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Tell me: If I can trust the media to tell the truth

by Matthew Beard
16 February 2017
ADVERTISING, MARKETING AND MEDIA
‘Ask Me, Tell Me’ is a series created by you. Our ethicists respond to your contributions on the interactive artwork on display in our Sydney creative space. Pop in and add to it anytime!

This week: Trust, truth and the fourth estate.

Imagine a world where you never got to hear about terrorist attacks that happened. A widespread conspiracy kept the information a secret from the public to advance a political agenda.

You don’t need to imagine. Apparently, that’s the world we live in today. President Donald Trump recently spoke about the press’s reluctance to report Islamic motivated terror attacks. He said “In many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons, and you understand that.”

One of the most powerful people in the world outright declared large sections of the news media to be untrustworthy. Of course, the press was quick to point out just how much coverage terrorism attacks receive. But there are other reasons to wonder how much trust we should be giving to news media.

Journalism is more important than any arm of government. Without it, totalitarian regimes can misinform the public without any fear of revolt.

Only months ago, ‘fake news’ stories targeted Donald Trump and Hilary Clinton in their race to the White House. Propagandists slapped blatant lies onto newsy-looking websites and they went viral. Mainstream media were overwhelmingly dismissive of the now President’s chances of winning – something they obviously got wrong on a large scale. We can understand your reluctance to trust the news media today.

That’s not only a problem for journalists. It’s a problem for our democracy. We can all benefit from an honest and effective news media. Journalism is often referred to as 'The Fourth Estate', an almost 200 year old idea credited to Scottish philosopher Thomas Carlyle.

Carlyle believed the press were a crucial democratic instrument because they enabled the public to be well informed. Because citizens form the basis of democracy, journalism is more important than any arm of government. Without it, totalitarian regimes can misinform the public without any fear of discontent or revolt.

It seems we have a paradox. We should only trust journalists if they tell the truth but the only resource we have for learning the truth is the press.

If we're invested in democracy, we need the press to do their job. That’s hold power to account, report of newsworthy events, give the people a voice and expose citizens to the opinions of their peers. We need to trust the news.

In this way, journalism is like any number of other professions we rely on to survive and flourish. There are lots of groups we give our trust in exchange for the crucial work they do: doctors, lawyers, teachers, the list goes on. And our trust in them is conditional to the quality of their work.

With most people now consuming their news online, advertising revenue is tied to how many people click on a story. This makes click-bait and easily consumable content more lucrative than hard hitting, long form journalism.

This is why it's crucial journalists, editors and anyone involved in the fourth estate commit to the principles and purpose of journalism – to tell the truth in a balanced, impartial and accessible way, hold the powerful to account and tell the public what they need to know.

Many within the press do commit to these values. They will even put themselves at great risk to uphold them. However, the nature of modern media makes it more difficult to do traditional, rigorous journalism.

With most people now consuming their news online, advertising revenue is tied to how many people click on a story. Click-bait and easily consumable content can be more lucrative than hard hitting, long form journalism. If what we want is lots of clicks, we need content that is fast, loud and shareable. It becomes easier to produce things the public is interested in than it does to do journalism that’s in the public interest.

We need to show the fourth estate can trust us to engage with serious journalism. We need to show we will read – and pay for – more than listicles and quizzes.

Public interest is a crucial test for journalism. Is the public better informed, is our community better off for a story having run? We need to trust the press to prioritise public interest over financial success or personal glory. This means a fourth estate should publicly and regularly choose accuracy over haste, fact over feeling and rigour over shareability.

But trust is a two-way street. Yes, news media need to earn our trust by committing to their highest ideals. At the same time, we need to show the fourth estate can trust us to engage with serious journalism. We need to show we will read – and pay for – more than listicles and quizzes (which we enjoy by the way).

If not, the fourth estate will continue to struggle to balance their principles with the values and financial pressures of modern media. Can you trust the media? It depends on which set of values you think are winning the tug of war. 


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