlets in the world, is failing. He’s doing the reverse, saying really you can’t believe anybody so you must believe me,” Rusbridger said. “And I hope at some point, people wake up and think about how if we did live in a society, like in Russia or Turkey, where you no longer have sources of information that you can believe, what would that look like?”
He also urged the press to alternatively have a moment of reflection on their end, noting that while it would seem natural for the press to be critical of disruptors like Facebook and Google for “eating our lunch,” there are lessons to be learned there, too.
“They have a relationship with people at large that the press may want to be thinking about,” Rusbridger said. “We’re working with a 19th century model where we throw the newspaper over the wall to people we’ll never meet. It’s time to start doing journalism differently.”
The public, their opinions and their access to information and resources should also begin to be looked at as a tool for journalists, suggests Rusbridger. Pretending there is only one objective narrative is “misleading,” and instead knowing there’s a person behind the byline establishes trust, which welcomes open communication between the greater public and the press.
“Let’s rethink what journalism is, let’s rethink this relationship with audiences and build up more trust. Let’s harness the power that’s out there, because that’s what Google and Facebook are doing,” Rusbridger said.
Jukes echoed those sentiments, noting that the key to earning the trust of the public is by establishing a “human relationship” with the public first and foremost.
“Journalists have to act, they have to correct, they have to reach out to their audiences. That’s how you build trust,” Jukes said.
The panelists also proffered more immediate steps to improving the media’s reputation with the greater public. Some were as simple as using links in their stories so as to show the public where their facts and sources originated.
“Transparency is very important. If people use things like links more, so it’s more of, ‘Don’t just take my word for it, here’s a link, here is my source so you know how I know this,’ I think things like that, if used more widely, could help build that trust,” Rusbridger said.
Though the concept of trust is an endearing one, observes O’Grady, it’s also a democratic virtue to be skeptical even of those who you consider to be on your side.
“Possibly we could end today by saying that instead, we should never press the trust.”